• Zhihu offers brand owners verified official accounts for a fee
  • Many Western brands are yet to establish verified presence on the app
  • Infringement action and further marketing tools make Zhihu promising platform

Zhihu is a new social media platform making inroads on the Chinese market. Offering a direct-to-consumer channel of communication for users and brands alike, Zhihu could be an essential asset in a brand owner’s arsenal to establish a presence in China, although there are still doubts around the enforcement capabilities of the platform. WTR researched the app with the help of Clyde and Co’s China IP team, led by Elliot Papageorgiou.

Similar to the popular Quora app, Zhihu functions as a Q&A platform for its users and has been growing at an exponential rate since it launched in 2013. By the end of its first year, Zhihu was receiving 10 million monthly users. Between 2017 and 2018, the app increased its userbase by 95%, to 220 million registered users.

Since its inception, Zhihu has allowed NGOs, media brands, and government departments to register for accounts. As of 2018, more than 30,000 such enterprises have registered accounts. Over 20,000 of these accounts are “organisation accounts”. This means they have applied for and been granted a blue-tick verification for their account.

Of the top 10 brands in Interbrand’s global brand index, all appear to have accounts on Zhihu but many are yet to be verified, often with profiles registered under the Chinese brand name but no English presence. For example, brands including Amazon, McDonald’s and Unilever have official seeming accounts but no platform verification.

Additionally, there are disparate strategies adopted by brands. Unilever has an account (unverified), but none of its subsidiaries have registered for independent accounts. Comparatively, P&G does have a verified account, and many of its subsidiaries (eg, Crest and Olay) have unverified but official-looking accounts. Additionally, some brands have more than one verified organisation account. For instance, Airbnb has both Airbnb Design and Airbnb Technical, as well as a third unverified Airbnb account on Zhihu.

The verification process currently costs 300 RMB ($42.64). Given that the platform is already attracting attention from many major brands, applying for verification should be a logical step. “The cost benefit equation is clearly on the side of being involved at least with a basic offering,” Papageorgiou says. “Then the questions are, what to do with it, what is your strategy, and how much effort and resources do you invest in it?”

Dealing with multiple official channels and the way subsidiaries are represented should be an internal conversation, Papageorgiou continues. “If you have multiple legitimate claimants of official accounts within the company, then management might have to say ‘let’s unify and shut these down to have a single unified voice’. One question may arise: if there are two independent divisions within the same company, which of them would get first dibs? They would most likely have an internal resolution without public spat.”

As Zhihu is an app designed for user discussion, a large number of accounts incorporate brands into their usernames. However, if a brand owner comes across an account posing as an official account, Zhihu does have policies for the removal of anything that infringes on intellectual property. Regardless of whether the right holder owns a Zhihu account, infringement can be reported alongside proof of ownership (eg a trademark certificate) and Zhihu will then remove infringing links and malicious accounts within seven working days.

Despite the potential risk of infringement, our research did not find a worrying volume of fake accounts, links to counterfeit products or links to phishing sites. This does not mean that right owners shouldn’t be any less vigilant when monitoring this new platform. The value of an official account is nevertheless still in being able to ensure users are always directed to the correct links first, explains Papageorgiou. “If someone searches for you, then they are going to find the channel your brand wants them to. Without an official account, you might face the issue, not necessarily of fakes, but of parallel sellers, multiple claims of ‘original’ accounts, and the like.”

One of the benefits of an official account is that it can drive traffic from Zhihu back onto a brand owner’s own platform. For example, Olay has posted a question to women about what dreams they’d want to achieve and had celebrity Lin Chi-ling answer. The question alone received over five million views.

Another angle with which Zhihu may prove invaluable for brands is as an asset for proving the well-known status of marks in China. Papageorgiou notes: “If you want to prove later on to have a certain amount of trademark recognition in the country, if you have a certain amount of page views, you would do well to submit them as evidence of people being aware of and interested in you.”

For brands wanting to take their Zhihu outreach to another level, further marketing and business support is available. Since July 2019, Zhihu has offered stage 3.0 organisation accounts. With this, Zhihu provides channels for content-based, brand-based and sales-oriented organisations with more sophisticated operation support. Zhihu has also advertised that they issue incentive plans to support organisation users.

Although getting an official account costs 300 RMB, the upgrade to stage 3.0 is not advertised with a definite price and the benefits are unclear. “Compared to WeChat, Facebook and Instagram, the official account has a very modest fee,” notes Papageorgiou. “So, it is fair to ask, without being too cynical, whether there is a catch?”

It’s still early days for Zhihu and the adoption of official accounts is still on the low side. Therefore, it’s hard to say whether there will be an eventual price-hike, or if the app will implement a monetisation system that could determine outreach or search ranking. For the meantime though, basic official accounts are affordable and seemingly low-risk. “Once you have a number of peers on the app, for example Airbnb and BMW, you are in pretty good company. Would you not want to be seen among them?” Papageorgiou asks. “Can you afford to not be present?”

 This article first appeared in World Trademark Review. For further information please visit https://www.worldtrademarkreview.com/corporate/subscribe