Does your brand’s nationality matter to Chinese consumers? Our Analysis

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For Chinese consumers,  it is no longer the case of a binary choice between “foreign” and “Chinese” brands.  As knowledge of brands has increased, the nationality of brands has emerged as an important consideration.  We look to see how your nation shapes up for local Chinese consumers.

In the heady days of China’s early ‘cowboy’ capitalism, the thirst for anything foreign gave international brands an inflated sense of worth to local consumers – a legacy, that has arguably, persisted to the current day.

However as the consumers have developed a wider repertoire of brands, travelled more, and engaged with the improved image of Chinese brands – international brands have been scrutinised in more detail, to see if they are really worth the extra price tag.

As part of this change, Chinese consumers have engaged with the idea of how “nationality” creates different brand qualities and experiences.  This is something we have been following closely for our clients.

So here it is – how your nation ‘stacks up’ for modern Chinese consumers – based on our interviews with consumers nationwide, our ‘social listening’ on local digital networks like WeChat and Weibo, and a lot of local experience (for instance, the guy writing this has done research in over 40 Chinese cities, and counting).

Alphabetical, to be fair … (and, just the nations that are more prominent here in China, in terms of brands)

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Imagery from Australia.cn website for Chinese travellers

Australia

As a kiwi, it pains me to say this – the Aussies are creating a great reputation amongst Chinese consumers.  On the back of increasing presence on local shop shelves and e-commerce, Chinese consumers are seeing more of Australia in their daily lives and special occasions.

The key for Australian brands is to use this halo effect as a context to build individual brand character in China.

To hypothetically sum this up from a local consumer perspective, they are currently thinking “Australia is a rich country culturally and resource-wise, I know I can trust an Australian brand, but I would struggle to name an Australian brand I personally identify with”.

So next step for Australian brands is to use this wonderful headstart, and start building day-to-day relevance and iconism with local consumers.

Brazil

Very little Brazil magic here in China.  But on the eve of the Rio Olympics, this is the time.  There appears an abundant opportunity for Brazilian beauty and fashion brands to capture the new levels of confidence being expressed by Chinese female shoppers.  Victoria’s Secret is launching in Shanghai soon, so why not more Brazilian brands?

France

France has traditionally enjoyed a strong association with fashion, romance, and culinary experience amongst local consumers.

However, these have become a little redundant, and in need of rejuvenation.  Future success for French brands in China will depend on an ability to leverage a French interpretation of modern and contemporary lifestyle, epitomized by Paris.

Particularly, in the context of luxury – the most consolidated of China’s consumer categories – an ability to differentiate beyond ‘continental stereotypes’ will prove essential to capturing the attention of Chinese consumers increasingly ‘fatigued’ with luxury.

One area that would prove particularly profitable for French brands is a connection to French feminity – this fits well with local women who are looking for a context to express their independence and unique sense of style.

Germany

In consumer mapping exercises, Chinese consumers consistently associate Germany with engineering and quality – this perception is driven by perceptions of prominent auto brands such as Audi and BMW.

However in a specific Chinese context, “German-ness” is culturally narrower in China than elsewhere.  The design connotations that German brands enjoy elsewhere are not as prominent here in China,  A key reason is prominent brands do not extend their brands to lifestyle stories – so for this reason, perceptions are stuck at a technical and unemotive level.

Italy

In a similar way to France, Italian brands have been somewhat caught in an ‘old world’ cliche.  Themes of heritage and craftsmanship have become ‘over communicated’, especially in luxury and fashion, where Italian are heavily represented in China.

It seems necessary for Italian brands to communicate more strongly on innovation – the idea of being a vanguard nation in terms of design and lifestyle.   This messaging is equally applicable to luxury brands as it is to auto, food and retail brands – based on selling a continuing pursuit of excellence rather than an unchanging legacy.

Japan

Despite severe cultural division caused by Japan’s human rights atrocities during the Second World War – Japanese brands have been successful in China.   Due to the extra scrutiny any lapses would cause, such as mass brand boycott, Japanese brands have forged a reputation for dependability in the areas of consumer electronics and automotive.

As the confidence of Japanese brands grew and Chinese consumers’ faith in Japanese concomitantly grew, Japanese brands have started to express more profound brand stories.  A successful example of this is provided by Muji, whose flagships stores are extremely popular in China, due to their focus on imparting the brand philosophy and inspiration in the form of a ‘lived experience’.   This has also helped to reinforce the ‘cultural proximity’ between the two countries, diminishing the negative impact of Japan’s past in China.

Interestingly, Japanese popular culture is fanatically popular with Chinese teenagers, the Post-90s.  Suggesting that Japanese brands are well placed to be part of Chinese next generation of middle-class consumers.

New Zealand

New Zealand enjoys an almost ‘heavenly’ perception amongst Chinese consumers.   Celebrity weddings, such as actress Yao Chen’s, have cemented the island nation as a ‘purity postcard’.   As a New Zealander I am pleased with all this loveliness, but at the same time, wondering why we are not doing more!

This perception is helping to sell food and beverage, and tourism at an impressive level.  However, the narrowness of this perception has arguably created a barrier to New Zealand’s wider array of exportable brands in the areas of innovation, lifestyle and education.

C’mon Kiwis! – time to move beyond a transactional leveraging of clean and green, and move into some lifestyle-based marketing – the country is a dream, so sell it as such!

South Korea

Through the heavy consumption of South Korean soap operas and pop music, the nation enjoys special status amongst Chinese consumers.   Through pop culture, South Korea has created certain pan-Asian beauty and style norms that have been highly influential in China.

In this context, Korean brands have traded successfully on the idea of being an acceptable expression of “modern East Asia” (more acceptable than Japan).   South Korea’s Confucian heritage also means many of the brand stories of the nation’s brands – such as balance, harmony, respect for elders – translates directly to China’s understanding of the world, meaning cultural adaption is less of a challenge, compared to other nationalities of brands.

However, of concern is the level of mimicry of South Korean culture that is occurring in China.   Chinese media is cloning a lot of the content, meaning it the ‘K-pop effect’ is diminishing considerably.

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South Korean star Rain promoting men’s skin care in China

Spain

Spanish brands are prominent in certain areas in China, for example, Zara and Mango in fashion.  However, these are both understand as ‘global fast fashion’, rather than specifically Spanish in origin.

Perceptions of Spain are not strongly differentiated in China compared to the stronger familiarity with French and Italian brands.   Increasing travel to Spain is helping to change this, but Spain is not understood well beyond isolated references to food or football.

Switzerland

The nation is highly idealized by Chinese consumers (as it is often done in other parts of the world).  However, the idea of Switzerland as the standard bearer of high quality has increasingly become challenged as Chinese consumers are exposed to more brands.

The key for Swiss brands in China is to link them more closely to the experience and aspirations of Chinese consumers.  Often Swiss brand live only as ‘icons’ in the minds of locals.   In a context where more brands are competing for their attention, their iconic relationship is weakened considerably.

Put simply – Swiss brands in China need to move from “made in Switzerland” to “live like the Swiss”.

United Kingdom

The UK is a nation that conjures up “Castles, Queens, and Quiet Green Pastures”.  Nothing wrong with that normally, but in the context of Chinese consumers, it is a little … boring.

While the image of the UK – and London in particular – has enjoyed a global renaissance in terms of urban culture and innovation, this has not caught on in a big way in China.

Burberry is a case of a brand that combines a British pedigree with more dynamic aspects of contemporary urban culture, by presenting the creative and diverse aspects of UK through designers and musicians.

In terms of cutting through in China, British brands need to adopt a ‘challenging’ role in their categories, where they are bringing a new concept or ‘take on life’, compared to other internationals brands.  Tyrrell’s Chips is an example of this, a chip which ‘reinvents’ the category, through interesting juxtapositions.

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Burberry as a brand expression of contemporary UK culture

United States

The ‘soft power’ of the U.S. certainly has impacted local Chinese – with top-of-mind associations related to openness, creativity,and creativity.  This is a cultural perception that helps Apple and Nike to win in their categories, but beyond these ‘hero examples’, brand building has been a challenge for many American brands in China.

This is a cultural perception that helps Apple and Nike to win in their categories, but beyond these ‘hero examples’, brand building has been a challenge for many American brands in China.

There have been many disasters, none more obvious than Best Buy – whose long-closed flagship still remain as a ‘shell’ in popular Shanghai tech shopping district Xujiahui.

One of the key challenges has been for American brands to build locally relevant propositions for local consumers.   At a deeper psychological level, overt ‘Americanisms’ are generally rejected here in China.

Having the honor to work with a number of iconic American brands, our advice is always the same – drop the assumptions, understand the consumers on their terms, take some of the assumptions about America, but build your own individual brand based on clearly defined local consumer needs.

Often for American brands in China, the first and most fundamental step – is getting rid of the cultural baggage that ‘throws locals off’ the brand.   Once this is the achieved, brands are then able to leverage the ‘soft power’ advantages that come with being a U.S. brand in China.

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The day Best Buy left China in February, 2011

About Author

Jerry Clode

Jerry Clode is Head of Digital & Social Insight at Resonance. He leads Resonance SMART, providing leading-edge research, strategy and naming for brands in China using bespoke methodologies. Jerry also produces Resonance's popular China Social Branding Report, a bi-weekly publication covering modern marketing methods of the world's top brands.

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