David Wolf
Jan 29, 2009

Opinion... Should Chinese brands look after Brand China?

A thread of common wisdom shared by marketers and brand consultants is that a company's brand is tied to the brand of its home country.

Opinion... Should Chinese brands look after Brand China?
This is heard most frequently in reference to China, and is used often as a justification for China's failure, three decades after reforming and opening, to produce global brands.

Whether or not this is a valid assumption is of immediate and growing urgency to marketers in China. Not only did the rate of overseas investment nearly quadruple in 2008 over 2007, the trend looks to grow in the face of the financial crisis. According to a recent survey conducted by Shanghai’s China Market Research Group, most Chinese companies say they expect to speed up or expand their plans for international expansion. More local companies are going to be interested in knowing how they can raise the global awareness of and respect for their brands. How does Brand China figure in all of this?

As with many things, the answer falls between two extremes. Companies do not need to improve China’s brand or positioning, but they cannot engage in 'identity denial’ by claiming they are either international or somehow an unChinese Chinese company. 

Positive perception of China does not necessarily mean people want to go buy Chinese branded products. And let’s get something straight: it is beyond the scope and ability of any company branding programme to materially improve the brand of any country. As well-known British place-marketer Simon Anholt points out, branding a nation involves more than simply boosterism, but close co-ordination of a wide number of factors that are far outside the competency of even the largest corporations, such as tourism promotion, foreign policy, trade, and domestic politics.

For a country that looms as large on the global consciousness as China, asking companies to take on what should really be a Government mandate is simply too great a load and too complex a matter for one company to carry. But Chinese companies cannot divorce themselves from China, either. What is needed in the branding process is a way to link the company brand and Brand China in a way that reinforces both.
To do that, you first have to appreciate that Brand China is nuanced and multi-faceted. While there are some things about China that strike audiences as negative, like some of China’s domestic policies, there are other aspects of China, such as the nation’s culture, history and arts, that have deep appeal. If you acknowledge that, it becomes possible for a smart creative team to link China and the client in a positive way by picking the aspects of China that will charm the world, focusing on what others find admirable.
By emphasising the virtues of China that are widely admired among the overseas target audience — good ones might include thrift, modest family and scholarly achievement — and by credibly owning those virtues, Chinese companies create a situation that builds both brands at once.

Such an approach also achieves the necessary co-branding effort without drawing precious time, resources, and attention onto branding China and away from the core effort — branding the company so it can sell more products and services.

But aside from such approaches, leave the matter of improving China’s brand to the Government. The initiative announced earlier in January to spend almost US$7 billion on a campaign to create a Chinese Al-Jazeera is one example that China’s leaders realise that rebranding the nation will be a long, multifaceted, and expensive process. So, therefore, should we.

David Wolf, CEO, Wolf Group Asia
Campaign China

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