In last year’s global blockbuster Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, an ostensibly Chinese character, Jerry “Deep” Wang, played by American comedian Ken Jeong, barks at Shia LaBeouf “Let me finish my Shuhao milk!”. The line represented a major watershed for the appearance of major Chinese brands in global popular culture. Reportedly Yili, the dairy giant that produces Shuhao products, originally wanted director Michael Bay to have popular Transformer Bumblebee drink Shuhao before “transforming”—a step too far even for the imaginative Bay.
More abruptly, Amoi, a mobile technology brand based in Southern China, reportedly paid Leonardo DiCarprio US$5 million to feature in an ad campaign. Built on DiCaprio’s character in Inception, the ad focused on a scenario where Amoi’s navigational technologies are used to track down a mysterious woman in Paris.
Recent data provided by WPP’s Global BrandZ study showed that 13 of the top 100 brands are now Chinese. However most of the Chinese brands on the list are largely unknown to audiences outside of China. The idea of a truly global Chinese brand is still an enigma that prevails amongst significant desire and ambition.
There is something inherently awkward about overtly Chinese brands talking about themselves as Chinese. At the time of President Hu Jintao’s last visit to the United States, Xinhua, the state news agency of China, launched a public relations takeover of Times Square. Aiming to introduce and familiarize locals with China, the campaign featured a bizarre combination of celebrities who, apart from basketballer Yao Ming, were not immediately recognizable to New Yorkers. Included in the “public diplomacy” event were profiles of prominent Chinese astronauts, an attempt to connect with a common ambition of China and the US but more likely perceived as evidence of a Chinese Cold War-style military buildup.
In a current environment, where China's economic and political prominence are seen as threatening, and the 'political incorrectness' of the nation is rocketing due to labour and production concerns, marketing your brand as Chinese is almost counterproductive to success. While some brands, such as retro sneakers Feiyue, luxury brand Shangxia and liquor brand Moutai, have successfully leveraged a pre-modern image of China to create niche followings in the West, brands that are products of China’s recent resurgence have found engagement more elusive.
However, the situation is not specifically Chinese; Japanese brands faced similar challenges as they were building export markets after the World War II. In a period where being overtly Japanese drew negative associations with wartime aggression, brands we now consider global giants became what Japanese theorist Koichi Iwabuchi calls “culturally odourless”. A deliberate strategy to rid brands and products of any discernable symbols of Japanese-ness that has defined a whole generation of technology and entertainment brands, like Sony, Panasonic and San Rio’s Hello Kitty.
Looking at the initial wave of consumer brands creating a foothold in mature markets, their Chinese origins are largely absent obscured by a carefully crafted global generic. Lenovo and white-goods maker Haier, who have made significant inroads into the US and Western Europe, have brand imagery semiotically devoid of overt reference to China. In the current political climate, overt Chinese-ness is simply a competitive disadvantage for Chinese brands overseas.
The tremendous pride that informs the global ambition of Chinese brands creates a habit of cloaking the expression of brands in a form of educative patriotism. But the earlier example of post-war Japan should provide Chinese brands a more ready way to engage Western consumers increasingly focused on price and performance.