Inside China: Super Apps & Role of Brand

In China, Super Apps are a way of life & are they coming to a customer near you?

So what are Super Apps? Simply speaking Super Apps open the door to a wide range of virtual & physical products and services in an increasingly connected physical & digital world. Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat & Ant Financial’s Alipay are classic examples of Super Apps. Aside from basic functions like sending messages or making payments, the app can also be used to order food, hail taxis and book plane tickets. This is possible as the platform allows third-party companies to create ‘mini programs’ or ‘apps within apps’ within the Super App. To give an idea of scale, WeChat now has an inventory of over 1 million apps. Delivery of whatever you want is fast, convenient & competitively priced!

There is a tendency for the West to consider this phenomenon as limited to China & indeed there are specific cultural reasons why China has led the way in the Super App. In the 1990s prior to China’s growth, many consumers had to just make do with whatever they could get. For example, if they wanted noodles, they may not have had the choice to get a specific type or brand, but just to be happy with what they managed to get. However, now there are so many apps which can sell anything one can think of or desire.

And driven by the benefits of speed, convenience & price, we may already be seeing the rise of the Super App in the West, energised by covid & lockdown life. Apps like Amazon & Uber are now part of daily life in a different way to when we could all freely go to shops or restaurants whenever we felt like it. Currently, the focus is on food, fashion & entertainment products, however, it would be easy to see how this would diversify once some issues over labour regulations, data privacy & competition laws have been navigated. Soon typing in ‘gardener’ or ‘painter’ may become very common indeed! In the transition, there will probably be an increase in those supporting their local stores against these Super Apps, however, the smart money is on the benefits of Super Apps – speed, convenience & price – eventually winning.

But what does this mean for the role of brand? Brand managers – it’s time to get scared! The importance of the brand may decrease as the focus switches fully to product & offer. For example, simply searching by ‘chicken’ and seeing options poses a challenge to a brand such as KFC accustomed to dominating the space. The app, the price, the delivery time & the presentation of product are all likely to rise in prominence. In this context, the need for an authentic brand story or sustainability credentials is questionable. Brands need to think long & hard about how it will resonate in a world dominated by Super Apps. Even in this new world, the same rules will apply. Brands’ products & services will have to seamlessly become part of the lifestyles & apps which their customers are already using. And brands will need to continue to monitor attitudes & behaviours in their local environment.

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