Business Law & Compliance

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Is this the greatest sales trick in history? How Alibaba stole Singles Day

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This year Alibaba really cleaned up. Not only did it take $9bn in 24 hours on Singles’ Day, a 62 per cent surge from last year’s previous record of $5.75bn, it thumped rivals with a brilliant marketing manoeuvre.

A while ago Alibaba filed a trademark application for “Double 11”: the nickname for the Singles’ Day online extravaganza. The name comes from the date… the11th day of the 11th month. The government granted the mark in Dec 2012,

Now here’s the clever bit.

Alibaba waited until just two weeks before this year’s Singles’ Day to publicly announce it. This meant all rivals’ advertising campaigns using the term Double 11 were illegal. They were forced to yank their ads from print and from the airwaves en masse.

Dr Kevin Lin, lead interpreter (Chinese) of the British Foreign Office and boss of translation and Chinese export consultancy KL Communications, says: “This will go down in history as a world first – create a commercial opportunity linked to a calendar date and register a trade mark for the date.”

The coup help lifted Alibaba’s sales by more than $3bn – making it arguably the most successful marketing tactic of all time.

There’s a lesson in the story too. As Dr Lin explains:
 
“Alibaba’s success with ‘double 11’ is an example of the world of opportunities the Chinese language offers to international brands and marketers. I talked about the opportunities back in 2009. One of my examples was pizza. In English, it’s a type of food and can’t be trade mark registered. Its Chinese translation in early days however, would have been a brand new phrase for a product virtually unknown in China – eligible for trade mark registration. 

“If Pizza Hut, the first company to sell the product, had registered a group of best in class names for pizza in China, it would have a virtual monopoly of the market today. When it comes to trade marks in China the rule of the game is ‘first come, first recognised’.”

China’s reputation as a lawless copyright-infringing wilderness is just nonsense. If you protect your brand, and secure other keywords too, the market can be controlled in your favour.

As Alibaba proved, get it right and the rewards can be astronomical.

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