Check out the headline in The Wall Street Journal last month.
“Apple Teams with Jack Ma”
The headline didn’t say “Apple Teams with Alibaba.”
Why? And don’t say because the word “Alibaba” wouldn’t fit in the space for the headline. It turns out that both words take up seven characters.
I think it’s because the name recognition of Jack Ma is higher than Alibaba in the U.S. Ma has understood since founding Alibaba that his public profile could humanize the company and its brand, a stark contrast to how CEOs in Asia often view communications as a low priority — much less open up.
The following chart looks at the number of stories in the U.S. Factiva database that included Jack Ma as well as Hiroshi Mikitani, CEO of Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce giant, and Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart. I did not have our research department pull up the numbers on Jeff Bezos; he’s in a category by himself.
Walmart’s revenue tipped the $500 billion mark last year. Alibaba generated a “paltry” $40 billion, while Rakuten rang up just north of $9 billion.
Given Rakuten’s push the past few years to internationalize its brand — wrote a sizable check to the Golden State Warriors for the lead sponsorship — you would have thought its CEO would surface more in the U.S. media.
But the real takeaway from this data analytics exercise is that Jack Ma is crushing the Walmart CEO, running a company more than 10 times bigger, on its home court. This one surprised me. While I knew Ma enjoys a high profile, I had no idea he makes the Walmart CEO look like product manager toiling in relative obscurity. Given that Walmart continues to bang the tambourine for its digital transformation and McMillon himself continually refers to Walmart as a “technology company,” I would think he would be more visible.
Back to the topic at hand —
At a time when the U.S. is leery of Chinese companies and President Trump has framed the trade war as a zero sum game, Alibaba manages to avoid much of the negative rhetoric. Americans personify Alibaba as Jack Ma, who seems like a decent and affable fellow (as portrayed in the U.S. media).
This article in an international media property, CNBC, symbolizes the Jack Ma narrative and how his personal halo envelopes the company.
Before founding Alibaba, Jack Ma was an English teacher. Now that he’s stepping down as chairman of the company, he plans to return to his teaching roots — only this time he’ll be paying it forward and helping would-be entrepreneurs. The “helping others” story plays everywhere, not just the West.
None of this materialized through happenstance. From the beginning, Ma recognized that by opening up he would help the outside world get to know him, and in doing so, know Alibaba.
Side note: Recent perspectives on China include Huawei, a company that has taken a very different approach to building its public profile in the West.