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Confucius says: Thumbs up for this Kiwi
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A Kiwi expat is finding quirky ways to help sell products to Chinese consumers, and he invokes the sage Confucius.

Confucius is famous for his timeless wisdom about human relationships, good behavior and politics.

But New Zealander Ben Shipley sees something extra in the ancient philosopher's sayings - advice about marketing. He and his business partner even named their marketing agency ConfuciusSays.

"Confucius was one of the first guys to try and take apart what's happening in China," Shipley explains. "If you look back at what he was talking about, if you were trying to market products, his ideas would have been a great help back then."

He gives the following saying as an example: "Enliven the ancient but also know what is new."

ConfuciusSays uses innovative techniques to promote its clients' products, such as word-of-mouth, social networking and new media, like blogs. Its clients include vodka brand 42 Below - founded by a Kiwi company but later bought by Bacardi - and New Zealand wine company Sileni Estate.

Shipley and his business partner Phil Dorman came up with their company's name one day when they were on the subway. "We were looking for a name that had a strong China connection to people outside of China. That's definitely where our primary market is at the moment.

"And whenever a government official in China starts a speech, they go: Zi yue (Confucius says)."

Shipley has been in Shanghai for about four years. He first came to China on trips with his mother, former New Zealand prime minister Jenny Shipley. "I'd traveled a few places around the world and was thinking about where I wanted to go."

He settled on China and prepared by taking a summer course in Chinese at Auckland University. "Basically, I'd decided I was going to make the move. Shanghai is the sharp edge of the knife. It's where the ideas are, the newest things are. I came with the idea of setting up a company."

At first, he stayed with family friends "in the depths of Pudong." He found work with a media company ILX Media and "learned the basics of working with a Chinese team." It was while he was working there that he met Dorman. After the pair left the company, they decided to set up a business together.

Shipley says increasing numbers of New Zealand companies have their eye on China, keen to tap into a population of 1.3 billion.

But the challenge they face is attracting attention without having to spend the millions that global giants can afford. "You need to be telling a story. Marketing increasingly is turning into telling stories that are worth retelling."

ConfuciusSays certainly tries to give people something to remember. For the regional finals of the 42 Below Cocktail World Cup, the company built a grass rugby pitch on the roof of the China World Hotel in Beijing.

In Shanghai, they hired Bar Rouge and decorated it with velvet cushions. One side of the cushions was branded with the 42 Below logo, the other side bore the words "Honestly stolen from Bar Rouge at the 42 Below Cocktail World Cup."

At first, nobody was paying much attention to the gimmick but then one woman decided she wanted to take a cushion home. Soon, hundreds of people were scrambling for the remaining cushions.

"It's that physical interaction with a New Zealand brand," Shipley says. "That's a big part of 42 Below."

Niche marketing is important with such a large population, he says. He considers Chinese aged between 20 and 35 to be the most "accessible market." They are looking for "new experiences, new products."

ConfuciusSays has 11 staff, both expats and Chinese. The company's office is tucked away in an old building on the corner of Fuzhou Road and Jiangxi Road M. "We wanted an old office," Shipley says. "I could go to any city on earth and have a new office with all the amenities. The history of the place is part of the mystery. It's part of the legacy that this was, in the 1930s, the sharp edge of the knife for China."

He likes the fact that the apartments are on the upper floors of the office, providing a connection with local residents.

The laddish Shipley makes the most of Shanghai's nightlife. "Obviously, owning your own business here, one of the things you need to do is to get out there and socialize. Shanghai is home to a lot of really cool places to go out."

Shipley has no plans to return to New Zealand any time soon. "The pace of change in Shanghai is really the key thing for me. If you go away even for a week, when you come back there's something new.

"China is going to be a big part of New Zealand's life going forward, in fact to most of the world going forward. Shanghai is going to play a big role in the rest of my life, and China too. That said, I do miss the beach."

(Shanghai Daily October 16, 2007)

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