The creation of the Double 11 shopping festival in 2009 might have originally been conceived as purely a promotional test for Tmall, the leading e-commerce platform of Alibaba. It was designed to be similar to Black Friday sales in the US with steep discounts offered not only by brands, but also by Tmall itself. Only 27 brands participated that first year, yet the total sales volume was about USD 7.2 million for the single day shopping event held on November 11. This unexpected result marked a major milestone in the evolution of new retailing in China. In the years since, Double 11 has grown to become the largest online shopping festival in the world, and in 2018 Tmall’s sales for that 24-hour period reached USD 30 billion. Although other online shopping festivals like “Double 12” (December 12) and “618” (June 18) have attempted to replicate the success, they haven’t achieved anywhere near the same results as Double 11.

Double 11 marks the climax of promotional campaigns by retailers, both online and offline, and offers a party-like shopping festival for consumers – Tmall even hosts a major live show featuring a New Year’s Eve-like countdown to the launch of sales and a highly anticipated gala event not unlike the halftime performances at the NFL Super Bowl with top celebrities lining up to take the stage. However, it’s a cruel battlefield for brands – a cutthroat competition to win traffic (or spending), weight of sales channels and conversions.

Tmall has a specially designed Double 11 homepage, which brings together all the participating brands. These brands try to grab traffic by purchasing banners or search boxes to ensure they  appear at top of the list of choices. Those enlisting the support of celebrities or KOLs tend to attract more attention amid a crowed competitive field. Consumers get push notifications  from brands based on their online shopping behavior and those brands with larger traffic will be pushed to consumers searching within the same category of products. On its surface, it appears  like a “money game,” and it’s not just Tmall, all major shopping APPs have similar promotions on the same day. This challenges marketers’ budgets, but even more it tests how well their marketing and communications strategies prioritize key channels and connect the dots between touch points to maximize conversions.

After 10 years of embracing the online shopping festival, consumers are no longer impulse buyers attracted simply by big discounts. Instead, they now save their money until Double 11 specifically to spend on brands they really love or are curious about. Marketers have also cooled their promotional efforts and avoid the excessive opportunism of the earlier years, when they attempted to stand out from a crowded field with big buzz campaigns. And while Double 11 is still a one-day retail battle, nowadays it is more of a test of a brand’s year-round or multi-year efforts to build their reputation.

Case in point is Avon, a leading beauty brand founded in 1886 with a pioneering direct-sales model. The brand achieved record Double 11 sales in 2018, racking up revenue five times that of the previous year. These results are even more astonishing when considering it was only in early 2017 that the brand was in a deep spiral in China due to changes to its sales model and overall declining business. The 2018 comeback was definitely not a “money” battle, but instead a reaping of the rewards of the brand’s initiatives to restore its reputation. H+K played a key role in this reversal of fortunes as it was engaged to work with Avon to rebuild its corporate reputation in China. A two-pronged communications strategy was tailored for the company: one targeting the hundreds of distributors who were frustrated with the future direction Avon was taking;  and the other aimed at the consumers who had long passed over Avon in preference for the numerous other more vibrant beauty brands they were now being exposed to.

We spent a whole year winning back the lost trust by highlighting Avon’s refreshed business model, supporting and providing resources to distributors, enhancing R&D capabilities and ensuring quality products for local consumers. Avon also reexamined its brand portfolio matrix and selected emerging young celerity Deng Lun as brand ambassador for its classic Little Black Dress series. With a sharply focused marketing strategy, ongoing content to gain brand preference and interactions with the celebrity, which tapped into his huge fan base and KOLs, Avon’s efforts eventually paid off. The company saw its sales growth by five times during Double 11 in 2018,  and double-digit in its annual revenue figures. This is a vivid example of the difference brand reputation can make during Double 11.

Every year the battle for Double 11 dollars is starting earlier and earlier, long before the actual day itself on November 11. Increasingly, brands are trying to generate as much attention as possible by offering attractive discounts. However, whether savvy consumers add these products to their shopping carts is more reliant on whether the brands can capture their interest, rather than simply lure them in by offering discounted prices. In fact it could be said that Double 11 has now become a report card, which scores a brand’s ongoing marketing and communications efforts, rather than simply a measure of its sales performance for a single day out of the year.