How Alibaba is mending its identity crisis

"If you don't define yourself, you're going to be defined by others," said Jim Wilkinson, Alibaba's SVP of international corporate affairs.

HANGZHOU, CHINA: What is Alibaba? This is the question the Chinese e-commerce giant is trying to answer on behalf of audiences outside of China, one year after launching the world’s largest IPO.

Although the Alibaba brand is a household name in the US, many fail to grasp the company’s true identity, which is why Alibaba Defined, an interactive, digital portal, was created. It launched on the company’s website on Thursday in conjunction with Alibaba’s annual report and shareholder meeting.

Aside from traditional annual report content, such as letters from executive chairman Jack Ma and CEO Daniel Zhang, the portal includes shareable content in the form of videos, charts, and infographics. Alibaba Defined provides visitors with a cultural and financial view of modern China and the future market opportunity there, along with insight into how entrepreneurs and consumers in China use Alibaba platforms.

A series of videos also explains that while Alibaba was founded in China, it was created for the world, outlining how the company is expanding its international operations by helping global companies and brands access China’s large and growing middle class.  

Alibaba’s head of corporate relations Erica Matthews told PRWeek that the company faces a unique communications challenge, as more than 90% of its business is in China, but 90% of the people who "decide the conversation" about Alibaba live in the West.

"The people who decide the conversation about us can’t use our products and services; most of them do not speak Chinese; and in the vast majority of cases, they have never even been to China," said Jim Wilkinson, Alibaba’s SVP of international corporate affairs. "And the consumer experience in China is so starkly different than in the US that it makes it hard for an influencer to gain context."

Wilkinson defines the "people who decide the conversation" as various stakeholders, including media, investors, and academics.

"We can’t bring every single influencer to China, so we have to do everything we can to bring Alibaba and China to them," Matthews explained. "This is why we created Alibaba Defined." 

Because the way consumers in China spend money and conduct their lives differs so greatly from those in the US, Alibaba Defined goes back to "first principles," showcasing the basics of the company’s ecosystem, Wilkinson said.

"People need to be able to relate to our products and services," he said. "We are going back to first principles telling our story, remembering our audience, and communicating directly to them, so that they understand a day in the life of a Chinese consumer."

Alibaba’s comms team has been decidedly more aggressive about sharing its corporate narrative, as media outlets, such as Barron’s, have reported inaccurate stories about the company.

"If you don’t define yourself, you’re going to be defined by others," Wilkinson said. "And it is much more fulfilling to define yourself than to live at the tender mercy of others."

Alibaba Defined will be a permanent link on the company’s corporate blog Alizila and will be updated quarterly with new content.

Some of Alibaba Group’s major businesses include China's largest online shopping destination Taobao Marketplace, China’s largest third-party platform for brands and retailers, online group buying marketplace Juhuasuan, travel booking platform Alitrip, and China’s largest global online wholesale platform for small businesses

More than 360 million yearly buyers use Alibaba’s products and services.

"Alibaba Group continues to break new ground, so we have to continue to break new ground in terms of how we tell our story," Wilkinson added.

When investor magazine Barron’s published a blog suggesting that Alibaba’s stock could fall by a further 50% last month, the company’s stock was $62.60 at the time of publishing. However, at the close of Thursday, Alibaba’s stock was $67.70.

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