Building a brand in China during the pandemic using Weibo and WeChat

London North Eastern Railway (LNER) is the train operating company for the train line running from London to Scotland. The route serves some of Britain’s most popular destinations for Chinese tourists and students, including York, Leeds, Durham and Edinburgh. China Travel Outbound is LNER’s retained agency in China, delivering sales representation, PR and social media services since 2018.

Whilst some brands closed down their international marketing activity in response to the coronavirus pandemic, this forward thinking company understood the importance of keeping a brand presence going in China throughout 2020. Although the Chinese were unable to travel internationally, they were still dreaming and planning their future trips, searching online for inspiration and engaging with brands through social media channels.

LNER’s Weibo account has now grown from a standing start to over 58,000 followers in less than two years, making it one of the biggest Chinese social media accounts for a British transportation company. During lockdown, there have been different messaging strategies adopted as we moved through the pandemic. When the virus broke in China, our messaging was of support for Wuhan and the people of China then, as things progressed, we moved on to brand stories around the work LNER was doing to support staff, travellers and key workers, and to image-led destination-driven posts to inspire future travel. As the rail network opened up, our content started to include safety information and advice on travelling in accordance with new guidelines. 

To drive more followers, we collaborated with our destination partners, running competitions and promotions on Weibo. We also engaged with relevant accounts, such as attractions and retailers, posting comments and thoughts, to further drive awareness of the LNER Weibo and encourage followers. 

In August 2020, we identified a Chinese Weibo user group with a high interest in British literature. We contacted the Chinese owners and offered them a promotion for their followers to win free tickets on LNER and a set of classic British novels with associations along the LNER line, for the competition winners to read on the train when they next come to the UK.

Results

During the pandemic, the number of followers rose by 12% from 52,000 in March 2020 to over 58,000 by the end of August and the account had 15.8 million views during that period.   The book promotion alone generated over half a million views, 654 reposts, 240 comments and 360 likes.

LNER further consolidated their online presence, launching an official WeChat account in August 2020, also managed by China Travel Outbound.

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