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Chinese automakers, Facebook, and how to cunningly ensnare the world

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Don’t Drink And Write

I joined the social-media platform Facebook in 2007. Back then, it was nothing more than a fun, harmless way to connect with friends and relatives online. Remember when someone would “poke” you and you’d poke the person back? Or when you’d get a friend request from a high school classmate you hadn’t seen in two decades? Or even that time when you stalked an ex-girlfriend, only to discover from her photo albums that she had been happily married for years?

You can still do these things on Facebook if you’re so inclined, but Mark Zuckerberg’s social network service is now so much more than just people foolishly messing about with each other. Today, Facebook is a dominant force in business, politics, entertainment, sports and media. No enterprising company, politician, celebrity, athlete or publisher these days is without a carefully managed Facebook brand page. The platform has enabled everyone to efficiently engage customers, constituents, fans and audiences. One’s constant presence in the virtual world does wonders for the bottom line or career longevity, and Facebook is just the social network to make a name, a product or a story trend.

As fans multiplied and online traffic increased, personalities and companies got hooked. It was just like opium. Everyone began hiring dedicated social media managers just to help with the curation of content and the supervision of client interaction. Facebook was no longer just a tool for reconnecting with long-lost relatives and old flames — it had become a serious business instrument that could help any entity monetize fame and influence.

Among publishers, the likes of Vanity Fair and The New York Times regularly shared their content on their Facebook pages, because doing so drove so much traffic to their respective Web sites. The more likes and comments their posts got, the more clout they seemed to wield — and the more attractive they became to advertisers, of course.

Alas, this wasn’t going to be forever. At some point, Facebook decided it wanted a cut from the free-flowing profits. So it radically changed its algorithm such that a brand page’s post wouldn’t be served to a lot of people if the brand didn’t pay up. And now, most brands and even celebrities around the world allot a portion of their marketing budget to Facebook just to continue being visible, viral and relevant.

In short, Facebook brilliantly gave them an addictive (and initially free) taste of popularity, reach and revenue from their pages. Then, when everyone was hooked, the social-media giant moved in for the kill and threatened to stop the supply of likes, shares and comments if they didn’t spend on their posts.

In the auto industry, a similar thing is happening.

Also in 2007, I became more aware of Chinese car brands I hadn’t previously encountered. Nobody took them seriously. I remember colleagues test-driving a Chinese vehicle and having the engine die on them in the middle of traffic — or grabbing a door handle and literally ripping the damn thing off. A little more than a decade ago, one thing was clear to all of us: The Chinese didn’t know how to make cars. They blatantly copied the exterior designs of Western manufacturers, and their build quality was practically nonexistent. The Americans, the Europeans and their fellow Asians were all laughing at them. Heck, if Filipino buyers are ridiculing your products, you must be pretty bad.

Fast-forward to the present: The founder of Chinese car company Geely, Li Shufu, is now the biggest shareholder of Germany’s Daimler AG, which owns some Teutonic brand called Mercedes-Benz. The executive is said to have paid $9 billion for 9.7% of Daimler.

Geely, in case you’re not aware, is already the owner of Sweden’s Volvo and the UK’s Lotus.

And now there are talks of the Germans being fearful of their automotive technologies getting pirated by the Chinese for the latter’s own vehicles. Which, based solely on Chinese manufacturers’ track record, is highly likely.

How did we get to this point? Why is China all of a sudden the force to reckon with in the industry? Weren’t we all mocking their cars just 10 years ago?

Well, the established brands have no one else to blame but themselves. They rushed to the Chinese market for the promise of huge sales volumes. They put up manufacturing and R&D facilities in the country for the chance to sell to a newly motorized market. They formed partnerships and agreed to technology-transfer alliances in exchange for a stronger foothold in the republic.

In the same way that Facebook lured businesses and content producers into fostering a presence on its burgeoning social network, China convinced car industry veterans to pour resources into its territory. Facebook provided millions of likes; China delivered millions of customers.

What was there to lose? After all, the Chinese were mere plagiarists that truly sucked at car manufacture. Right?

Not really. Because now the Chinese are gobbling up Western car brands left and right. I’ve seen this before. And no, I’m not referring to Facebook. I’m referring to Puss In Boots and his innocent smile. That devious cat can savagely chop off your head with his sword, you know.