Chinese Brands Going Global: What’s the Beef?

By Mauro Marescialli

I recently came across an interesting article on the AdAge website talking about the difficulties Chinese brands face in their attempt to go global. Some of the reasons listed included the often-cited, thorny issues with the “Made in China” stigma (cheap and unsafe), shaky brand identities (often irrelevant once outside of China), and the fact that expanding abroad is an inherently difficult challenge to undertake for any enterprise.

After living in this country for over twenty years and having worked with Chinese brands for a considerable amount of that time, I have observed a couple of other performance gaps that I believe are not only hindering Chinese brands on their path to global stardom but limiting their full establishment as mature, well-rounded brands even back home.

That Little Devil Called Detail

In China, there are plenty of local brands that manage to get their products, services, and communications right. In the mobile phone industry, for instance, brands like Xiaomi are good examples. The sports apparel brand Peak is another, as well as the digital media giant Tencent. There really are many brands that are doing a pretty good job already at home, so where do they fall short abroad? In my opinion, it is their lack of attention to detail. In this area there is still massive room for improvement.

It appears that this market is just too big, consumers too plentiful, and the pace of development too fast to allow companies to truly focus on the detail of what they do. Companies are too busy developing the latest product or technology, the most successful integrated campaign, the most spectacular launch event ever, or the most exceptional kind of service that they eventually leave no time to work on the details of what they are delivering. This is exactly where the problem lies. Once consumers start getting deeper into the experience and interacting with the brand, they start noticing the little, annoying flaws that make them reconsider.

In my working experience, I have come across many Fortune 500 Chinese companies whose senior managers will introduce themselves and politely double-hand you a business card printed on cheap paper with gross typesetting mistakes. Similarly, I have lost count of the times where the packaging of, say, a mobile phone looks and feels fabulous, but once opened reveals the omnipresent Chinglish and questionable choice of third-rate Chinese typography.

Details, one might argue, but that’s exactly my point. Successful brands get these details right. Because they know they matter. And in a market like China, where local brands are often difficult even to tell apart, the competitive advantage will be also marked by how detail-oriented a company and a brand is. It is a badge of quality and respect, and shows that you didn’t cut corners and you’re doing things properly. Those who believe that Chinese consumers are not sophisticated enough to care about the details are grossly underestimating their audience, and playing a risky game for which they will eventually pay a price.

A startling example that highlights this issue only too well took place some time ago while I was on a business trip in the south of China. A friend, who works for a prominent financial institution, invited me to visit one of their private banking branches. He wanted to get my professional opinion on some recent branding work they had done. At retail level, the place looked great — a decent brand identity, tasteful combination of colors and expensive materials, a well-designed customer journey, and so forth. It was undeniable that this company had gone to great lengths to get things right.

Then we sat down in a nice office. My friend poured me some tea and showed me their marketing and client collateral — everything from a credit card to a service pamphlet — and asked for my opinion. I looked at the stuff and remained silent for a few seconds. The drop in quality between the brand I had just experienced in a 3D setting and its translation into 2D collateral was, to say the least, alarming. It was like looking at something that had been designed and produced for a cheap supermarket chain. Then my friend took me to one of their state-of-the-art ATMs to show me the customer interface. To my disappointment, I realized that whoever had designed the marketing collateral must also have designed the digital interface as well. I was shocked.

Stories like this demonstrate an unquestionable level of commitment (and investment) for some Chinese companies in getting key components of the brand right, but somewhere in the process something gets inevitably lost in the mix. Somehow, the majority of Chinese brands fall short just when they seem about to deliver the perfect brand journey and finally close the 360-degree experience loop. So close, yet so far.

I’ve seen entire marketing and branding departments working really, really hard studying international and local competitors, researching an incredible amount of materials, and producing analyses, plans, and millions of PPT slides about customer experience to present to their bosses. The homework is done, the theory is all there, the product is great, but then, suddenly, the devil in the details shows up to rear its ugly head.

The lesson here is that implementation across all areas of the brand experience down to the finest detail is where the final, crucial effort needs to be made.

The Emotional Connection

I speak decent Mandarin. I can read and write it. But after having spent more than twenty years in this country I still have the frustrating feeling that I have just scratched the surface of this incredibly complex language. This language and this culture teach you over and over again to be humble, and to be very careful with your assumptions. Having said that, when it comes to branding I still fail to grasp the reason why it’s taking Chinese enterprises so long to understand that, in order to create a successful brand, they need to connect at an emotional level with their target market. My assumption is that they are too busy looking for the next, hottest celebrity endorsement for their brand — the easiest shortcut, but not the cheapest, to make an attempt at creating some emotional sparkles with whomever you want to sell your product or service to.

There are, of course, examples of local brands that have managed successfully to establish this connection. Jingdong Mall (JD.com) is a great case. This e-commerce company positioned itself as the challenger within an industry that is very competitive and filled with really big players. How did they do it? Through a clear and simple brand proposition and a clever and distinctive communication strategy.

“We’re the fastest in delivery.” That’s it. Aside from highlighting the obvious benefit for the consumer, Jingdong was smart enough to create communication campaigns directed at ruffling some feathers in the generally uber-conservative advertising universe of China. So they put together a clever recipe to distinguish themselves from the plethora of other e-commerce platforms and to win the hearts of million of Chinese consumers by adopting irony, humor, and sometimes an irreverent flair in their messages.

ChineseBrands_Jingdong_02

One of their most impactful campaigns was the so-called “Sorry” campaign, launched in the late 2013. The ads featured a simple layout: a red background, a massive “Sorry” as headline, and some additional copy underneath. The campaign poked sarcastically at offline competitors (“Sorry. We don’t have a sales manager to chat you up, but we have 10 million users helping you making your choice”) or emphasized their increasing dominance in the market, but in an understated way (“Sorry. As of now there are still 4 people out of 10 who didn’t have the opportunity to experience our excellent service”). Needless to say, the campaign spawned countless imitations.

Going down this path in their communication, Jingdong took a few risks. For starters, they challenged the status quo of communications in China. Secondly, they were obliged to stick to their brand promise (fastest delivery, best service), which they did assiduously. In all honesty, not many companies in China have the guts and capability to accomplish both.

But more recently, I came across an ad campaign that I actually think managed to connect emotionally with consumers (well, at least it did with me), and it came from a Chinese company, Huawei, that — in my humble opinion — usually doesn’t have a great track record for this. It was labelled by some internal observers at Huawei as a really controversial ad that failed to be consistent with the tone of communications implemented so far by this company. This may well be the case, but the story is worth telling.

ChineseBrands_Huawei

The core concept of the ad was supposedly conceived by Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei, and it revolved around the idea of telling people that the road to success is strewn with hardships. The copy read, “The journey is hard. Yet joyful.” The key visual featured a close-up of the feet of a ballerina. One of her feet was bare and showed her tortured, crooked toes — a very graphic image, indeed. When I saw the ad for the first time on a big billboard at Shanghai airport I was definitely drawn in. I thought it was different, powerful, surely a little over the top, but the message was convincing and felt authentic, particularly in light of the fact that the founder built his global empire from an anonymous apartment in Shenzhen twenty-seven years ago.

I’m not trying to suggest that in order to win people’s hearts your brand must always communicate in a similarly graphic and controversial manner. However, seeing this ad in China felt somehow refreshing. Realizing that it was an ad by Huawei made it feel even more refreshing. I was comforted by the idea that finally someone showed some real and unique — though rather peculiar in this case — emotional attitude. And I strongly believe that this is a must-have asset for a brand to be successful.

Unfortunately, what I often see around me in the branding field (and in advertising) are companies scrambling to imitate or copy each other and going after the latest fad that proved to be successful for someone else’s brand. Even when they have a decent brand proposition, some brands somehow lose the plot midway, get distracted, unfocused, impatient ,and decide to take shortcuts. But no successful and long-lasting brand has ever taken shortcuts. The lesson is there for all to see, but it’s yet to be learned.

Now, going back to the original question: why has it been so difficult for Chinese brands to establish themselves on the global stage? If Chinese brands don’t get their own houses in order, it’s going to be even more challenging for them to go out there and conquer the world.

However, I’m optimistic. There are already plenty of encouraging examples indicating that sooner or later a Chinese brand will finally get it right, and manage to craft their brand across the most minute details whilst inspiring some genuine emotional connection with their audience. Only at that time will they be able to close the circle of the perfect 360-degree brand experience and ultimately be appreciated and successful with consumers both at home and overseas.

Mauro Marescialli is Managing Director of MetaDesign Beijing.

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