I’m driving from China to Holland using only Chinese brands. During this three-month journey along the ancient Silk Road, my travel companion and I tap the opinions of people we meet about the Chinese brands we’re travelling with.
What do people think about our BYD car, Huawei phone, AEE camera, Ozark outdoor gear and Lenovo laptop? We’re also wearing Chinese underwear, but decided not to inquire about that.
By travelling with only Chinese brands, I aim to share that China is no longer just the copycat or the factory of the world. I have seen the country change dramatically since my first visit 12 years ago. I was lucky to work with some of the most ambitious Chinese people, and along the way came to meet the driven and innovative side of China. Frustrated by the negative perception of China around the world, I figured it was time for somebody to stand up and say, “China is cool!”
That I proclaim this as a non-Chinese might be a bit ironic. But I believe it touches on the identity struggle that China is going through at the moment. The young urban generation is extremely proud of China, but also very aware of its flaws. When I talk about my journey with my Chinese friends in Shanghai, they feel patriotic and proud. But they still advise me to just drive with a Volkswagen instead of a BYD. It’s this endless identity struggle that I believe is so exemplary for the young generation in China, especially in the urban coastal regions.
We’ve now covered nearly 8,000 kilometres in four weeks between Shanghai and the Kazakhstan border in the far west of China. We met cool youngsters living in the cities along the Yangtze River, nomads living in the green grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau in Sichuan province and people living in the deserts in Gansu and Xinjiang province.
What’s remarkable is that the perception of Chinese brands gets more positive the further west we travel inside China. “BYD is a great Chinese brand, it's producing affordable electric cars”, proclaimed Mr. Xia, a teacher we met in a village in Sichuan. He later added he would never buy an electric car because he lives in a rural area, but still likes the brand for it.
I assume that the lack of foreign brands in more rural regions, along with lower income levels, has a lot of impact. Simply put in advertising terminology: Chinese brands are more present in lower-tier cities and their larger share of voice is having a positive impact on their brand perception.
However, everybody from urbanites to farmers agrees that the quality of Chinese brands is improving rapidly. But those who are more familiar with foreign brands put the stage of development of Chinese brands on a different level than those less familiar with foreign brands. “Chinese brands will be the best in the world”, proclaimed a shopkeeper in western Gansu. While a 20-something woman in Chongqing, central China, said she has never, and would never, buy a Chinese brand, while impatiently looking at her iPhone.
In the extreme rural areas (at one point we stayed with a nomadic family living in the mountains without electricity or phone signal), the idea of foreign and Chinese brand perception was alien.
Some product categories are on different stages in their development, according to the people we talked with. “I believe Chinese automotive brands need another 10 years to compete on the level of foreign brands”, said Kevin Liu, an architect in Wuhan. “However, smartphone brands like your Huawei phone are already on the same level as Apple and Samsung.”
Chen Yin, a hairdresser in Urumqi, shared this opinion: “Chinese technology brands are just as innovative, or maybe even more innovative, than foreign brands.”
That’s also reflected in the response we get to our AEE video cameras, pocket-sized mini cameras we carry with us to record our journey. The default response is, “Is that a camera?” followed by “That’s so small… cool!” In contrast, we don’t get any response to our Ozark tent and outdoor gear, probably because most Chinese have never slept in a tent.
It wasn’t until we arrived at the Kazakhstan border that the opinion of Chinese brands turned around. “You think you can drive all the way to ‘Hollandia’ with Chinese products?” said an incredulous Kazakh customs officer, bursting into laughter.