China's brand ranking makes two things come to mind. One is old and the other new, but both challenge the definition of what we do in the communications industry.
The first and very obvious thing in this year’s list: the most powerful brands are overwhelmingly international ones. Again.
In the top 10, the only Chinese entrant is Tong Ren Tang. In the context of the modern Chinese economic miracle, it is ironic that it is a 17th-century traditional Chinese medicine brand, not a Huawei or a XiaoMi, in the top tier.
Among the top 20, one can only find four Chinese brands altogether. Given the tremendous cost advantages, government protectionism, superior distribution and retail connections, this reveals that although there are many powerful businesses in China, it isn’t because of the brand.
And although it isn’t a new topic it does deserve to be mentioned again, because it is the path through which local powerhouse businesses can become powerhouse brands. Painful and uncertain as it is, the challenge for local brands is to get out of their comfort zones of ‘tangible matters’ and really invest in the magic of what makes great brands more than great bargains.
Most Chinese business leaders insist that they know about brands. They don’t want to be told any more about the importance ‘brand authenticity’ and ‘owned emotional attributes’ and even more ethereal things like ‘brand personality’. But a look at the scoreboard suggests that it is one thing to have heard a concept, but quite an other to know it well enough to put it into practice.
It is the second observation, though, that I really want to talk about, because it is the opposite issue facing local brands in China. Where ‘words’ have helped build international brands’ emotional foundation, it is increasingly ‘deeds’ that are helping them stay dominant.
Traditionally, brands have established their power around building emotional benefits that derived from functional attributes. However, these days, it increasingly seems that brands have to be careful with emotion-led messages for fear that they come across as empty and over-reaching, especially where the functional support is not strong.
Take for example Gag Concert, the popular Korean sketch comedy show that has been introduced to China and its ‘Fault-finding’ segment which is dedicated to making fun of brands’ emotional promises. In one show, it poked fun at the Wrigley’s Extra chewing gum campaigns and the idea that the product helps to spur romantic relationships.
The fact is that the way we access and expect information has changed in the internet age. Knowledge is now just a click away, and we demand authenticity. Brands need to do more than they used to, to substantiate those emotional promises.
Consider Apple. Grand manifestos like ‘1984’ and ‘Think Different’ just aren’t part of its brand presence today. Instead, the head-turning power comes from the iWatch launch and the category-crossing nature of their ‘Health kit’, which has made people question where to draw the line between tech brand and social institution.
Chanel, another brand with proven staying power, is riding a perfect wave, it would seem. As previous leaders LV and Gucci over-exposed themselves, Chanel’s ‘quiet class’ was a solution for the middle-class buyers wary of being confused as someone with more money than style. It was lauded by the ‘Coco’ movie — brand content on a whole other scale — and also launched solid iconic events like their ‘Little black jacket’ roadshow, which was a huge success with A-listers and their followers alike.
And it seems there are ever more examples. Nike’s NTC/Nike+ platforms that enabled runners to ‘self-train’ have done more than repeat the ‘Just do it’ slogan, but have enabled consumers to ‘do it’. Uni-President’s ‘Birthday bottle’ helps people send a personalised birthday message with a tailor-made bottle. And L’Oréal launched the ‘Magic mirror’ app, which brought beauty expertise to your phone.
Chinese brands that pick up on these trends can crack the top 10. XiaoMi, Tmall and others have the technology and are dabbling in this space. What they need now is greater consistency and focus so that their ‘deeds’ become the solid and emotional ‘brand words’ we find ourselves preferring.