Belt and Road and beyond: Advice for Chinese brands with global ambitions

Chinese companies expanding internationally may need to rethink their brand messaging to build affinity, according to speakers at the Shanghai International Advertising Festival.

James Murphy, founder and group CEO of Adam & Eve DDB, speaking at the Shanghai International Advertising Festival.
James Murphy, founder and group CEO of Adam & Eve DDB, speaking at the Shanghai International Advertising Festival.

‘Belt and Road’ was the top buzzword during talks and panels discussing the internationalisation of Chinese brands at the Shanghai International Advertising Festival Wednesday.

The government-led initiative has led to billions in instructure investment along the silk road, all intended to ease the passage of Chinese goods to international markets.

While Belt and Road, as well as the meteoric rise of Alibaba and Tencent, demonstrates the abillity of China to operate on a massive scale, one speaker suggested that Chinese brands should actually dial back on discussing their tech prowess in order to make an impression on international consumers.

James Murphy, founder and group CEO of Adam & Eve DDB, said that while Chinese brands display an impressive level innovation, expertise and scale, they are not known in markets like the UK. "The marketing needs to move through the phase from being innovation and technology to simple emotional messaging that can resonate across an international audience,” Murphy said.

Speaking to Campaign Asia-Pacific offstage, Murphy emphasised that consumers are more likely to take up a simple, emotional idea rather than product specs. “If you look at tech businesses like Apple, they have products that have a huge range of features they very rarely deliver [in marketing communications]," he said. "They will only choose one or two features that speak for the brands.”

While tech brands such as Huawei are making progress, as shown in the latest BrandZ ranking of the top global brands, brands that want to follow in their footsteps need to make sure the right people are in charge of marketing.

“I think the challenge with some tech brands is that they have very clever product designers driving development with the business," Murphy said. "The scale to do that isn't the same as when you do brilliant marketing. Sometimes in tech businesses, the designers and engineers are also in charge of marketing, so that’s why these brands find it hard to cut through. What they don’t have is the [message] discipline.”

Nevertheless, Murphy agreed that UK consumers are not that different from Chinese consumers. He cited Chinese startups such as bike-sharing app Mobike, which has made inroads into the UK recently. Services that thrive on user experience have better prospects for replicating their success across borders, he said.

“The way they have launched successfully is partly through building name awareness but then delivering a brilliant user experience," he said. "That’s fascinating, as UX almost trumps everything else.” Uber remains popular among consumers in the UK despite all of its bad press, he added.

While Chinese brands want to respond to the Belt and Road initiative, Murphy said that nevertheless now is a good time for them to also reach out to an international audience. “I think the perception in markets like ours, is that China has been busy building momentum internally, in the sense that you feel it’s such a huge market and they don’t need the rest of the world," he said. "But now you are in a situation where your businesses and brands are so big and successful it would be a missed opportunity not to go out to the world.”

Meanwhile, Tom Doctoroff, chief cultural insights officer at Prophet, said established brands need to accept that attitudes towards Chinese brands are not as favourable as they could be.

For example, BrandZ’s Top 50 Chinese Global Brand Builders reveals that consumers in Japan are the least receptive towards Chinese brands. “If you think about what China does well, China does scaled, Japan does detailed," Doctoroff told Campaign Asia-Pacific. "These two cultures are very different.”

Even though Chinese conglomerates have made acquisitions of foreign brands (Lenovo's purchase of ThinkPad being the prime example), Doctoroff said that is not a good strategy for Chinese brand building. “In general I don’t recommend acquiring brands to achieve penetration abroad if the companies are not suited to manage those brands,” he said.

Drone maker DJI stands as an exception to all of the above, as it developed a strong global brand from the start. It now belongs to a new category, Doctoroff said. 

Earlier in the forum, Doctoroff echoed Murphy in stressing that international agency networks can help Chinese brands going abroad to ensure operational efficiency and consistency in messaging.

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