What Taobao Taught Me about PR and China

By Cheryl Tan

The Hoffman Agency, Shanghai

Back in 2010, I relocated from Singapore to Shanghai to work for The Hoffman Agency China. Having just landed from tropical Singapore to frigid conditions in Shanghai, I very quickly realized that whatever I had with me wasn’t going to be enough. I needed additional clothes fast, and there was only one place I could turn to for help: Taobao.

Taobao - E-Commerce Site in China

Taobao is China’s answer to eBay and Amazon, and many expats will agree that it is quite possibly one of the best things about China.

One can buy everything and anything there and, depending on the location of the store, you can have your delivery sitting on your desk as early as the very next day. I bought all my winter clothes from Taobao and survived Shanghai’s notorious cold intact.

Scooters - Indipensable to PR professionals

Earlier this year, I purchased an electric scooter only to have it stolen two months later. I depended on my scooter for everything and needed a replacement fast, but doubted if I could get one so quickly. After I got over my distress, I immediately logged onto Taobao, found a replacement and arranged for delivery the next day.

Using Taobao’s chat feature, I managed to connect with the seller and explain the situation to him. I convinced him to accept cash-on-delivery instead of paying electronically as I had no prepaid value left in my user account. The seller’s flexibility and understanding caught me pleasantly by surprise, and as promised, he arrived the next day with my bike in tow.

As a “laowai” (colloquial term for “foreigner”), I could only wish that there was a system that was equally awesome back home. A cash-on-delivery request would have been a deal-breaker, and a next-day turnaround of this nature is almost unheard of where I come from.

Over time, I earned my stripes as a bona-fide Taobao addict, and began to draw parallels between Taobao and China as a whole.

If Taobao is a metaphor for China, then nothing is impossible. The alarming speed at which purchases arrive at my door is a true embodiment of China’s “can do” spirit. I am often struck by how far sellers are willing to adapt in order to make a sale. It helps that in most cases their response time is fast – the chat feature allows buyers to ask questions in real time. In this instance, the scooter seller took a risk that in turn saved me a tremendous amount of unnecessary hassle. Because of him I was able to buy groceries, run errands and show up for work in time the next day.

So what can public relations professionals learn from Taobao that will help them be successful in their day-to-day lives?

In my opinion, if we can consistently demonstrate the same kind of trust, openness and flexibility with our clients, our job is half done. This collective “can do” spirit creates good feelings all around and in turn makes our work all the more rewarding – and just like China, nothing will be impossible.

In a way, Taobao is a metaphor not only for Chinese businesses, but for PR professionals everywhere.

P.S. I have since bought a bike lock and alarm system from that same shop and am happy to report that my scooter is still very much in my possession. 🙂

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