When I last visited RadioShack, the consumer-electronics chain store in the US, I challenged myself to find just one product that did not bear the obligatory “Made in China” label. I gave myself 10 minutes to do this, but after coming up with nothing, I pushed the envelope further, allowing myself another half hour. To no avail. There was not even a single solitary battery that came from anywhere else.
China appears to be a mighty superpower, one already assuming global domination. It has an amazing ability to channel an endless stream of capital to its coffers. One could rationally conclude that the next battleground will occur when a multitude of Chinese brands enter the world market.
I’m a brand consultant who specialises in helping superbrands regain their power. Only just recently I’ve had an entirely new type of customer knocking on my door: Chinese manufacturers wishing to establish their own global super brands. The history of China and brands is not very encouraging. They manufacture for the biggest and the best of them, but despite their passion for the notion, they’ve so far failed to build just one that they can seriously lay claim to.
My first branding mission to China was in 2002. Back then I was approached by one of the largest clothing manufacturers. His email couldn’t have been more straightforward. It said, “We want a brand—help us.” Excited to be a part of what they’re now calling the Asian Century, I soon realised their well-oiled production machine only applied to, well, production. There was a total lack of infrastructure when it came to building or just handling brands. Their idea of a powerful brand was its logo, and they assumed the bigger the logo, the more powerful the brand.
In a country with a history of virulent anti-consumerism, the mindset presents the greatest challenge. If you’ll allow me to be perfectly blunt, I encountered a surprising lack of creative thinking. No one will argue that the Chinese are masters of copying, adapting, and implementing almost anything, and at twice the speed of anyone else. But thinking creatively proved to be almost as challenging to them as understanding a brand’s emotional connection with its consumers.
An important part of what I do is facilitating ideas. I usually do this in a carefully structured but highly animated interactive workshop environment. The sessions are a pressure cooker of talking and crosstalking. Creative juices flow, blend, percolate, and finally reduce to a perfect essence. This modus operandi, however, has so far failed to gain traction in China. How can one share ideas in a society that’s most comfortable listening to a single speaker on a raised podium? What’s more, it’s hard to engage in ideas in an environment where people have largely been taught to follow instructions, and not encouraged to think for themselves.
The opposite holds true in India. In an almost identical workshop environment, the creative ideas tumbled out at such a pace, I found myself struggling to hold back the tide. Yet, in contrast to China, Indians struggle with the implementation of their ideas.
The Chinese creative vacuum seems overwhelming. No creative team lasts much longer than 18 months, before a competing agency lures them away with financial offers that are impossible to refuse. The reality is that, to date, China’s barely made a ripple in the world of global brands.
The most likely scenario we can expect to see over the next decade points to an emerging trend: If you can’t make them, buy them. Think Volvo and ThinkPad. They are just the first of many brands turning Chinese. Furthermore, there’s every possibility that once they are Chinese-owned, we will see more brand and line extensions rarely seen before.
In contrast with most western companies, the Chinese are not afraid of stretching their brands. The black market for Chinese brands is extensive. The Apple logo is all the rage. You can buy an iToothbrush, an iWashingMachine, and even iCondoms.
Which brings us back to the question of how Chinese superbrands will fare on the global stage. They most certainly will appear, but they probably won’t be the type of brands we are attached to in the west. Forget about emotional brands like Virgin, luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, or tribal brands like Harley Davidson and Hello Kitty. These will be rational brands, or rather products. They will have respect, but there won’t be much love between them and their customers. Even though Indians are able to imagine amazing brands, the challenges of the country’s infrastructure mean that few will ever reach the global marketplace.
In a perfect world we’d blend China with India, and no doubt the most powerful brands would emerge. Then the west would really have something to fear.