For a decade at least, a major topic among marketers in Asia has been ‘Brand China'. If only the nation would improve its image overseas, our thinking has gone, China's diplomatic leverage would grow, its worldwide commercial opportunities would explode, and its companies would be thrust into the ranks of the Fortune 500.
The idea that branding could speed the destiny of the world's largest nation offers marketers self-affirmation and comfort. But if history is any guide, the case for ‘Brand China' has been overstated at best, and at worst is pap.
Let us examine the commercial case - the idea that a national brand creates global opportunity for home-grown companies. Actually, the evidence of history argues for the reverse, suggesting that it is the excellence of home-grown companies and their products that form the foundation for a national brand.
In the case of Japan, the global impression of Japanese goods in the decades following World War II was that they were of poor quality. But a handful of companies, driven by domestic competition and inspired by American quality expert W. Edwards Deming, reversed that impression. Until a recent spate of foul-ups, Japan's global competitive position was sustained by the efforts of individual firms, despite 20 years of political and economic stagnation. We do not speak of brand Japan, but we do speak of Japanese brands.
Similarly, Korea's national image (from a business standpoint) is based heavily on the small handful of local conglomerates that have made themselves leaders in a range of industries, including Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. And, lest you think this issue is limited to Asia, we don't talk about brand France or brand Germany, because the commercial appeal of those countries has been built on brands such as Louis Vuitton, BMW, and Airbus.
Perhaps the argument is best supported by the case of the US. Despite a growing global disenchantment with America, the nation's remaining global reputation is being sustained by, among others, Apple, Boeing, Amazon, Intel and Motorola.
Commercial opportunity cannot be divorced from national action, but China's global commercial opportunities will be determined by the behaviour of its companies, and it is there that we should focus.
This article was originally published in the 15 July 2010 issue of Media.