No other infrastructure spending program in history has quite the branding cachet of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, which also goes by the “New Silk Road” and most recently the “Belt & Road Initiative” (BRI). Not even the Marshall Plan (a US post-war aid program to Western Europe) comes close to being as saccharinely accentuated as the OBOR, which has so far spawned ‘Brand Expos’, an official rap song, a series of bedtime stories and several music videos (including one mocked by comedian John Oliver).
The cringe-y YouTube content is what China wants to offer the world: a China-centric narrative of development assistance and trading openness. It was five years ago that President Xi Jinping launched his ambitious vision, though Merriden Varrall, director of geopolitics and tax at KPMG, writing for the Lowy Institute, says she considers the BRI more of a “marketing tool”, a “label applied with a sweeping generosity” to an amalgamation of projects, a large proportion of which existed before 2013.
One month ago was the fifth anniversary of the global infrastructure plan, and state mouthpiece People’s Daily marked the occasion with a modified cover of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” the jingle from the classic 1971 Coca-Cola ad. Well, it's aptly titled “I’d Like to Build the World a Road”. With the Trump administration now inclined towards protectionism, the much-vaunted initiative could very well be China’s ‘brand promise’ as the face of globalisation.
In fact, since 2016, Chinese media have been branding the initiative grandiosely as “Globalisation 3.0” with “intercontinental cooperation”, citing Renmin University’s senior research fellow Wang Yizhen. He refers to the Silk Road relating to ancient East-West trade as the era of “Globalisation 1.0”, while the concept ushered in by the modern Western civilisations should be “Globalisation 2.0”.
Whether an overall PR exercise for Brand China or not, the initiative does ease the global marketing paths for Chinese companies. Some have taken the initiative to conveniently latch onto the Belt & Road (B&R) banner for their goods, though Chinese authorities have not announced an exact list of B&R projects thus far.
Whether an overall PR exercise for Brand China or not, the initiative does ease the global marketing paths for Chinese companies.
Zhang Xiaoyu, executive vice president of the China International Council for the Promotion of Multinational Corporations (CICPMC), has advised Chinese brands to have a detailed understanding of consumer behaviour and market trends before entering B&R markets. The ultimate aim is hinted at: “This approach will help businesses integrate their brands and, in turn, promote China’s comprehensive cooperation with countries along B&R trade corridors.”
A July 2018 Nielsen report recommending retail strategies for the Belt and Road highlighted Indonesia and the Philippines’ population boom, Turkey’s young, connected shoppers and Egypt’s economic condition. Nielsen’s research showed that mid-tier cities in the Philippines, for example, should be included in company strategies because they will experience even faster urbanisation than megacities. “Cities with between 1 and 5 million people will grow 36% [by 2025], while those with 550,000 to 1 million people will grow 31%,” suggested Patrick Cua, managing director of Nielsen Philippines, in the report. “For Chinese businesses, focusing on mid-tier cities could provide opportunities for more sustainable returns..”
For years, communications consultancies have been trying to find the ‘unlock’ codes for marketers from the West targeting the final destination of China. With B&R we are looking at the opposite, and it may be tougher than having camels carry goods across the desert.
Jay Milliken, senior partner at Prophet, phrases it best: “Chinese companies operating outside of China will operate under the halo of ‘Brand China’ whether they like it or not”. That halo still has “too many negative connotations (cheap, low-quality, copycat) to be seen as an asset,” he adds. “I don’t think much emphasis has been put on changing perceptions of ‘Brand China’ yet through the OBOR initiative. First steps have been more about establishing basic infrastructure, but for the program to be truly successful, perceptions of Brand China will have to improve.”
Same goes for the brand halo of the US$900-billion B&R initiative. A Deutsche Welle article went so far as to assert that EU countries will be “straitjacketed” by it, instead of benefitting from the new roads, ports and pipelines. A leaked report by 27 EU diplomats stated the initiative “runs counter to the EU agenda for liberalising trade, and pushes the balance of power in favour of subsidised Chinese companies”.
An old Chinese proverb commands: “If you want to get rich, build a road first”. Riches are not guaranteed in today’s global environment, so both the Chinese government and brands could take heed from Confucius who said, “Roads were made for journeys, not destinations”.