bissell crosswave in living room
COVID-19 increased awareness around home cleaning in China, and Bissell's CrossWave floor cleaning appliances was developed specifically based on research in the Chinese market. — Bissell

With a history that includes 144 years of family ownership, Bissell Homecare has a great story of longevity to tell.

The Grand Rapids, Mich.-based maker of floor cleaning products from vacuums to sweepers has been such an indelible part of Americana that it was even featured in a Norman Rockwell painting.

When it came to selling its products in China, however, the company had to learn some new ways of going to market. One of those has been livestreaming through a partnership with Alibaba’s Tmall e-commerce platform.

In most markets, Bissell uses a mix of long-form TV infomercials or short TV shopping spots to explain how its products work. That same model doesn’t exist in China, Max Bissell, director of robotics and managing director of Asia for his family’s company, told CO—.

“We needed a way to sort of tell the story of our product,” he said.

Consumers are spending time at home, they need to clean, and they want to clean more frequently.

Max Bissell, director of robotics and managing director of Asia, Bissell

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The company decided to partner with Alibaba to conduct product demonstrations via key opinion leader (KOL) livestreaming, which is a common way that consumers learn about new products and shop from home in China. KOLs are akin to social media influencers in the U.S. — they are well-known personalities with strong followings who demonstrate products with enthusiasm. The tactic has fueled high product sales volumes in China and holds potential for Bissell’s business in the U.S. and other markets, he said.

Bissell makes a wide range of carpet cleaners, but the product it has been focusing on in China — and now in other markets as well — is its CrossWaveline of floor cleaning appliances. The CrossWave, which was developed specifically based on research in the Chinese market, allows consumers to both vacuum and mop floors at the same time, and can be used on either hardwood floors or area rugs.

Marketing the CrossWave via livestreaming in the nation paid off for the brand.

“For us it was really powerful,” said Bissell. “It's different than how we would have gone to market in other regions, but it kind of fit our model pretty well.”

Amid pandemic, floor care marketing ripe for livestreaming

The COVID-19 pandemic greatly increased awareness around home cleaning in China, which helped drive a 14% increase in first-quarter sales, the company said. For 2020, Bissell is bullishly projecting that sales could nearly quadruple year-ago levels as its China efforts ramp up.

“Floor care is one of the few industries that I think has seen a tailwind on the back of the coronavirus,” said Bissell. “Consumers are spending time at home, they need to clean, and they want to clean more frequently.”

 max bissell headshot
Max Bissell, director of robotics and managing director of Asia, Bissell. — Bissell

Because the CrossWave has such unique functionality as a multi-tasking tool, the company benefits from infomercial-style marketing that allows for demonstrations. Its infomercials in the U.S. feature both testimonials from consumers who marvel at the product’s power and versatility, as well as demonstrations from spokespeople who demonstrate how the CrossWave quickly and efficiently cleans a variety of messes, from liquid spills to pet hair.

Bissell leveraged insights from Alibaba’s Brand Databank, a consumer data dashboard, to understand its target market in China. That was the “starting point,” Bissell said, that helped it select the right KOL for the livestream events. The various KOLs specialize in reaching certain audiences and offer at a range of price points, so sellers have to select carefully based on their own objectives and target markets.

A livestream last Nov. 11 — known as “Singles Day,” a major shopping day in China — was “moderately successful,” Bissell said, and from there the company was able to test and learn by conducting regular livestreams with its distributor partners, to the point where Bissell said he was highly encouraged by the potential of livestreaming in China.

“I feel that's the beauty of Alibaba, but also the beauty of digital,” said Bissell. “You can do things fast. You can learn a lot along the way, and that's sort of the approach that we've taken.”

 bissell livestreaming in china
Bissell has partnered with Alibaba to conduct product demonstrations via livestreaming with key opinion leaders (KOLs), which are similar to social media influencers in the U.S. — Bissell

Lessons learned for the U.S. market

Last year was a watershed year for e-commerce livestreaming in China, with revenues estimated at about $18 billion, according to Jing Daily, citing research from Everbright Securities and Coresight. That represented a 71.2% gain over 2018 revenues.

In the U.S., livestreaming generates much of its revenues from musical performances, but in China it is a growing channel for infomercial-style product demonstrations that drive high sales volumes.

As social commerce through platforms such as Facebook and Instagram gain traction in the U.S., Bissell said his company may be able to leverage some of the learnings from its livestreaming venture in China. One of the learnings from the livestreaming efforts in China was what Bissell described as “China speed.”

“The brands that react very quickly are the ones that scale quickly and grow their businesses,” he said. “I would say that's a learning that we can just apply across the world, particularly with the uncertainty right now.”

The high volume of digital commerce in China, where 95% of products in the home cleaning category are sold online, also offers lessons that may be applied in other markets, according to Bissell. Through its partnership with Alibaba and the Tmall platform, the company is learning a lot about things such as content optimization, testing strategies and mobile payments, he said.

In addition to providing learnings that could be applied in other markets, China remains a strategically important market for Bissell Homecare to capture sales and market share.

“We're the largest brand in the world by volume, and China has gone from being a very small floor care market to being the second largest in the world [behind only the U.S.],” said Bissell. “So, we've got to really crack this market in order to maintain our position in that category, and competition is fierce.”

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Published July 29, 2020