China & Brands: “I am what I consume”.



Greg on branding in china

Brand Identity is a relatively new concept in China, but customers in China have learned fast what the brand is.

In order to find what is so special about Chinese perception and creation of brands, I talked with Gregory Moulinet, Strategic Creative Director at ZhengBang leading Chinese branding agency, located in Beijing, China to find out:

  • What is a brand identity: in China and in the Western World?
  • Why Chinese consumer brands are not globally successful?
  • What Chinese people expect from Western Brands?

What is a brand identity?

It is quite easy to say what is brand, we all have some ideas about it, but brand is based on the identity and you have quite few answers.

For me, identity is composed of many things, but the most important is a combination of 3 elements:  belief, an attitude and a role – those 3 elements, which a company or a person can control.

Person can decide what to belief in, can choose the attitude, and he can create the role, which has never existed before.

Decisions, choices and creativity – is what for me defines the identity, not which country one comes from neither the cultural background. Of cause such things as nationality is a part of you, maybe  50% of our identity, but it does not define you, as you didn’t decided, didn’t create and didn’t choose these parts of yourself.

Why it is important to have an identity?

Everyone has an identity (individual or at least collective identity), which serves to differentiate, why one person or company is different from another. If we need to be different, we need to have an identity. In business world a brand designer will work with that part of identity, which can be controlled.

Would it mean, that brand as such would work better in the western world, where identity is expected to be more important than in China (or other collectivist cultures)?

There is huge difference between Chinese and Western brands.

The way that Western brands define themselves:  try to be as human as possible. We talk about this brand as if it is our best friend. Sometimes the leader of the company can be a symbol of the company, so it helps to make a brand more person-like and, as a result, very charismatic.

We give adjectives, which we would normally reserve to individuals: tend to be nice, tend to be honest or opposite. There is an individualistic model of what the brand supposes to be.

In China, which tends to be more collectivist, brand is a giant machine.

Here, strong brand are usually b2b brands, there are so many successful consumer brands. So, there is no real charisma of the brand, as it is very difficult to manage.

Chinese brands are more like an army, well oiled machine, where things are managed the way they suppose to be.

So, as a result, there is a huge difference of expectations, when a Chinese customer buys Chinese or Western brands.

Why there are so few successful Chinese consumer brands?

What Chinese miss is the individualistic aspect of the brand, and this is the reason why, I think, there are so few successful consumer brands in China.

Consumer brands are individual, they target consumer identity. This brand is relevant to me, so I am going to buy it.

The interesting aspect, which brand expectations, would be different in the Western world and in China.

“I can recognize myself in this product, therefore I am going to buy it”, – is typical logic of a Western consumer.

Chinese do not react this way.

“This product defines me as a part of my social circle?” Is it the answer to me feeling as a part of group of people, which I belong or would like to belong? – would be the main questions, which are asked by a buyer in China.

Today, almost none of Chinese brands can offer any identity to their customers, so they lose their positions to Western Brands.

In b2b market, China has to offer some successful stories.

How do you define “successful” brand?

Well, for Chinese it is first of all money: successful brand are financially successful brands. Second would be “projecting power” and in some cases it can be more important, then just money, but in China these two factors come usually together: if you have power, you have money.

In western world – power of brands would be a bad thing. No-one likes Big Brother in the Western World. Here is it the opposite: you are powerful, you are a leader, and therefore we respect you.

So, is it possible at all for a Chinese company to create a strong consumer brand?

Well, it is what we are working on.

Western brands are consumed around the world and seen as a part of a personal identity, Chinese brands not so much, maybe yet.