Some Chinese tech firms get all the attention. BATJ, Xiaomi, ofo, and all the “sharing economy” startups have dominated headlines over the past few years. However, there is another group of companies who choose to keep a relatively low profile but are nonetheless an important part of China’s ever-growing tech landscape.
Bilibili might be a lesser-known name for those who are not interested in the ACG (animation, comics, and games around IP such as One Piece and Fate/stay Night) culture or live outside of China, but its impact on the Middle Kingdom is obvious: total monthly active users on par with Pinterest coupled with especially young demographics on their way to commanding more mainstream influence in a matter of years.
Bilibili, more widely known as “B Station” (b站 in Chinese), is the spiritual home for Chinese ACG fans. Founded by Xu Yi in 2009, the site models itself on the early days of Japanese ACG video portal Niconico with its integration of danmu (弹幕, “bullet screen” in English or “danmaku” in Japanese), a feature that allows viewers to plaster the screen with instant comments that move from left to right.
The rise of B Station finds its root in the spread of “2D culture” in China, characterized by fans who develop a strong attachment to 2D characters in cartoons, tradeable cards, comics, games, and youth novels. In 2015, iResearch estimated that this community reached as high as 219 million people.
Influenced by this underground trend, China’s mainstream culture is embracing a more open attitude towards content generated by 2D fans. The concept–people freely entertaining each other as an anonymous collective, akin to 9GAG–is gradually being adopted by broader society, for example, an autotuned remix of a Lei Jun’s speech and other memes created on B Station that have gone viral.
The mainstreaming of 2D culture underlines a great demographic shift as China’s post-80 and post-90 groups–both highly-educated digital natives–are coming of age, giving the marginalized ACG culture a demographic dividend. According to data from the company, the average user age is 17 years old, of which 75% were under the age of 24.
While China millennial are growing into independent consumers, they are bringing their tastes and wallets with them. And it’s no surprise that the latest fads among Chinese youths are already changing the way brands behave.
Among a hall full of teenage elves and fantasy warriors at Bilibili World last week, we found booths for a roster of international brands from KFC, Nike, Maybelline to Kotex. However, these outlets are somewhat different from what you could find in downtown shopping malls.
In the Nike demo zone, cartoon characters replace NBA stars to show off Nike sneakers. Feminine hygiene brand Kotex turns its booth into a Japanese-style temple where visitors can wish for good luck during periods or whatever they want. (We are still wondering why this booth was so popular with the boys).
KFC continues its partnership with Bilibili after a joint live-stream marketing company last year when two anime-styled girls competed to eat 50 pieces of fried chicken. Over 200,000 users watched them in real time.
The brands are still finding their approaches in marketing to this special group. “On the first day of the show, Maybelline’s booth is basically a typical representation of their department store versions. They become more popular in the following shift when helping cosplayers freshen up their makeup,” said Yang Liang, Bilibili’s marketing and PR head.
What we see at Bilibli World is just a part of China’s efforts in co-opting manga and animation as marketing tools. Xiaomi launched a limited edition of its Redmi Note 4 dedicated virtual idol Hatsune Miku, complete with accessories adorned with Miku’s color scheme. Alibaba’s e-commerce website Tmall was heavily decorated with manga-style artwork to help boost sales in the lead-up to the Chinese New Year in 2016.
Even government entities are opting in in an attempt to reach the young demographic. China’s Central Communist Youth League established its presence on Bilibili to better propagate its message. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs even uses cartoon figures to add flavor to their public WeChat account posts.