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Business trends

China's youth fads start with 15-second amateur videos

Popularity of sharing app Douyin holds useful lessons for marketers

A Douyin user makes a short video clip in Dalian, Liaoning Province. The service is structured so that amateur content receives plenty of attention.

DALIAN, China -- It is something of a musical mystery: How did a decade-old ballad that was barely noticed in Japan become one of the most popular Japanese songs in China?  

The short answer is Douyin, a video-sharing platform known as Tik Tok overseas. And the rise of the once-forgotten tune, along with other Douyin phenomena, can provide valuable clues for marketing success in today's China.

At one time, if you had asked a young Chinese person to name the biggest Japanese hit, the answer might have been the 1970s song "Kitaguni no haru," or "Spring in the North." More recently, it probably would have been "Kimiga sukidato sakebitai," or "I Want to Shout I Love You," the theme song of the anime series "Slam Dunk."

These days, however, chances are the answer will be "Planet," by the now-defunct band Lambsey. 

The song was released in 2006 as a B-side, selling a lackluster 5,000 copies. The band broke up five years ago. Yet Shinjiro Inoue, a former Lambsey member and producer, heard last summer that the song was garnering a lot of attention on Chinese music services "for some reason."

Though he was baffled, Inoue rushed to put together a video with a still image and lyrics, and posted it on another site. The number of views quickly reached 80,000, and inquiries began streaming in from Chinese music companies. "I'm happy a 12-year-old song is getting a second life in China," said Inoue, who is now exploring further opportunities there.

It was Douyin, though, that made "Planet" the definitive Japanese song in China.

Over the last six months, the short-video app has shot to popularity among teenage girls and women in their 20s. Its roughly 44 million regular users make it the country's second-most popular video-sharing service, after Kuaishou. 

Users post roughly 15-second clips, often of themselves dancing or lip-syncing to songs. Though widely followed accounts rank highly and receive most of the views, part of Douyin's appeal lies in the accessibility of everyday users' videos. Such content is highlighted in a "recommended" section, which helps to build up "likes" and motivates amateur creators to post still more content. 

Douyin videos have helped turn numerous products into hits, including Taiwanese company CoCo's Tapioca bubble tea, seen outside a Shanghai shop.

On Douyin, "Planet" accompanies videos featuring, for example, people lip-syncing, special occasions such as weddings, and dedications to long-married elderly couples. Li Xue, a 30-year-old Beijing resident who has never studied Japanese, said, "Even without understanding the lyrics, I heard the melody and couldn't get it out of my head." She immediately searched for the song on a music service.

Fans like Li, in turn, posted "Planet" on the WeChat social network, which is used by about 1 billion people -- instantly raising the song's profile. 

"Planet" is not the only product that has soared to fame on Douyin. Taiwanese company CoCo's Tapioca bubble tea became a huge hit after it showed up on the app. Some have even taken to calling it "Douyin Milk Tea."

Among other trends triggered by videos shared on Douyin: A body spray that smells like a branded perfume sold out, and an unusual way of eating at Chinese hot pot restaurants took off.

The Douyin craze coincides with growing mistrust of "stealth marketing" -- advertising under the guise of word-of-mouth recommendations. 

For foreign brands seeking to sell in China, it has been considered essential to partner with wang hong, or prominent bloggers and video producers with high consumer influence. But young consumers are starting to see through this, and are more inclined to trust what they see as true "amateur" recommendations. 

Qi Chu, a 26-year-old office worker in Dalian, said she once visited a cheese fondue restaurant on a tip from Douyin. "It's easier to be receptive to small discoveries from people whose lives look like yours, rather than from ads," she said. 

Brands may want to adjust their marketing strategies accordingly.

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