Anyone who pays attention to China knows WeChat is the biggest name in Chinese social media. But the extent of WeChat’s dominance, and the way it has integrated itself into nearly every aspect of daily life in China, has significant implications for foreign companies doing business in China.
More than 95% of Internet users in China access the Internet via mobile devices at least part of the time. And of those mobile users, about 80% use WeChat. That is a stunning number, especially when you consider that WeChat is not just for sending messages and sharing news, pictures, and video; it also offers online shopping, mobile payments for everything from groceries to Lunar New Year “red envelopes” (gifts of cash), and Uber-like vehicle for hire services. More than 300,000 retail stores have already integrated WeChat Payment into their point-of-sale systems.
Given the ubiquity of WeChat, numerous companies have opened up official WeChat accounts and regularly use them to share information about products and promotions. Companies do exactly the same thing on Facebook in other countries, but because Chinese consumers can do so much more on WeChat, dispensing information via an official WeChat account is just the bare minimum. Chinese consumers have come to expect more.
A recent story about Starbucks becoming the first foreign company to become integrated into WeChat’s Wallet feature highlights the extent to which companies can benefit from WeChat. WeChat’s Wallet feature allows people to purchase Starbucks items and give them to their friends, all within WeChat. Given the love of social gifting in China – it’s how streaming celebrities earn money – I would expect this feature will increase Starbucks sales and it’s a great example of a foreign company adjusting its business strategy to take advantage of the idiosyncratic Chinese economy.
An official WeChat account can be opened by any company. But if you want Chinese consumers to be able to access that account – which is really the main reason to open an official WeChat account – the account must be formed by a legally formed Chinese entity.
That brings us to an old China Law Blog chestnut: do you really need to form a WFOE in China to sell your products? Of course not. There are a number of perfectly good reasons why companies might want to enter the Chinese market without forming a WFOE. But the more WeChat matters, and the more you want to control your company’s message to Chinese consumers, the more important it will be to have a China WFOE (or even a Joint Venture) to take advantage of all WeChat has to offer.