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Society & Culture

China’s Branding Problem

Feb 24 , 2015

On August 1st, 2014, The Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. held its annual reception commemorating the 87th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. As always, the event was meticulously managed. But what struck me the most was an assortment of flyers on display at the registration desk. In poorly designed typography, the titles of the flyers read: “China initially discovered, named and exploited the Diaoyu Islands”, and “Japan Steals Diaoyu Islands”.

These flyers were entirely appropriate during a sensitive time when the China-Japan dispute over the Diaoyu Islands was a high priority on the Embassy’s outreach agenda. Nonetheless, the flyers, produced by the Bureau of International Publicity of the Chinese Department of Defense,looked like something one may find on the bulletin board in a Chinese government building, rather than professional PR kits carrying Beijing’s message to the world’s finest military diplomats.

This is a branding problem. PR or marketing professionals familiar with global and cross cultural communications would easily point out a list of things on the flyers that may be improved in order to communicate the message – and by extension, the “China brand,” with more effectiveness and grace. Chinese leaders and academics have feverishly advocated the idea of public diplomacy, but on many occasions, the enthusiasm fails to translate into effective policy implementation. These policies could greatly benefit from design elements more empathetic to the recipient culture and less stiff in lexicon.

The China brand has also performed poorly in the private sector. In fact, Chinese brands are perceived less favorably in the American market than those of many East Asian competitors, such as Japan (Honda, Toyota), Korea (Samsung, LG) and Taiwan (HTC, Acer). This is paradoxical and ironic to China’s perceived status as a global power. With China’s outbound investment exceeding FDI for the first time in 2015, American consumers can count on seeing more Chinese brands on Amazon and in their local supermarkets. For instance, during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, hundreds of Chinese brands signed up, and Chinese exhibitors largely dominated electronics under $100. How these brands communicate themselves will have significant impact on the overall perception of the China brand.

Indeed, the world’s largest economy faces a serious branding problem, in both policy communications and business marketing – which are becoming increasingly intertwined in our time. Strategists may rightfully argue that the less than favorable perception of China in the U.S. is a result of the shifting balance of power in world politics; but the devil is in the details. In a time when social media and fragmented information affect even the most focused policy analysts, one flyer or one video clip may be all it takes to shape one’s perception of China.

This is not unknown to some officials in the Chinese foreign publicity (外宣) apparatus. An official in Beijing once complained to me that a key challenge facing the effectiveness of China’s international image building effort is the stringent culture of clearance and approval, often by senior officials with little expertise in global communications.

The same type of awareness is also rising in the Chinese overseas business community. The lack of understanding of the American marketing culture has become a problem for many Chinese brands that ventured out to the U.S. For example, a client we engaged in early 2015 has stellar marketing materials on their Chinese online and offline platforms. Yet their relatively new American marketing team, comprised mainly of expats with limited experience in the American market, has found it difficult to quickly win the hearts and minds of the American consumers.

So what can be done differently? Beijing’s policy circles have talked about public diplomacy long enough. Now is the time to focus on implementation and execution – by ensuring that every detail in public diplomacy materials excites their intended audience, instead of appealing merely to the internal chain of command.

This is easier said than done in any bureaucratic context. It requires a more open decision-making process, greater awareness of global and cross-cultural communications within the institutions, and ongoing consultation with the intended audience. A promising trend is that an increasing number of Chinese students are now studying marketing, communications, history, and literature at American universities. The Chinese government should tap into this reservoir of talent and entrust them with the roles of designing and executing the country’s international PR campaigns.

For Chinese businesses, managers should recognize the importance of branding in the American market. Experiences that have worked in other global markets may not apply in the U.S. A client once said to me that the biggest challenge for Chinese brands in the U.S. is determining how to “de-Chinesize” the brand (去中国化). The real challenge, however, is to learn how to become brand sensitive and responsive to the local culture. Successful global brands have done so repetitively, although not without considerable upfront investments. Chinese business leaders should learn from these experiences and invest in building well-received brands, even if the financial returns are not immediate.

Ultimately, China’s global brand identity is shaped by the Chinese society – one that is still on the path of becoming more open and empathetic toward diverse values. China is home to the world’s fastest growing Internet companies, but this won’t automatically bring the cultural empathy that’s key for the country and its people to creating a positive global brand. It would be a missed opportunity for the Chinese government to overtly emphasize the need for control in its Internet governance, as discouraging its constituents to socialize globally will eventually hurt China’s image as a global brand.

Details are critical in communications, and they are the lowest hanging fruits. Now is the time for Chinese policymakers and business leaders to take a renewed look at their branding problems in the U.S., and start improving on the details, one flyer at a time.

(Blair Vorsatz and Calanthia Mei of the Dialogue Group contributed to this article.) 

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