Since the end of last year, private driving services have become part of the work and life cycle for most people in China’s big cities. But for drivers of traditional taxis, the arrival of Didi Dache, Kuaidi Dache and Uber have been a headache.

With Uber poised to invest more than $1 billion in the Chinese market, Shenzhou Car decided to fight back with a celebrity poster series aimed squarely at Uber. The ads featured celebrity actors Wu Xiubo and Hai Qing.

“Not just comfortable, but safe. That’s our concept. Thanks for your support! We’ll try to offer customers the best and safest experience. Uber, please shut down your black cabs!” Shenzhou wrote on its official Weibo.

The message was forwarded several thousand times, but mainly for the purpose of criticism. In addition to the questionable ethics of exercising such a blatant attack on a competitor, the dubious claims brought the company intense criticism. Many media called Shenzhou’s campaign a “brain dead” approach to marketing.

Brain Dead?

Public relations specialists are masters of manipulating opinion – specially the opinion of the media.

While many derided the spread of the posters on social media, they forgot how long it has been since similar ads appeared in elevators or subway trains. It was an attempt by Shenzhou to attack Uber on its home turf: the Internet.

“The way everything played out shows it is the work of a well-coordinated marketing mean. Even the people writing about it as a PR crisis are helping to spread the Shenzhou name online,” said Li Donglou, a new media columnist.

After having their news purged from two financial media streams, Shenzhou created several key opinion leader accounts to share opposing views to its own and complete the illusion of a full media buzz and blowback.

Whether you laughed at the ads or spit at the stupidity, Shenzhou’s PRs team was cheering in secret.

After a blast of criticism, Shenzhou released a letter to apologize for its “inappropriate” ads and began to send out discount coupons.

“This was an amazingly successful marketing plan,” said Gu Jia, a We Media writer. “At the very beginning I was curious how Shenzhou would react to people’s criticism. The apology letter and discounts showed it won this round.”

“It may have ways to go before it can beat Uber, but it succeeded in recapturing users’ attention,” he said.

Before the ad campaign, few people paid attention to Shenzhou Cars. According to a recent poll by AdMaster, 89 percent of the respondents said they had used Didi in the last three months, while 53 percent and 24 percent said they had used Kuaidi and Uber.

Shenzhou ranked a distant and forgotten fourth.

After the news, Shenzhou Car picked up more than 5 million new downloads within a day. The value of that kind of exposure is hard to quantify.

Viral Marketing

“Rationally speaking, Shenzhou’s point view isn’t wrong. Uber is a controversial product that is wandering on the edge of regulations. It is competing in the free market and is outside any supervision system,” said Zong Ning, an Internet columnist.

If the same operating model was applied in other industry, users might feel less secure.

One would question a surgeon’s ability if he were promoting himself through a free-marketing service at cutthroat rates. But in terms of transportation, apps like Kuaidi, Didi and Uber harness idle resources for the public benefit.

“There are few criminal cases involving these cars and we already have laws to handle most disputes that could arise. But if something really bad happened, it would depress the whole industry,” Zong said.

Uber’s insecurity comes from operating in a legal gray area. While Shenzhou’s attempt at viral marketing might anger some customers, its negative effects are minimal. Internet audiences have a notoriously limited attention span and memory, and that makes dangerous marketing tactics a calculated and worthwhile risk.

Coupons and vouchers go a long way to help mitigate any ill effects of a bad advertising campaign.

End users have little attachment to platforms such as Didi, Uber and Shenzhou. They only want the cheapest, fastest and most convenient service, Zong said.

But the war between Shenzhou and Uber has drawn attention to another little known fact. The CEO of Didi Dache is Liu Qing, the daughter of Liu Chuanzhi, Lenovo’s previous CEO. The head of Uber in China is Liu Chuanzhi’s niece Liu Zhen. Shenzhou’s main investor is also tied to Lenovo.

From one viewpoint, the battles between China’s top taxi booking apps resemble Lenovo’s own internal family conflict.

“Though there are many things that need to be improved, private cars seem to be the trend. We hope private drivers can coexist with traditional taxi services rather than replace them in the short term,” said Yidao, another car booking competitor.

Sharon Wang

About Sharon Wang

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Wang Lingxiao is a quiet and patient girl who loves traditional culture and history. She likes working in media because it satisfies her desire to read and write. She hopes to travel China and the world.

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