Today (10 May) is Chinese Brand Day. With events and good old-fashioned “propaganda”, the Government in China is using the full weight of State apparatus and tons of resources to promote Chinese brands. The power-brokers in Beijing hope this will drive Chinese businesses to prioritise brand development. The medium-term objective is to gain more engagement from global consumers towards Chinese brands. And this is where the challenge is particularly acute.
Latest reports show that, while investment in Chinese brands is increasing, this is not paying off in terms of saliency and awareness among international consumers – particularly younger ones. The findings from Brand Z’s Top 50 Chinese Global Brand Builders 2019 report, which ranks Chinese brands on the strength of their brand in overseas markets, revealed a 26% decline in awareness of Chinese brands among global millennial consumers (aged 18-34) over the past three years.
While recognising that the debates about trade protectionism and security are casting a shadow over Chinese brands in some countries, the traditional consensus among Western marketing experts used to be that Chinese brands need to “get” more fully the Western style of marketing if they’re to succeed globally.
But is this still right? Rather than trying to ape Western methods, would Chinese brands be better off sticking to how they operate? Given the emerging success of Chinese brands in their domestic market, isn’t it the case that Western marketeers should stop preaching and actually start learning from their Chinese counterparts?
Look at the techniques and skills Chinese marketeers are successfully using to drive growth in their domestic environment. They typically take a mobile-first mindset to their marketing strategy; gamification is often embedded in their tactical delivery; their marketing is genuinely agile, testing and learning as they go, at pace; they are adopting AI to inform their content creation; and they have successfully learnt how to navigate a market where enormous conglomerates (in China’s case, Alibaba and Tencent) dominate their channels to market. Aren’t these exactly the techniques that Western marketeers all aspire to?
And then, go a bit deeper, and look at the frameworks of thinking in Chinese society – the focus on the long term, the emphasis on interconnectedness, a comfort in managing ambiguity – and again, isn’t this what many Western marketeers are grappling with too?
Quietly, Chinese brands have been going global for 40 years. Some are being true to the traditional, long-termist, under-the-radar approach – often using JVs or M&A to build their marketing muscle and understanding. Just look at the success and popularity of the Chinese way in Wolverhampton as the Fosun Group has taken Wolverhampton Wanderers to the Premier League as part of a major brand-building job. Or take the major Chinese sports brand Anta Sports who have bought Western brand Amer Sports as a first step in global expansion.
But the much bigger opportunity for Chinese brands is to leverage their current way of working for competitive advantage in Western markets. And there is no bigger opportunity for this than in the innovation space, especially the fintech sector.
Consumer adoption of new technologies in financial services is significantly more advanced in China than anywhere else in the world. EY’s research into fintech adoption showed that 69% of Chinese consumers regularly use at least two different fintech services (the second highest rate of adoption was in India, at just 52%). Clearly Western fintech companies could learn a lot from their Chinese counterparts when it comes to taking new financial services products mainstream.
Yet a doubt lingers; can Chinese fintech brands really gain the trust (and adoption) of a global audience? We should expect them to try. Much attention has been paid to the steps big US tech companies are taking into the financial services market, but perhaps the more important trend to watch out for is the increasing Western footprint of brands like Alipay.
In some ways financial services is where brands face the sternest test to develop consumer trust. So, if China’s fintech giants can use their current ways of working to crack Western markets, it could be a sure sign that the Chinese approach to marketing has the potential to become the global norm.
Obviously, success for Chinese brands on the global stage will be about how they can positively differentiate themselves. To resonate with Western consumers will take more than having English language and multi-lingual websites. They will also need to go beyond fulfilling their responsibilities within the CSR arena and show true accountability and transparency if they are to succeed.
But this cross-cultural understanding needs to go both ways too. And that should start with Western marketeers recognising that Chinese thinking and current methods may soon form the basis of success for all global brands (wherever they may originate from).