Communicating freely

Thoughts on how we can all talk a little easier, and how that can make life better.

Marketing shrewdly

I’ve been thinking about marketing a lot lately.  I’m involved in the Irish Free Software market at the moment and there is a real need to get increased publicity in the field.  Most people in Ireland have little awareness of Free Software, and the penetration of the technology into business is miserable.  My mind has been filled with questions like “how do we engage our audiences?” and “how do we raise our profile in this market?”

I was downloading my email one day and a message appeared with the subject "I am Ling  Chinese Human Female UK Car Expert."  I assumed it was spam until I noticed that underneath the lunacy there was a serious business ticking.  It seems that Ling helps businesses and individuals lease cars.  She’s also the only Chinese person doing this in the UK.

I have to admit that I was curious.  Ling’s marketing approach was quite unusual.  She embraced stereotypes applied to the Chinese and turned them into a wry marketing tool.  To call her approach over-the-top might be an understatement.  She certainly has the ability to cause controversy.

I decided to investigate further.  It was time to contact Ling and find out more about her business, her philosophy, and the nuclear missile truck she parked on the A1.

Q: Ling, who are you and why did you email me?

A: That WAS a kind of spam email! Just directed at UK businesses. You must be a successful business to be on my list! I am Ling, as in “clever”, in Chinese. I am a (the only?) UK new-car sales female Chinese whirlwind expert. I live in Gateshead, I run and I contract-hire or long-term rent new cars online. I sold over £10m of cars in 2005, but this year is running at an 80% growth so far. You want new car? You talk to me online. You have got to pass finance, so no cockle-pickers, please.

Q: You studied in Finland in 1997, got married and came to England. How on Earth did you end up running a business?

A: Well, hehe, Helsinki University was free, and it was an escape route from the trap of China. Chinese ARE good at running businesses. It’s a shame that most are bloody terrible take-aways. I often ask my customers if they want boiled or fried rice with their car… they always laugh. If they moan at me, I send them Chinese Heinz baby food. I learnt from two people, my husband Jon (who I met online in 1997) and a guy called Mike Porritt who runs CarShock. Both are white, middle-aged EBIs (English Born Idiots).

Q: I confess that the slight insanity of your email encouraged me to visit your website. Once there I discovered a series of videos you have made with your ‘red guard’ friend to compete with the Top Gear TV show. You guys test a bunch of cars and give your opinions. How did this come about?

A: Only slight insanity? That’s my sister Shan in the movies! She really WAS a red guard back in the early 1970’s – kicking teachers, stoning doctors, denouncing capitalist-roaders and ruining innocent peoples’ lives, that sort of fun stuff. She’s in the UK at the moment on holiday from Chengdu, so I roped her in. She brought a Chinese PLA uniform and her red-guard armband from 1970. I think she does a fantastic job of imitating Jeremy Clarkson in my ChopGear series. In one, she even sees how many Chinese takeaways you can load into a BMW 7-series! There’s more to come. Good job she has grown out of kicking people to death, huh?

Q: Do people ever suggest that you are playing to British stereotypes of the Chinese? I mean, do you ever run into problems with the BBC (British Born Chinese) regarding your light-hearted and rather self-depreciating approach to your culture and country?

A: I generally find that Chinese do this stereotype thing to themselves, very well. It is as if they are “owned” by a Chinese-ness and they subjugate themselves to it. In my view, the UK Chinese community is very backward, quiet and timid even. They cluster in communities, almost ghettos. A bit like the Amish, or the Orthodox Jews. Is there inbreeding? Why not assimilate? I prefer KFC (Kentucky Fried Chinese) to BBC. It’s still yellow, but tastier. What is all this BBC rubbish, anyway? Do we have British Born French? Or British Born South Africans? What a bloody chip (or prawn cracker) on the Chinese communities shoulder to think they need to classify themselves. Why not break free of this shit. I am just human, born in China with slanty eyes and a shit Government. Bollocks to what others think. Many Chinese send me stupid “loss of face” emails when I pull a Chinese-piss-take stunt. All I can say to them is… bollocks. Crawl out of your Chinatown ghetto and face the UK on equal terms!

Q: On your website it says you bring a free lunch to people. Can you tell me more about that? What’s this choice I see with the dessert?

A: Yes! I thought I would take the piss out of Chinese takeaway stereotypes (they deserve it), so I send out fast noodles, chopsticks, dessert and (real Chinese branded) Nescafe. I supply dried plum dessert for constipated British people. I specially chose FUKU brand noodles (geddit?), and I tell the people who apply for them that the MSG and Chinese “C” numbers will poison them. Probably true, eh? It is a very cheap and unique marketing stunt. Customers seem to like to be tortured. Not one person has ever complained (except some Chinese).

Q: Do you really send polo mints to people who ask you for a quote?

A: Chinese Polo mints, and Cola flavoured Polos too. My sis buys them in China and posts them over. My customers just LOVE these individually wrapped Polos, as they think they are a British sweet. People pass them around, in their Chinese wrappings. I also send out RMB notes, everyone adores them, as they are not available here. They have a picture of Mao with the big spot on his chin. Not many current banknotes have an image of a killer in the league of Stalin, Hitler, Idi Amin or (lately) Saddam or Mugabe. Very popular!

Q: In your email to me there is a picture of you with what appears to be a mobile missile launching truck. Can you tell me a little bit more about this rather bizarre image?

A: Ah, yes. I own a Chinese Peoples Liberation Army nuclear missile truck, complete with missile. It is always pointed west, towards America! It does not have the range to reach Taiwan, you see (like most other Chinese missiles, hehe). I painted my website and face on it. For fun, I parked it next to the A1 in Tony Blair’s constituency of Sedgefield. Bloody 2-shags Prescott made me move it in the end, after 1-year of wrangling. I made the truck from a real 1970 nuclear decontamination truck. It has been in lots of newspapers including the Financial Times and Daily Telegraph, and on the BBC. It is fantastic. My baby. I also have a 1966 London bus and a 1976 Beijing Jeep. Oh, and a Land Rover and a BMW RT bike.

Q: You’re clearly a driven person (no pun intended) and you have goals. Where do you want to be in five years?

A: Oh, retired on a beach! My business is cumulative – most people come back after 2 years for another car, so my growth is fantastic. Everyone else selling brand new cars in the UK is so boring and conventional. I fight them like mad. Mazda banned me from selling their cars, but they gave in, in the end! No one, especially not a trumped-up employee Managing Director of a Japanese company dictates my actions. Like I said at first, I am Ling! And frankly, if the Chinese “community” don’t like me, or if some traditional old Chinese crow moans at me, I don’t care! I’ll sell my cheap new cars to some other race.

She’s a little bit like a tornado, don’t you think?  But she does get her message across, she does make money, and she does a lot of repeat business.  In short, Ling is an excellent marketeer.  She’s engaging her audience with enough controversy to garner attention and enough likeability to have a growing customer-base.  That strikes me as very shrewd.  

What Ling does is not an accident.  She’s fostering a very well-constructed brand.  This brand is built on a careful analysis of her market and a careful analysis of her own abilities, aims and aspirations.  It sounds like she also has fun along the way.

Perhaps Free Software advocates can learn from Ling.

Sometimes we may be too busy thinking about what we want instead of what is actually happening.  Sometimes we may be preaching when we should be marketing.  Perhaps we need to look at our brand in a more objective way, and to construct our own marketing techniques based on an analysis of our market and of ourselves.  We have this fantastic technology and this fantastic method of ensuring that everyone can always access it.  I believe we should ‘sell’ it more.

On a final note, I want to make it very clear that I’m not suggesting that Free Software advocates should start investing in nuclear missile trucks.  I don’t think we have the budget for that and I’m not sure that it would be the right move politically.