Over the course of the Marketing Expert Series, we have heard about the lives and careers of marketing experts from all around the region – and even outside of it. Asia is a diverse region, with as many marketing strategies and tactics as there are markets. One of the joys of this Series is hearing how regional marketing experts deal with each individual market and adapt to the different needs and expectations of each country and target audience.
In this issue of the Marketing Expert Series, we meet Alice Yu, one of the most dynamic, motivated experts we’ve had the pleasure of interviewing so far. Born and raised in China before moving to Singapore a little over a decade ago, Alice brings a passion for marketing not only to her professional career but also to her personal and community efforts with her non-profit community, Mama on Palette. Join us in this issue, and discover how all paths can lead you in the right direction, as long as you’re brave and motivated enough to make it happen.
Welcome to the Marketing Expert Series, Alice, thank you for joining us! Let’s start with some background, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get to where you are now? What drew you to this line of work?
Hi, I’m Alice and my Chinese name is Yu Yuebo. Thirteen years ago, I came to Singapore from a small town in Anhui, China. My city is famous for its rich culture known as ‘Hui Pai (徽派)‘. Many famous writers, poets and artists were born or used to live there. I guess I was inspired, and have inherited a little of their creativity and most importantly an appreciation for it.
In 2018, I was recruited as one of the 200+ Chinese scholars to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) degrees in Singapore universities. During that time, there was no doubt that I should choose Chemistry, as I had done somewhat well in national competitions on the subject.
My family’s expectation for me is to pursue a PhD and then become a professor. Ironically, upon graduating, I did receive a PhD offer in analytical chemistry from a well-respected professor with whom I worked to publish two papers in science magazines. But I rejected the offer.
Because afterwards, I did more than eight internships and part-time jobs in university as a librarian, social media marketer, researcher, brand marketer, office administrator, corporate comms assistant, and lab assistant. I also did three years as a special reporter and tutor.
During all that time, my true passion became clearer and clearer – I wanted to work in a field that allows me to communicate with people (as opposed to dealing with flasks and beakers). I love listening to stories and moreover, telling stories. I realized that what I wanted to be was not a professor, but a marketer.
When I came to that clear realization, I had a few seconds of pride in knowing what I wanted, but it wasn’t an easy path towards the dream.
I can’t remember how many times I was turned down during job interviews with feedback such as ‘you don’t have a marketing degree’ or ‘you are inexperienced’ (yes, after hearing I did 10 internships)’.
In between all the rejections and the subsequent depressions, two things that cheered me on:
- A supportive partner (who’s now my husband) who understands and encourages me to pursue my dream
- A non-rejective family, my mum and dad, who never said yes or no to what I was doing (“as long as you can feed yourself!”)
Because of them, I was able to stay positive. I took my steps slowly, first as a management trainee, then an Account Executive in a PR agency, then an in-house marketer at a start-up where I was able to evolve my role from a program manager to a marketing manager, from covering SG local market to three markets including Europe and China. Afterwards, I took another regional marketer role in a bigger company and then managed a small content & social team at a Fortune 500 multinational company.
Now I’m moving on to another exciting opportunity to kickstart an entirely new function in partnership marketing in one of the biggest B2B tech companies in the SEA region. Along the way, my title and scope change, but the only thing that stays the same is my wanting to tell exciting stories and connect people/communities for good.
Over the course of your career, you’ve gained some experience marketing to the Chinese market. What sort of challenges did you face? How did you overcome them?
Marketing in China is definitely one of the most sophisticated, yet exciting topics to talk about! I could spend hours on it. To summarise the key challenges based on my experience of helping international brands enter China market include:
- Connection – regardless of the tier of the cities you are selling your product or service to, a strong local network is essential. It is even more important when you are moving to 2nd or 3rd tier cities where traditional performance marketing drives lower ROI than mouth-to-mouth referrals. Building a powerful network also gives brands chances to steer effective partnerships.
For example, during my startup days, we hosted a two-week-long phonics boot camp with one of the biggest parental influencers in Shanghai, that led to over 3000 leads and 30% conversions. For those who are interested, read further on the ‘Pinduoduo’ model, where buyers are encouraged to share products they are interested in via their own social networks and invite their friends and family to form a shopping team and benefit from attractive prices.
- Speed – there’s a buzzword among Chinese young Millenials ‘手慢无’ which means ‘if your hand is slow, the thing you want will be gone’. It is often used when shoppers are competing for limited edition items during e-commerce sale seasons such as ‘11.11’. The concept applies to the marketing world, too.For example, trend jacking is known as a great way to drive engagement. While I notice brands in Singapore usually take 1-2 days to react to new social buzz, which by Singapore standards is considered fast enough, in China it could be the first 1-2 hours after the hot topic is out! In my contribution to China Marketing Insights, I shared that Luckin Coffee’s record-breaking campaign was made in merely 13 days. Their marketing team took the first-mover advantage by working with Lelush, a Russian contestant that gained top popularity in Tecent’s reality show ‘Produce Camp 2021’.
The commercial ads had almost two million views on Bilibili within 24 hours and the official hashtag #瑞幸冰咖推荐官利路修 (Chief Recommendation Officer Lelush) broke a billion mention record on Weibo. It also led to historical high product sales. After then, many other brands jumped onto the bandwagon to hire Lelush as their KOL, but no one did it as successfully as Luckin.
- Empathy – On many occasions, I’ve shared the importance of dropping stereotypes, egos, or any preset perceptions before entering the China marketing game. Just like localisation is not just about translation (if you think it is, rethink it quickly); knowing the Chinese culture and being able to drive emotions that resonate with the local audience requires big efforts in listening to the people, talking to them, and even having hotpot with your target group (like the young Chinese says, ‘nothing can’t be solved over a hotpot’).
Many global brands, even local brands failed as they didn’t really listen or have real conversations with the locals. Some good examples include Dolce & Gabbana’s controversial ads which depicted a Chinese model struggling to eat pizza, cannoli and pasta with chopsticks. Locally, former Harper’s Bazaar China editor Su Mang received many backlashes from Gen Y and Zs for her ‘inappropriate interpretation’ of a buzzword, involution, as ‘a reflection of high desire but low willingness to put in the work among the young generation’ during a reality show. So that patience to closely study China marketing trends and truly understand the meaning behind social topics can’t be neglected. In fact, that’s the key to your marketing in China’s success.
You have done some amazing things, as a marketer, and, as a woman. It’s clear that you are a woman with a mission, please tell us more about your community and podcast, Mama on Palette.
I’m humbled to be recognised as a ‘woman with a mission’. I’ve always considered myself as a woman with passion. 😛
My friends often ask, ‘Alice, why are you doing so many extra things?’ Their next question would usually be, ‘isn’t a full-time job and the motherhood duty enough?’
I know it all comes from a good heart, as they know my husband and I have been taking care of our kiddo on our own without a helper or grandparents, so there is a lot on our plate, but I do feel that doing the ‘extra things’ helps me to gain energy, rather than the reverse.
Take Mama on Palette as an example – I started the nonprofit community four years ago after I became a new mother and suffered from baby blues. Art helped me walk out of postpartum depression and I even managed to publish a picture book which is now available in all public libraries in Singapore (you can borrow it here if you are interested). This experience showed me that art can be a powerful tool to help mothers achieve better mental wellness, which is something I feel that today’s society doesn’t pay enough attention to.
Since then, I’ve been writing blogs to share my own parenting experiences and inviting mothers to tell their stories via the platform. Along the way, we had the honour to be featured in The Straits Times, 958 City Channel, Channel 8, The Pride by Singapore Kindness Movement and Lianhe Zaobao.
Despite the challenging COVID time, we hosted our first exhibition at National Library Singapore gathering artworks of eight mother artists to celebrate Mothers’ Day in May. We just launched our first Mama on Palette podcast two months ago focusing on art, motherhood and wellness, and it is now ranked No.7 in the Art category in Singapore. I have the vision to turn Mama on Palette into the No.1 Go-To platform for parents to appreciate and practice art in Singapore. There’s still a long way to go!
Now that COVID-19 seems to finally be getting under control, what’s next for you personally?
To be very honest, I do not think COVID-19 is under control yet. That’s why it’s still important to keep our social responsibilities to protect each other and our loved ones. It’s not easy. We weren’t able to see our parents in China for almost three years, needless to say, our desperate hope to be able to travel again.
Personally, I had a few hectic moments of managing back-to-back work calls and caring for a home-based learning kid, but I took all these as chances for building resilience. Through the challenges I also found a new purpose for Mama on Palette, that is how we as mothers could use art to destress and establish better mental health.
I practice art therapy techniques often to pull myself out of negative thoughts and refresh my mind before jumping back to the daily battles. I take every change as an opportunity to self-reflect and evaluate my passion, priorities and skillset. That’s why I decided to leave the financial services industry after two years and return to the tech field, and also I will take on a different portfolio that drives more direct business impact.
Any life or career advice you’d give to young and aspiring marketers?
Looking back at my own career map in the past eight years, I think I benefited from three characteristics I was born with or that I have learned:
- Resilience – What exactly does it mean? For myself, after I identified what I wanted to work as, I didn’t get there immediately. In fact, it was quite a nonlinear path.
After leaving my first job in the education field, I had to pursue a part-time communications degree to ‘prove’ myself to potential marketing employers. Over half a year I juggled evening classes and teaching home tuitions around the island so that I could balance my investment and income. When I was happy that finally, I had a full-time marketing job in a working environment I like, I found out I was pregnant. I had to move on looking for a more stable, better-earning job without losing track in marketing.
After I had a few years of marketing under my belt, I began to realise it’s a field not hard to get in (I might be a special case), but hard to get up, so I had to continuously upgrade myself by learning at least two courses every year, spending time on making connections and staying up to the trend. In the meantime, I always want to give back.I use my after work to mentor students, teach marketing courses, and build my own Mama on Palette community to help mothers who suffered from postpartum depression (PPD) or live a happier parenting life through art. Given the COVID pandemic, parenting becomes harder as well with home-based learning arrangements. So no matter which stage of life you are at, being resilient is really the key to thriving.
- Learning – As mentioned I keep a cadence of learning two new things every year. Here are two main drivers behind me: one is to keep up the attitude to stay humble, stay curious, and realise there’s new knowledge I can grab to make a better world; the other is to stay energetic – I gain my energy from discovering new domains.
If one day I retire and don’t need to worry about making money, I will be very happy, sitting in a library or bookstore the whole day, as there’s so much more to be learnt!
Learning also brought me many opportunities: without self-studying how to develop a WeChat account and build my own IP ‘Doggy and Catty’, I wouldn’t even know there’s a job category in ‘social media marketing’; through Mama on Palette I also learnt a lot such as building my own website, crafting EDMs and jumping onto Live sessions with my community members to talk about motherhood and art, and even rolling out our first podcast that is now ranked No.7 in the Art category in Singapore. I literally believe that opening a book, attending a course, or whichever format of learning resources, is like opening a door to new possibilities. That’s why learning always makes me feel excited.
- Network – If there’s something that I feel grateful for in my career besides being able to work in marketing, that is building my network and meeting all the fun people along the way. After my third job, all the opportunities I received next were through connections, mostly from LinkedIn. I always believe social media is a double-edged sword: you may get lost by chasing flashing waves or setting unrealistic comparisons that eventually led to anxiety or depression, but you can also make the best use of this ‘rented land’ (as Carlos Gil wrote in his ‘The End of Marketing’) to build your personal brand for free, connect with people that could potentially become your future employers or partners, or promote your business.
Relationships are not always about profit or loss, buy or sell; in fact, the fewer commercial elements in your intent of building a connection, the longer-lasting and more profound an impact it has. Building an effective relationship is also about providing value. Just like Eric Sim, a personal branding expert once shared with me, ‘if you know how to use Canva, volunteer to help the others with a better design; if you are professional with excel, offer to provide your potential employer some historical data analysis and insights.’
Don’t worry if you are too young or inexperienced, you always have some unique value in you that you could offer in exchange for friendship, so step out of your zone and make real, impactful connections.
Coincidentally, I am working on a career book for Gen Zs where I interviewed 13 leaders with a variety of backgrounds to share their life stories and practical tips on good challenges and hard-earned lessons along their career journey. This is not to self-advertise but I do believe the book will bring more food for thought for the young and aspiring marketers. I learned quite a lot through conducting those interviews. My book will be published in Q3 next year and I’ll do my best to make it available both in print and digital format so more can benefit from it.
Thank you, Alice, for sharing your experiences with us. How can people connect with you if they’d like to know more about you?
I’m usually active on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/aliceyuyuebo/ sharing marketing, growth and community-related stuff. I also welcome people to connect with me via https://mamaonpalette.com/ if they are advocating for art, motherhood and wellness related causes and join our community here with already a thousand members.
The Marketing Expert Series features marketing and communications experts from across every industry. Every month, 2Stallions will showcase the stories and expertise of marketing experts from around the world, join us as we explore how marketers navigate the challenges of the regions and industries they work in. If you’d like to be featured in the next issue of the Marketing Expert Series. Please reach out to us via email.
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