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Dave Dal Molin interviewed me recently for this article that appeared in the Shanghai Business Times

He was exploring how Word of Mouth could be used in cities with limited tv coverages.

Have a read of what Dave found about the Stove Guys.

In order to understand why sales growth was flat, Hebei Guanglei, a manufacturer of coal-burning stoves for heating homes, sent out a research team to investigate the largest market for its products — the Chinese countryside. The team, led by Beijing-based marketing consultancy Velev, visited over 600 rural families in four different provinces.

Traveling around the countryside, a mysterious pattern developed: In many villages, every single stove owner used the same brand of stove. The researchers named this the “jiucai phenomenon”, after a Chinese vegetable that always grows in clumps.

“These people are completely different from city folk. They have their own way of thinking, their own customs,” says the research team leader. The researchers noted that compared to the typical urbanite, who may never speak to his neighbor, rural dwellers thrive on close communication and get-togethers. Access to information is limited– many peasants leave their small villages only a few times per year, so face-to-face contact is restricted and television channels, newspapers and magazines, if they exist, are extremely few.

It was discovered that the main determinant behind which stove brand was being used in a particular village was a team of guys that installed the stoves. Whichever stove brand was found in the homes of these two or three “stove experts” was likely to become the dominant, or even exclusive, brand for an entire village. This was a natural result of word of mouth and limited access to information outside the circle of village life.

Armed with this knowledge, Guanglei employed some excellent word of mouth marketing strategies.

Partnering with key influencers: It cultivated mutually beneficial relationships with the villages’ stove installers, giving them free, logo-embossed uniforms, tools and performance-based benefits. Guanglei also offered company stock to stove distributors, another key group of influencers.

Identifying when/where WOM communication takes place: Periodic country market gatherings for buying/selling goods are about the only time a normally dispersed population gathers en masse. Guanglei created a traveling drum and lion dance team to create buzz at these events.

Listening to customers: The research team discovered that people used stoves not only to heat homes, but also to boil water and dry shoes. Guanglei responded by adding an iron frame and grill to its stoves.

Supporting social causes: It created positive WOM by giving peasant students free Guanglei-embossed book bags.

And here’s a quote I gave Dave for the article.

“The gathering of a tribe around a campfire or village market is where real consumer stories are shared, and that is the heart of word-of-mouth recommendations,” says Frontiering’s Ian Farmer, a WOM expert with extensive experience marketing in Asia. He notes similarities between such traditional gatherings and today’s online communities. “Companies that know how to market to traditional villages can expect to create a lot more loyalty for their brands.”

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