Interview: Jerry Clode, Head of Digital and Social Insight, SMART

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Jerry Clode, Resonance China’s Head of Digital and Social Insight, and Director of SMART, was interviewed last week by Branding in Asia.  In the interview Jerry talks about his new role and the unique philosophy of SMART, Resonance China’s new bespoke research, strategy and naming offer.

Jerry also shares some of his rich career experiences to date and thoughts on current levels of understanding about China and Chinese conusmers.  Please contact us to have Jerry come to talk to your team about SMART – we promise; it will be a session that will inspire you.

Republished with permission of Branding in Asia

He isn’t fond of the term “China Expert”, but as one of the leading cultural researchers on China and her consumers, he’s gonna have to get used to it. On the occasion of his joining Resonance China, here’s a conversation with Jerry Clode – one of the more engaging voices on China you’re likely to hear.

China research specialist, Jerry Clode joined Resonance China this week with lofty plans and ambitions. The new role, which might surprise research purists, calls on Clode to lead digital and social insight, working with founder, Rand Han and team on campaign strategy and management.

Clode will contribute to Resonance’s syndicated China Social Brand Report for member brands, including initiatives this year focused on brand rankings and comparative performance.

A major aspect of Clode’s new role is the creation of SMART, a bespoke research, strategy and naming offer, focused on the needs of brands in China. SMART’s launching point is a renewed focus on client’s direct challenges that breaks away from traditional research solutions to offer greater levels of engagement and actionable insight.

Branding in Asia recently caught up with Clode for an insightful talk about why he joined Resonance China, the benefits for clients focused on China, what is the state of understanding on China and what he was up to in Brazil when on hiatus from the agency side of things.

Jerry-Clode-China-Interview-Branding-in-Asia-Magazine

Jerry Clode, Head of Digital and Social Insight, SMART

First, the obvious question: Why Resonance? And why now?

After returning to the agency side after setting up my own consultancy in Brazil,  I realized two things; I needed to be at a forward thinking agency dedicated to offering the best and latest to clients and that I needed a level of control about what I propose to clients to address challenges here in China.

At Resonance, these come together brilliantly. I will be actively working with Rand Han and his team on the agency side, something I simply love, as pitch scenarios provide the creative challenge of developing a campaign with the energy of competition, this is where storytelling and local insight are most powerful and differentiating.

I think the most exciting part of my role will be developing SMART, a bespoke research, strategy and naming offer for brands focused on business in China. With this comes the creative freedom to offer dedicated research solutions that directly address the client challenge at hand.

In China, where the consumer categories are becoming highly consolidated, genuine insight is essential to brand success. Our aim with SMART is to design solutions that leverage leading edge methodologies in the area of immersion, co-creation and ideation while at the same time engaging local consumers in contexts that are intuitive and natural, such as social platforms and qualitative studies in more engaging environments.

You’ve spent a lot of your life on the research side. What’s that journey been like, and what are some of the highlights?

I was lucky to start my research career in academia, where methodology ruled over commercial imperatives. My particular focus at the time was Southern Weekly, an outspoken newspaper in Guangzhou that was attracting the best of China’s journalistic talent.

It meant days pouring over Chinese language articles to decode hidden messages designed to get past the censors. Fieldtrips I took to Guangzhou to interview the editors and staff were in a word, interesting. To get to one particular editor who was in the doghouse for writing a racy editorial, I had to be hid in a empty rubbish bin and wheeled into an elevator – the things we do for knowledge.

But my start as an academic researcher allowed me to achieve more in brand focussed research.  Firstly, the level of Chinese required meant that I could work as a moderator of focus groups in China at the start of my career, a rare level of access that offered a steep learning curve.  Now, I simply love moderating here in China, as I believe it means I am always approaching from a consumer perspective, rather than trying to “fit them into a brand’s purpose”.

Another advantage of an academic background was that I could design ethnographic and semiotic research with confidence. For me, category insight has always been key to success here in China. Well designed ethnographic allows you to understand consumer’s perceptions of your category (the motivation), while semiotics allows you to intuitive map the category, providing clarity on the brand’s position vis-a-vis competitors (the context).

In my time in China, I was delighted to be able to offer these approaches to brands for the first time. Highlights for me have been helping McDonald’s chart the competitive landscape to develop the highly successful McCafe offer in China, and working on the foundation research to support Disney’s bid to launch Disneyland Shanghai.

But the out and out highlight as when AB Inbev asked me to go to Yanji, a small city on the border with North Korea to understand why residents there had the highest per capita consumption of beer. Immersive research was the intuitive direct line to the answer –a fascinating recipe of Korean ethnic tradition, social bonding rituals, gastronomic pairing and construction of masculinity.

While I have worked in global and regional roles in my career, for me, the brand challenges are the most fascinating here in China, this is what brought me back to the Middle Kingdom.

You dislike the term “China expert”, but what are your views about the state of understanding regarding China and Chinese consumers?

I think we still apply stories to China, rather than let China tell it’s own story. China is unquestionably in a state of constant flux, where tradition and modernity exist side by side within a postmodern context.

To answer the question directly, I would say China is not fully understandable, rather the challenge is to create a structure of understanding by asking the right questions. By doing this we set up an intuitive approach that addresses the core issue.

Often brands in China feel the need to fit Chinese consumers into pre-existing frameworks or fixed storylines. This is a natural consequence of creating a globally consistent positioning. But so often the occasion, context, experience and personification of a brand message is fundamentally different here in China.

The challenge is to localize in a way that engages consumers and powerfully communicates the brand. Not dilution, but nuanced extension, and cultural translation of your brand’s equity.

This is not only at a challenge at the cultural level but also the technological. Rather than striving for a benchmark, Chinese consumers are becoming the benchmark themselves. The seamless adoption of technology by locals has pushed the concept of digital nativeness to a point where foreign brands can come across as sluggish. Therefore insight, and the strategy that result, must be socially and digitally grounded locally in the context of China.

In terms of understanding contemporary China, the key turning point has been the recent consolidation of a culture of consumption in China. Consumption is directly a clear standard of middle class urban living, a dream supported by both the government and those maintaining and striving for it. In this context, individuals and families are developing deeper relationships with brands as they move beyond acquisitions to a definition of their identity.

Chinese consumers are definitely becoming more sophisticated, so brands need to address them through more relevant narratives that empower local consumers to enjoy their newfound lifestyles.

You seem in your element as a researcher. What made you join a digital agency?

For me this is a brilliant opportunity to make an impact in an area I have always been fascinated with.  In 2008, I was fascinated with the way Chinese youth were engaging with the social platform QQ and decided to conduct interviews with teengagers to understand this new digital culture. With my colleague, Jim Poppelwell, we discovered that local youth had a unique way of using Chinese text on the platform and socialised primary through manipulating imagery on pirated versions of Photoshop.

From this point, I have closely followed how locals engaged and communicated online. For me, digital or social should never be seen as separate realms, they are always a reflection of what is going on in the wider culture. For instance, what we saw from the young QQ users was a reaction to the hours of study they were subjected to and limited opportunities to express themselves creatively.

For me, digital and social actions of brands tend to be tactical in China, and are often inconsistent with how brands present themselves in other real contexts.  In the local context, many consumers will come to know a brand primarily on social networks, if what they encounter in-store falls short, then the brand’s credibility can be destroyed then and there.

Brands simply do not have the same buffer in terms of goodwill and reputation they have elsewhere, so consistent presentation across channels is essential here.

The digital behavior of Chinese consumers is still under researched, particularly in terms of qualitative and cultural insight.  With SMART, I am working closely with Resonance China founder, Rand Han, to develop specific approaches to understand digital behavior in terms of consumer lifestyles – their challenges, aspirations and core needs. Our ambition is to create a new benchmark by helping clients understand local digital lifestyles in an intuitive and culturally contexted way.

After your global post in London with Added Value, you went missing in Brazil for a few years. Can you tell us about that?

For me, to be a good researcher a person needs to be creative, that way you ensure that your work is inspiring to clients. I moved to Sao Paulo primarily to develop two of my passions, electronic music and film making.

To pay the bills, I set up a boutique consultancy called “House of Jezmo”, where I offered bespoke work on China, India and Brazil. In that time, I had the pleasure to work with a Brazilian petrochemical brand on how to rebrand themselves as more human, an international pharmaceutical firm on how China was going to age, as well as helping establish two local streetwear brands. It was fascinating stuff.

But what defined my time in Sao Paulo was a documentary I made with two Brazilian friends, Murilo Yamanaka and Allyson Alapont, on the rejuvenation of the city’s street culture called Reclaiming the Jungle.

Much of the city’s centre had become dilapidated and dangerous due to drug crime, the film focussed on a number of collectives that were creating free parties in these areas of the city. A project that was far more challenging than I expected, but it made me learn both film making and Portuguese super fast.

As a result I finally have the freedom to create films for myself or in my professional life. Since I have been back in China, I have able to put these skills to use to create consumer films for several clients, something I will definitely be doing as part of my new role at Resonance China

For me, to be a good researcher a person needs to be creative, that way you ensure that your work is inspiring to clients. I moved to Sao Paulo primarily to develop two of my passions, electronic music and film making.

To pay the bills, I set up a boutique consultancy called “House of Jezmo”, where I offered bespoke work on China, India and Brazil. In that time, I had the pleasure to work with a Brazilian petrochemical brand on how to rebrand themselves as more human, an international pharmaceutical firm on how China was going to age, as well as helping establish two local streetwear brands. It was fascinating stuff.

But what defined my time in Sao Paulo was a documentary I made with two Brazilian friends, Murilo Yamanaka and Allyson Alapont, on the rejuvenation of the city’s street culture called Reclaiming the Jungle.

Much of the city’s centre had become dilapidated and dangerous due to drug crime, the film focussed on a number of collectives that were creating free parties in these areas of the city. A project that was far more challenging than I expected, but it made me learn both film making and Portuguese super fast.

As a result I finally have the freedom to create films for myself or in my professional life. Since I have been back in China, I have able to put these skills to use to create consumer films for several clients, something I will definitely be doing as part of my new role at Resonance China.

 

About Author

Tracy Zhang

As a Masters graduate of Foreign Trade, Tracy started her career helping supermarket brand City Shop to source the ‘hunger’ of Shanghai’s internationalizing consumers. Now that she has found her passion in consumer research, she is helping develop Resonance's ground-breaking ethnographic offer.

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