Ep. 77: The next thing in China ecommerce? Consumer to manufacturer (C2M)

In episode 77 of Tech Buzz China, co-hosts Rui Ma and Ying Lu tackle a topic that has become the next big thing in China ecommerce: C2M, or consumer to manufacturer. Although the acronym itself is not new, the term has been redefined within the past two years, driven by the choices of a handful of key founders and companies. Listen to learn about why Rui and Ying think this new iteration is at once innovative and transformational, why both factories and brands stand to benefit, and what this all means for the future of manufacturing and commerce — in China and globally.

Rui is still researching and writing on ByteDance for her ebook. You’ll want to get front-row updates on it and to her other work by subscribing to our newsletter, at techbuzzchina.com.

We have finished uploading all of our past episodes onto the new Tech Buzz China YouTube channel and putting them together into playlists by sector — check them out! As always, our past transcripts are viewable on our website, as well as at pandaily.com and supchina.com.

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Thank you to our ever-talented producers, Caiwei Chen and Kaiser Kuo, as well as to Jason MacRonald at SupChina.

Transcript

[00:00]Hey everyone, I know we promised an episode on China’s new digital currency this week, but there was a bit of a scheduling conflict with the expert we wanted to interview, so here we are with a different show, one also that we’ve been meaning to do, on the next big thing in China ecommerce, consumer to manufacturer, or C2M.

Actually it’s been around a while, but the last two years is really when the Chinese ecommerce giants started talking up the acronym, and also started really re-defining what it means, I think. And this new, second iteration of the term, we think, has some legs … maybe.

[00:44]Well, I think it’s definitely got potential, but there are plenty who disagree with me, so I’m curious what you think. But as far as 2020 buzzwords go, this is certainly one, and we’ll give you the background and the broader context as to why it’s taking off now. If I had to summarize? You’ve got factories, brands, consumers, and ecommerce platforms, and all of them have evolved significantly over the last decade, arriving at this current juncture where C2M is shaping up to be a win-win-win scenario. But it’s still pretty small, because anything that involves physical manufacturing just can’t be as fast as deploying code, although you’ll be surprised — code is actually a central piece of C2M.

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[02:29]Hi everyone! We are TechBuzz China by Pandaily, powered by the Sinica Podcast Network by SupChina! We are a biweekly podcast focused on giving you a peek into what’s buzzing within the tech community in China. We uncover and contextualize unique insights, perspectives and takeaways on headline tech news that don’t always make it into English language coverage. So you can be smarter about the world of China tech.

Tech Buzz China is a part of Pandaily.com, an English language site that tells you “everything about China’s innovation.” I’m one of your two co-hosts, Ying Lu.

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[03:48]What is C2M? Well, the C stands for what you would expect, which is consumer, and the M stands for manufacturer. Or manufacturing, or sometimes, some publications refer to it as “manufactory,” which is apparently an old way of saying “factory.” But I think you get the point. However, what does this actually mean? Usually the “2” refers to the sales process, like B2C, B2B, etc. Are consumers somehow selling to manufacturers now? Are we supplying factories with raw supplies?

Obviously not. Consumers are still the buyers, and consuming. So this acronym is kind of marketing spin, and not really all that accurate. But it’s not completely off base either. The idea is basically that consumers do have something to offer manufacturers that is very valuable and that manufacturers haven’t really gotten great access to in the past, and that is, ourselves. Which is really just basic information on who we are, and what we like to buy. Our preferences.

[04:59]Wait a minute, you’re probably thinking the same as I did when I heard this. What do you mean that manufacturers don’t know consumer preferences? How is anything made, then? Don’t the brands do a ton of market research, prototype testing, you know, the stuff that I paid six figures and went to business school to learn about?

All that is absolutely correct, but let’s separate the brand, with its teams of designers and marketers, from the actual manufacturer, who may know a lot less about what consumers want. So there are really multiple things at play here. Suppose you’re an entrepreneur, and you’ve done a Kickstarter campaign and verified that there are people out there who want to purchase your newly designed product. For most products, even really simple ones, it will probably take you at least 18 months to get from something drawn out on paper to an actually shipped product, and very often, you’ll probably find yourself making it in China. With a Chinese manufacturer.

OK, yes, that’s true. And actually when I did investing in China I visited a few factories and talked to a bunch of supply chain consultants to understand just how difficult it would be to make a new wearable, for example, and that sounds about right. If I recall correctly from what I wrote for TechCrunch a long ago on the topic… you can compress it to 12-14 months, but that’s if your product is simple, you’re very very lucky, and nothing goes wrong at all.

[06:28]Right. And as you wrote in your article, a lot of things can and do go wrong. Not to mention, can you even find a manufacturer in the first place? You might think that your few hundred or even thousand pre-orders are signs of the next consumer hit, but most likely, you will fail, and the best manufacturers don’t want to work with your unproven notions. So you’ll probably end up working with someone who isn’t that great but who’s a little bit desperate, and so willing to take a chance on something new, but might not be able to deliver the superior quality you want, which then further decreases your chances of success.

And that, my friends, is just one of the reasons why the old ways of manufacturing were so inefficient. There are a myriad others. But a lot of the inefficiencies stem from the fact that you have these separate pockets of expertise right? You have the consumers who know what they want — well not all of the time, but some of the time — you have the manufacturers who know how to make things when provided with specifications, and you have the brand who owns the customer relationship, comes up with the specifications, and then executes on the actual selling of the product, more or less, maybe directly through the internet, like in D2C direct-to-consumer brands, or through other channels, like department stores, or whatever.

[07:50]And to simplify, you can think of it as in the beginning there was this clear delineation between manufacturers and brands, where manufacturers are almost seen as super clueless about what consumers want, because they just did what they were told by the brands. For the most part, they were OEMs, which stands for original equipment manufacturers, and they are a type of contract manufacturer. OEMs basically take orders from their clients on exactly what to make. So, for example, Foxconn is an OEM for Apple. Apple designs everything, and Foxconn just makes it.

But in many industries as OEMs accumulated more experience they started to transition into ODMs, which stands for original design manufacturer. That is, they started designing and manufacturing the products, so that brands could go to them, give them some criteria, yes, but not an actual design, and the ODM would draw it up and make it. This is advantageous because they are obviously going to design things that they are confident their factories can make, and also since they’re probably making the same type of thing for multiple brands, they can get quite good at the design part, to the point where you could just really slap on your logo if you’re a brand if you work with really good ODMs. OK, slight exaggeration, but you get our point.

So technically, if you were working with an ODM, and you were doing something they already know how to make pretty well, then this could be a pretty fast process. A lot of private labels and niche brands work this way, for example. Say you are a DJ and you thought you could sell your own wireless headphones. Well, assuming you had a great marketing plan, a ready customer base, and a few criteria you knew for sure your fans wanted, you could go to an experienced headphone ODM and give them that list of criteria and a budget and they could design and make everything for you. You don’t need to know how to do any of this yourself.

[09:49]But then of course, the natural next step is, if I’m doing all the design, and all the manufacturing, then why am I not also the brand? Why’s someone else getting all that markup? Well, of course, when it comes to traditional retail, branding and selling is a pretty different skill set from simply making things, even if you’re also designing those things, so even though lots of ODMs could see the much fatter margins in branded goods, they couldn’t really act on it. Or sometimes they did, but would fail pretty miserably.

But then came e-commerce and platforms like Amazon, which just made it so much easier to sell anything, even unbranded goods. You did need to have the right product specs, but as for the brand, it wouldn’t be anything you’ve heard of, because it would just be something the ODM made up. Maybe the factory’s own name, or maybe some unpronounceable, made-up word.

So there are significant economic incentives to creating and selling under your own brand, rather than just being the manufacturer. But it wasn’t just greed that pushed more and more ODMs to want to connect with consumers directly. The Chinese government also pushed hard for the entire industry to move up the value chain. Especially local governments looking to make their economies more resilient, they really pushed for businesses to create their own brands, and had all these initiatives to encourage or sometimes even mandate businesses to do so.

[11:17]And they had really good reasons for doing so. So much of the news on China’s economy in the last ten years, and even now, was about how it’s slowing down. The global economy was taking its sweet time to recover from the Great Financial Crisis of 2009, the Chinese currency was appreciating, labor costs were increasing, the country had overproduced in some sectors, etc. The end result being, everyone was like, if we don’t shift more to internal consumption, we are really screwed. I mean, it’s really still the same today.

Yeah, I remember very distinctly from 2012 or so onwards when more and more people I knew in manufacturing were moving out of China in one way or another. And 2015 in particular, that year is generally considered a “winter” for Chinese manufacturing, with bankruptcies all over the country. I know it doesn’t feel that way for those of us working in tech, since those were boom years whether you were in the US or China, but you only have to read some macroeconomic summaries from 2015 to know that it was actually kind of bleak for most of the rest of the world.

But what about those who stayed? Well, it depended on who you were. Let’s suppose you were a more established factory with a pretty fancy clientele, but said clientele weren’t buying as much, or at least not growing as much, as in past years, and you were being squeezed by rising costs and declining orders. Well, because you had become this very professional ODM over the years, you could pretty easily go from exporting overseas to selling domestically.

[12:58]And Chinese internet companies saw the opportunity to do just that. If you guys remember Tech Buzz Episode 53, which was on NetEase, 网易严选 Wangyi Yanxuan is an ecommerce site that they launched in April 2016, and the way it branded itself was that, hey, this is our private label, but since we work with ODMs that service the big multinational brands in the world, you can kind of think of shopping with us as getting the big brand quality without paying for the big brand markup.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t C2M. The ODMs are still working with a brand, Yanxuan, even if that brand’s whole schtick is that it “isn’t a brand.” Sort of along the same line as AmazonBasics but leaning a lot harder into the ODM’s credentials. Anyway, the end result was that this wasn’t just for the bargain hunters. Even urban, hip consumers were totally buying into this. You just had to have the right merchandise, which in Yanxuan’s case, were elegantly designed home goods and small consumer electronics in the style of Japan’s MUJI.

What though, if you actually completed the chain, were a platform instead of a private label brand, and did allow ODMs to market their own brands, alongside whatever credentials they have of making stuff for other people? Then you have — voila! Biyao Shangcheng 必要商城.We’re guessing you’ve never heard of this Chinese e-commerce company, but the name means “Must-have Marketplace.”

[14:34]Well you probably haven’t heard of it because it’s not that popular, and there isn’t a ton of data on it. 3rd party analytics tell us that it’s been downloaded 150mm times, but that its ranking is barely in the top 150 apps overall. But it is interesting because it is, by its own proclamation anyway, the first C2M company, because C2M the word was coined by its founder.

So Biyao is founded earlier than Yanxuan, in 2014, by this ex-Baidu marketing director and CEO assistant named Bi Sheng 毕胜. CEO assistant is actually like a big role in China, and so of course when he left and founded his own vertical ecommerce startup, he had no trouble raising money*. But despite several pivots, from toys to shoes and then to making their own brands, the company, which was called 乐淘 Letao, failed.

Even before he failed though, Bi Sheng was experimenting with a C2M business, which he defined as cutting out the middlemen and letting the factories sell direct to the consumer. What he was really selling was the combination of made-to-order and direct-from-manufacturer. Anyway, as we now know, his initial attempt failed, maybe because he was doing everything from downtown Beijing, very far away from the factories. For Biyao, however, he moved to Zhuhai in Guangdong province, part of the Pearl River Delta manufacturing hub, and the venture was successful.

[16:04]As far as we can tell, anyway. The company is very secretive, maybe because his last failure was so public. It has never disclosed its investors nor valuation, although government databases show that a bunch of local VC and PE funds have put in money, after it was self-funded for the first two years. As for how well it’s doing … it supposedly reached about half a billion dollars of sales last year and is rumored to have been profitable since 2016. If that’s really true, then all the outside money came in after it reached profitability, which would indeed be rare, not just in China, but anywhere, really.

Biyao’s business model is simple, it takes 2-15% of each sale made. By default, products are ranked by user reviews, so you can’t “jump the queue” just by paying more for marketing. And prices are kept low by having an agreement with manufacturers that they cannot charge prices that are more than 15% above their cost. What makes it different from other companies though is how high the bar is for the manufacturers on its platform.

Right. For example, after two years, it only had 15 manufacturers on its platform, since they had to be already working with big international brands and designers in order to be even considered. Additionally, these manufacturers have to maintain a sub-7% return rate, and sub-1% bad rating rate, or else they would be kicked off.

Sounds like it should be an amazing deal for consumers right? I mean, it kind of is. If you go to Biyao’s website, you can find lip balm from the same supplier to DIOR for $12, versus $34 on Sephora USA. That’s 65% cheaper already. But it’s even cheaper if you compare it to the product’s retail price in China, which is closer to $46. That’s because a lot of the foreign brands have additional markups in China due to tariffs and whatnot. Even if they’re actually manufactured in the country.

[18:11]That’s a big selling point. But upon closer inspection, I’m not sure this narrative is airtight. The app does have a pretty good rating on appstores, but if you look elsewhere, there are lots of complaints as well. Zhihu, or China’s Quora, for example, is full of threads about how the company seeks to delete bad reviews. Which isn’t an uncommon tactic, so without ever having bought from them, it’s really hard for me to say whether or not it’s as good as it claims. Plus, I did also think some of the requirements didn’t even make sense. I mean, gross profit can’t be over 15%? Do they mean net? Because gross profit is supposed to be 25-30% for most factories for them to stay afloat.

Well, what we do know is that it’s become much more well known over the last two years. They got a great endorsement from a famous business writer, and also were in the news for their beat Costco campaign. Remember last year when Costco opened its first Chinese storefront in Shanghai to great fanfare? Well, they did a big promotion where if you could find anything in Costco that cost less than it did on Biyao, then you could get 10 times the difference in price as compensation.

Honestly though, is Biyao really that sexy? It sounds like they found manufacturers who were already pretty advanced in terms of flexible manufacturing, and then just packaged them into this clean interface to sell their stuff on-demand. This is more a validation of just-in-time manufacturing. How much is the ability to be directly connected with consumers actually changing these factories’ businesses? Other than having a different end customer and higher margins, what else is happening?

[20:03]Well, Biyao of course will tell you that this is absolutely revolutionary to the manufacturers. If you think about it, the factories had very little direct information about their products. Their decisions on what to make are based on what the brands were willing to buy in bulk a few times a year. But now Biyao’s systems are fully plugged into the factory’s Enterprise Resource Planning systems, so now they could allocate their resources super efficiently in real time.

That might be true, but as we can see from Biyao’s sales, this just isn’t that big yet, because this still sounds like a version of removing the middleman and doing just in time manufacturing, which sure, makes sense for some products, but it’s not actually fundamentally a new way of consumption. So even though Bi Sheng came up with the phrase C2M, I think he missed the real opportunity, which is to use this valuable consumer data to predict and shape new products.

So, not customization, but new product creation. Which is where China e-commerce is at today. All of the major platforms — Alibaba and Pinduoduo of course, but also Suning and JD, have announced some version of using data to aggregate demand and help create “new brands” or at least new products.

[21:21]My favorite example comes from Alibaba’s website earlier this year in response to Covid-19. Basically, Alibaba saw that consumers were searching for alcohol-based car cleaning supplies and unable to find them. So the C2M product specialists found a reputable manufacturer, went to them, and said, hey guys, based on the data we have, you should make 75% alcohol sprays in plastic bottles for car surfaces. And oh yeah, we can help you organize a crowdfunding campaign even before you kick off production.

The manufacturer, armed with all this data, was confident and knew exactly what to make, and thanks to the pre-orders, probably got a good idea of how much to make too. So they redid their production lines in three days and started getting products out the door. This really is a pretty good story of what C2M can achieve, at its highest level.

Well, it’s what all of the platforms are claiming to try to do. I mean, it makes sense in a way, because this is a way to get more merchants right? Saturated the brands? Well, go to the suppliers! Use all your data to help factories launch new products that you already know will sell well. What’s not to like about that?

Nothing really, and in a way, it’s an extension of what Pinduoduo has been doing for a while. Remember, Pinduoduo grew so fast precisely because it was very good at recommending really cheap but extremely popular “hit products” known as 爆款, to its consumers, easily hitting the order minimums that made it economical for the suppliers to make the product in the first place. In case it wasn’t clear, much like ByteDance’s TikTok, Pinduoduo has a feed that recommends items for you to buy, an “inverse of search” of sorts where the product finds you versus you go and look for the product.

[23:20]Upending search… certainly a common theme in many of the Chinese products out in the last decade. Anyway, Pinduoduo has formalized this in their 2018 New Brand Initiative, which promised to transform 1000 OEMs into OBMs, which is their new word for Original Brand Manufacturer. The sales pitch is this: we have a ton of customers and a ton of data on what they like to buy, meet our quality standards and we’ll help you design and sell a new product under your own brand.

So for example, the case study they highlight, this company called Jiaweishi 佳维视, which already makes stuff for Bissell, Honeywell, etc. Pinduoduo accepts them into the program, helps them design a robot vacuum cleaner, and in order to build up consumer trust, the factory has to livestream its manufacturing process. And because Pinduoduo is throwing traffic at this product, and is basically endorsing its legitimacy, the company is able to sell a hundred thousand units in their first few months.

So the corporate case study claims that even the robot vacuum’s pathing was improved by Pinduoduo’s R&D team, which sounds unscalable and also probably not even good business practice. But in other examples, Pinduoduo has apparently been able to help with identifying the right price point and designing the packaging. That makes much more sense to me. The company is basically a marketing platform, after all, and aggregating demand is their bread and butter.

[24:58]So these are the two main ways C2M has developed in China, and if you ask us, the second one, where you’re actually able to use timely consumer data, maybe even in real time, to inform suppliers what to make, how to price, and who will buy their product… well then, isn’t that kind of taking over a lot of the know-how of a brand already? Just not the actual brand itself?

I think so, too, and that’s what’s exciting about this whole trend. But this is not to say that brands are useless. There’s still a ton of value in the story and the emotional attachment people have to the brand. It’s more that with the greater availability of consumer data being collected by these ecommerce marketplaces, brands should probably figure out a way to leverage this too, because their suppliers certainly aren’t holding back.

And some brands are. Jing Daily, which probably had the best article we’ve read on C2M, noted that the Italian designer Sergio Rossi worked with JD.com and leveraged the company’s data to design a new product, a short logo boot, which encapsulated two design criteria that are popular with JD’s customers. For those of you unfamiliar with the brand, their boots usually cost $800 to $1500 a pair, so this is like a real luxury shoe here.

And even those brands who manufacture their own goods, like Bosideng, are getting in on the action. You can find them on the Taobao Special Offer app, which is Alibaba’s newly-launched C2M platform connecting factories directly to consumers. Available since March of this year, the goal is to help factories in their digital transformation. And of course, beat Pinduoduo at their own game with incredibly low priced goods directly from the supplier.

[26:51]Although the listings do say 厂货 or “factory goods,” unlike Biyao, and the older versions of Yanxuan, there isn’t any discussion on which name brands these factories already work with. All you know is that it’s factory-direct, and thus will save you money. As for the quality… I guess you can read the user reviews, but mostly, you’re going to have to trust Alibaba’s selection process.

Yeah, C2M’s data play is still pretty new, because the main value proposition so far, to the consumer anyway, is still price, and that doesn’t always make sense for the manufacturer. I asked my friend Ben Yeung, COO at Fujikon, a publicly listed ODM/OEM about this, and I couldn’t get him on audio, but he sent over a few quotes which I’ll paraphrase here. Basically, he thinks it might work, but it’s going to have to be pretty commoditized, simple-to-make products where users don’t care too much about the branding.

And where the user experience is really simple. We sent him that Alibaba story about the disinfectant, but as a mature consumer electronics ODM, he was not impressed. I quote “consumers are more discerning and care about the brand, hardware look/feel, software UI and UX, quality, etc. that the brand carries, not what the product does alone.”

[28:18]Definitely the more complex the product, the less value is provided from the purchase and search data from the ecommerce platforms. But even on the manufacturing side, Ben is pretty skeptical. Because factories also have to buy raw materials and components right? If products really are either made-to-order or changing constantly, the demand and the logistical challenge of just managing the incoming parts for the factory, well… that goes up exponentially, and it’s very complicated.

Which explains why most complicated things are still made the way they are, infrequent new product launches made in large batches. Sure you can adapt to changing consumer needs if you’re making a cleaning fluid, but if you’re making a smartphone? Or even wireless headphones like Fujikon is really good at making? Probably not happening.

So, to wrap up, C2M stands for consumer-to-manufacturer, and was initially proposed by this entrepreneur named Bi Sheng in China, founder of Biyao Marketplace, as a way to cut out the middleman, the brands, the retailers, etc. and directly connect the factories with the end user, and make everything on demand, as it’s ordered. This requires the factories’ ERP, or enterprise resource planning systems, to be connected with Biyao’s systems.

However, in recent years, C2M has taken on a new definition, as popularized by large ecommerce marketplaces such as Pinduoduo and Alibaba. In this iteration of C2M, yes the factories are also connected to the ecommerce giants, but instead of just order data, the ecommerce players are providing the factories with customer preferences and ideas for new products.

[30:17]Not just details on what to make, by the way, but how much to sell it at, what it should be packaged in, how many to make and probably who will buy it as well, which they can use crowdfunding campaigns to pre-sell, and even, as some have promised, financial assistance as well. That makes sense, right? If I’m a platform that’s so sure about the quality of my data on what to make and how much to make, why wouldn’t I also fund part of this business? Seems pretty intuitive!

And as we said, not just factories can benefit from this, but brands themselves as well. What’s kind of alarming though, is just how much power the platforms have, by virtue of their ownership of all this transactional data. Yeah, you could be like Amazon and start going deep into private label land, or I guess the alternative is you can start a whole new business line digitizing factories for C2M.

I’d guess that eventually, building a C2M platform might be a bigger business than just making your own brand like Amazon, but as of right now, C2M is still pretty small. Even the most generous estimate I saw placed at just $2.5Bn in 2018, with the expectation that it will be at $6Bn by 2022. That’s in comparison to over a trillion dollars in total retail e-commerce in China 2018, so C2M wasn’t even 1%.

And e-commerce as a whole has been growing, at more than 25% in the past couple of years. But Covid might have accelerated C2M by a lot, so you never know. Recall our alcohol-based car cleaning spray example. A decrease in exports and rapid shifts in consumer needs just make data-driven manufacturing that much more interesting.

[32:07]That and the government’s efforts into upgrading the entire manufacturing supply chain. Even so, it will take some time. We are talking about integrating enterprise software here and managing real, physical supply chains, not just launching a new selfie app. But even though it’s a long process, as with any interesting idea, those with fingers on the pulse of global innovation are going to try to export the model to everywhere they can. Back in 2018, for example, I already heard of an American startup trying a variation of C2M, focusing on the cutting-out-middlemen part.

The startup’s called Italic, and it’s one of a handful of U.S. companies that are very similar to Netease Yanxuan, where you can buy “unbranded” goods directly from the suppliers to well-known brands. The twist is that you have to purchase a membership in order to take advantage of the deals, Costco-style. What’s probably unsurprising is that the founder is a Chinese-American whose family business is in manufacturing and he probably saw the opportunity before many others did.

Maybe the completely customized, made-to-order clothing and other goods that brands have been talking about for ages can finally be realized soon as factories get more and more high tech. More complex goods like consumer electronics though? We’re probably stuck with what Ben calls late-stage customization like getting your name engraved or something for now. Anyway, if we define C2M as representing agile manufacturing and data-driven product launches, I am a fan. More efficiency, less waste, is always the way to go. What do you think? Let us know!

[33:58]Thanks for listening and don’t forget to write us that review for your free Extra Buzz subscription. Have any questions or suggestions? Email us! We really enjoyed putting this together, and we’re always open to any comments or suggestions. You can find us on Twitter at thepandaily, at techbuzzchina, and my personal Twitter account is YINGLU2020.

And my Twitter is spelled RUIMA. Tech Buzz China by Pandaily is powered by the Sinica Podcast Network on SupChina. Pandaily.com is an English language site that tells you “everything about China’s innovation.” Our producers are Caiwei Chen and Kaiser Kuo. Thank you for listening!