Inside the Alibaba Ecosystem and the Alibaba Zoo: What Tech Companies Need to Know
What foreign tech companies aspire to do, Alibaba often does better. Alibaba is unique from foreign tech companies in that it ascribes to an ecosystem. Like other Chinese Big Tech, it has created a community where different businesses and consumers can interact with one another all in the same Alibaba ecosystem.
The Alibaba ecosystem consists of a domestic and international core commerce business, two auxiliary business arms (such as cloud computing and digital media and entertainment), an experimental business area (such as innovation initiatives), and the affiliate companies such as Ant Group, in which Alibaba has a 33% stake.
So today we’ll review what exactly the Alibaba ecosystem is and some of the companies that feature within it.
What are Tech Ecosystems?
Few are aware that China’s cyberspace is actually made up of several distinct, slackly connected ecosystems. Competition in China’s internet industry is increasingly an ecosystem-based battle rather than a battle between individual tech enterprises.
Chinese Big Tech usually start with a focus on their expertise and gradually expand their business from there. These companies, particularly early tech stalwarts like BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent), began with a focus on a single industry but had the goal of becoming very large. This strategy evolved over time into where Chinese tech companies attempt to build out their web platforms by utilising their “super apps”.
Alibaba’s ecosystem is considered the most complete out of all tech companies. In China, Alibaba holds the greatest market share for e-commerce. Alibaba’s e-commerce platform has a combined market share of almost 80%. This 80% of the market is distributed among various e-commerce sites.
Online payment systems and finance technology are also the foundations of Alibaba. The financial services division of Alibaba is called the Ant group, also known as Ant Financial and Alipay. AliPay, which was first established in 2004 as an online payment system, quickly developed into an online bank and began cross-selling and up-selling more expensive financial goods.
The Alibaba Group has also increased its presence in China’s media and entertainment industry. Alibaba’s Media and Entertainment division focuses on over-the-top entertainment, live events, ticketing, and content creation. Due to its size, Alibaba has even created its own logistics network, Cainiao. Its cooperative logistics model can deliver anywhere in China in 24 hours and anywhere in the world in just 72 hours.
Alibaba’s vision is to last for 102 years. The business was established in 1999, and it plans to rule for the duration of the 21st century and still be around in the year 2101. Alibaba is a corporation that intends to last, not just to sell, and so that the company can stretch over three centuries.
Alibaba has also proved itself as a company that cares, having involved itself in ESG efforts and even helping the community. Alibaba has emphasised the firm’s commitment to having a beneficial impact on society and the environment by elevating environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) and “shared prosperity” to the list of fundamental corporate responsibilities for the group in 2021.
While continuing to pursue its three-pronged business strategy centred on globalisation, domestic consumption, and technological innovation fueled by cloud computing, Alibaba has made these objectives an essential part of its operations. Alibaba has also announced its intention to contribute RMB100 billion ($15.5 billion) to reducing the wealth gap in China.
Meanwhile, Alibaba has made it possible for rural villagers to sell their produce, handmade crafts, and manufactured goods. A Taobao Village is one that earns RMB10 million or more in e-commerce sales annually and has 100 or more active online stores on Taobao run by locals. After 10 years, the Taobao Village concept has grown to the point where it now serves roughly half of China’s rural population.
Alibaba is also known for having 20+ years worth of great data on consumers. Unlike Tencent who collected data on how consumers behave through their QQ and WeChat social apps and games, Alibaba collected high quality data on sales and transactions from it’s ecommerce platforms. Alibaba has a long history of producing data-driven analytics products that are essential for providing steady business operations and supporting Alibaba’s company growth.
Unlike Alibaba, Tencent is mostly in the business of investing. Tencent has tapped into many markets by investing into other different businesses. We see this with Tencent investing in multiple gaming companies. In fact, Tencent partnered with JD to tap into the e-commerce business and thus forming an ecosystem.
JD and Tencent have improved their capacity to deliver a high-quality and pleasurable shopping experience to a larger and growing user base through this strategic partnership in key areas, such as mobile access points, traffic support, and e-commerce activities. They have also strengthened their direct sales and marketplace businesses on mobile and the internet.
Tencent has also entered the live-streaming game 3 years ago where it was previously called Kandian Live (看点直播). Kandian Live was mainly for online shopping and mobile social networking. In April 2020, Tencent became the largest shareholder of Huya, a Chinese video live streaming service, having increased its voting power to 50.1%.
In 2017, Tencent launched mini programs to their apps, such as WeChat. The way these mini programs work roughly the same as a standalone mobile app, except they work inside the bigger app. With more than 1 billion monthly users, WeChat has grown from a basic messaging app to an ecosystem on its own.
More than 200 million people use mini programs every day in China, where there are more than 1 million of them available on the market covering 200 different categories. Mini programs serve the daily requirements of hundreds of millions of WeChat users, from ordering meals to even reading the news in the same app. These mini programs have become THE way of life and an essential operating system in China.
Bytedance’s ecosystem is less complete when compared to Alibaba and Tencent. In fact, its algorithm is more focused on retaining current users rather than obtaining new users. This makes sense as Bytedance already has a large user base.
The expansion of live e-commerce over the past few years had given Bytedance the chance to get involved. ByteDance’s Douyin rode the e-commerce streaming wave with an advantage in video. ByteDance initially partook in the industry from directing traffic to Alibaba and JD. Since it received payment for splitting the traffic, it refrained from getting involved in the more profitable e-commerce industry.
Douyin integrated ecommerce functionalities and gained some traction in 2019, achieving RMB 10 billion in gross merchandise volume (GMV) for the year as consumers started making direct purchases from livestreamers. However, this proved to be difficult for the tech company as users already had a pre-existing notion that Douyin is a platform where they can be entertained, not a platform that pushes users to shop.
What ByteDance does very well is that it has managed to tap into the global audience with their app, Tiktok. In fact, ByteDance is now the company that can not only curate trends, but can also create them and sell them at the same time.
These tech giants were largely out of each other’s way in the early days because each of them had their own domains. However, as they expanded, their businesses inexorably began to overlap in an effort to capture new rising markets, and as a result, what we now witness is intense competition.
What separates these ecosystems are the walled gardens put in place. For instance, users are not permitted to post links from Alibaba’s e-commerce site Taobao on Tencent’s messaging app WeChat. This practice actively prevents a seamless consumer journey for users. In spite of repeated warnings from regulators, the practice is nevertheless common. Chinese authorities have required these tech companies to list limitations that prevent ‘rival tech companies’ from sharing their connections.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology ordered businesses to stop preventing cross-linking from other tech companies during a high-level conference last year that was attended by some of the nation’s largest companies. The Chinese government very much emphasises the focus on the consumer experience, stressing the importance of customer-centricity.
But tech giants do generally agree that the abolition of these walled gardens is better for consumers in the long run, however this solution requires long-term planning and is difficult to implement right away for these companies. It’s the work in progress.
What is New Retail?
The battle between online and offline retail is over. New Retail has become the way! With Alibaba’s ecosystem, there is also its New Retail strategy in place. Alibaba aspired to reinvent retail, especially offline retail, which makes up 82% of the total, using data and technology.
By facilitating seamless interaction between the online and offline worlds, Alibaba’s new retail strategy seeks to reinvent commerce. It is not intended to convert online users into offline customers, or the other way around. It involves creating a retail ecosystem that unifies offline and online channels and places the customer at the centre, frequently in novel and unexpected ways.
The corporation chose the Double 11 Shopping Festival as an opportunity to present their idea. This event, which is 18 times greater than Amazon Prime Day and 2.5 times bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday put together, has revolutionised the retail industry.
However, the large presence of e-commerce is continuously expanding. The ‘New Retail’ goal of Alibaba is the company’s most audacious entry into experiential retail to date. Alibaba’s “New Retail” concept identifies omnichannel experiential retail as the direction of the retail sector, blurring the distinctions between actual brick and mortar stores and digital online shops.
The Alibaba Zoo
With Alibaba’s giant ecosystem, the Chinese global technology giant owns many companies with specialised operations. Almost every company run by the Alibaba Group has an animal mascot that relates to the brand, from hippos to pigs.
As the representative of the Alibaba community, they establish the channel of communication between the brand and users. Each animal has its own characteristics and carries its own brand gene and concept, drawing closer to users.
We thought it would be fun to feature some of the Zoo members and tell you their background stories. So here we go.
The Tao Doll (淘公仔) – Taobao
Taobao’s official mascot, the Tao Dall, is a dialogue bubble. The doll is intended to stand in for universal understanding and communication. The mascot quickly became popular among consumers. A lot of the businesses using the Alibaba platform wanted their own co-branded Tao. And so an entire design team was formed to create custom
Tao Dolls for brands and events. To date, there are at least 500 designs of Tao dolls. Alibaba Chairman, Jack Ma likes to present Tao Dolls as gifts to dignitaries. There’s even a Tao Doll at the New York Stock Exchange to commemorate Alibaba IPO in 2014.
Taobao, as a popular online retail platform in China, has nearly 500 million registered users. The Tao Doll’s image of youth, fashion, health and sunshine coincides with the corporate image that Taobao wants to convey.
Cat Tiantian (猫天天) – Tmall (天猫)
Before Tmall.com’s launch, a major Chinese internet meme spread across the country. A Chinese netizen shared a picture of a 100 Yuan banknote with Chairman Mao’s likeness on it, highlighting the anti-counterfeiting backdrop design that appeared to include multiple weirdly shaped “worshipping cats” with strangely T-shaped heads.
Jack Ma was then eager to incorporate the concept of “worshipping cats” into Tmall’s brand identity because he was quick to identify both the clear connection with the new name of the company, which has the Chinese character ‘Cat (猫)’ in it and a strong relationship with the spirit of the times.
Tmall is at the forefront of B2C e-commerce in China. Its predecessor is Taobao Mall, which was established in April 2008 and has been the leading e-commerce company in China for many years. Cats are naturally picky, picky with quality, picky with brands, picky with the environment. This is exactly in line with the pursuit of fashion, trend, and quality concept of Tmall.
Freshhema (盒马) – FRESHIPPO (盒马)
FRESHIPPO’s mascot is a fat blue hippopotamus. FRESHIPPO is a data and technology-driven new retail superstore platform owned by the Alibaba Group. FRESHIPPO, founded in 2015, created a one-stop new retail experience centre with a community for consumers, bringing people a “delicious life” with technology.
When asked why Hema’s mascot is a hippo, CEO Hou Yi says that since hippos have big stomachs and big mouths, they are happy creatures that can bring consumers happiness. He also mentioned that hippos are known to be simple and honest animals.
Zhi Xiaobao (支小宝) – Ant Group (蚂蚁集团)
Ant Group provides electronic payment and banking services. Its mascot is a happy blue ant called Zhi Xiaobao, a symbol of anyone with little power but a powerful work ethic. The ant smartly conveys the idea that if you work hard, even the tiniest individual can achieve a wonderful life.
Cai Xiaoniao (菜小鸟) – Cainiao network(菜鸟网络)
In 2018, Cainiao launched its first mascot, Cai Xiaoniao, on its 5th anniversary. Cai Xiaoniao is a white bird with a green beak and feet. In 2013, China’s logistics giants such as Alibaba, SF Express, STO and YTO and others jointly set up Cainiao Network.
This was done to build professional and efficient supply chain services based on the logistics network and big data decision-making platform covering all of China.
Ding Sanduo (钉三多) – DingTalk (钉钉)
The mascot of DingTalk is a black bird called Ding Sanduo(钉三多) . Ding Talk is an enterprise-level intelligent mobile office platform under the Alibaba Group. It is an enterprise organisation collaborative office and application development platform.
The lightning bolt on Ding Sanduo’s chest represents “efficiency and speed”, but also conveys the meaning of convenience. Ding Sanduo’s popular motto is “don’t abandon, don’t give up.”
Lu Xiaojia (鹿小佳) – Ali Health (阿里健康)
As Ali Health’s mascot, Lu Xiaojia is a small deer dressed up as a doctor. The animal represents the symbol of the longevity and happiness of the deer in China. Deers are even crowned as a divine animal in China.
Ali Health is an online and offline medical and health service network established in 2014. Its products include a cloud hospital platform, the Ali Health app and a drug electronic supervision system. This is to provide users with instant and convenient medical, health management and other professional services.
Fliggy is an orange pig with a pink snout, who is enthusiastic about travel. Fliggy, a popular online travel platform, derived its name by combining the words “flying” and “piggy”.
In China, pigs are a symbol of integrity and dependability. When travelling, the app offers a sense of security and trust, and its ears that flow back in the wind indicate that it is headed to fascinating new places. When pigs fly is a term that denotes something that is improbable and can never happen, therefore the logo has additional significance in English.
E Xiao Bao (饿小宝) – Ele.me
E Xiao Bao (饿小宝) is Ele.me’s (饿了么 mascot), a local lifestyle platform that focuses on food delivery. E .Xiao Bao is a Shiba Inu who loves food and follows the spirit of enjoying life and living in the moment.
It travels freely around the earth in search of all kinds of delicious food. In 2018, Alibaba completed the wholly-owned acquisition of Ele.me, fully integrating the new retail strategy promoted by Alibaba and forming a leading local life service platform in China.
Why the Use of Animals?
Since animals play an important role in Chinese traditional culture, Alibaba opted to incorporate animal pictures into their logos to help consumers remember and relate to their companies. These animal logos form the Alibaba zoo together, cooperating to construct a unique ecosystem.
1. Simple and vivid
Whether it is a business, a product, or a brand, it all needs a good name that is easy to remember. We learn to recognize various animals from a very early age, and the names and images of animals have long been memorised. Alibaba’s brands named after animals are very graphic, very vivid and easy to remember.
2. The spirit of animals
Just like the language of flowers, each animal has its own unique spirit. Named after an animal, the spirit of the brand and the spirit of animals can be subtly integrated. For example, Ant Group mainly provides financial services for small and micro enterprises, and the images of small and micro enterprises and ants are very well matched.
3. The memorability of animal images
If it is named after an animal, the design of the brand logo will have a clear direction, and the recognition of the logo will be stronger than that of ordinary brands. It will also be easier to design other dolls, toys, animation and other peripheral products related to the brand.
It can also form a unique Ali culture with other Alibaba businesses.
With the current strength and ambition of Alibaba Group, it will definitely continue to expand new businesses in the future. There will be more companies named after animals. There are really not many animals left for other entrepreneurs.
As you can see, ecosystems, while complicated, are integral structures for large businesses. In fact, it is a necessary set-up for tech companies all over. Ecosystems provide a cool and diverse path and global tech companies have much to learn from both successes and failures from these already successful ecosystems.
Tech companies had time to figure out what works and what fails. Indeed, there’s value to be absorbed in understanding the journey of Chinese ecosystems and tech companies for multinationals or big brands that are going through digitalisation not only in China but globally as well.
So if you’d like to get to know more about this interesting topic and see how you can implement ecosystems in your company, get in touch with us here. We consult multinationals and tech giants on how to shorten their learning curve in digital consumer-centric transformation.
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