Time to build up the reputation of Chinese brands [Global Times commentary]

Global Times, May 14, 2009

Walking through shopping areas in China is an interesting experience. There is a combination of brands that is quite peculiar. What one does not find elsewhere, and what catches the foreigner’s eye most, are those labels that try to look like a Western brand, but obviously aren’t.

Sometimes, Western designers copy – or rather, look abroad to find inspiration. Using a few Chinese characters has become rather popular. They are considered elements of culture that is nowadays global. Some critics consider it a new form of colonialism, but when I asked some Chinese friends, they couldn’t care less. The argument was that, if you liked the design, you could take and use what you wish, both ways – at least, as long as it’s not offensive.

Thinking of some of the pseudo-brands and “English” phrases one finds on many products in China, this alone may explain a lot. Products simply look good or don’t, are affordable or too expensive. At least amongst the Chinese friends I spoke with, this was the important issue. There is a good side and a bad to that.

On the positive, there is not – yet? – such a strong brand consciousness and the associated social pressure. In some parts of the world, not wearing what’s “in” is equal to social death. (Interestingly, in this regard, China seems rather more individualistic.) I wanted to know whether it’s just the money that keeps people from buying Western brand products, and the verdict was that they would always choose based on price and value. Rationality still seems to prevail.

Still, Western brands and products are afforded a certain cachet. Not only are they more expensive, they are also marketed to a premium segment, to people who can afford them and care about the image, looks and quality. All national pride aside, when in doubt, Western brand-name products will usually be seen as being of higher quality – somewhat ironically, given that many of those products are made in China.

Perhaps this is why the look of Western labels is used, and why you see so many Western models advertising Chinese products: the surface look and whether it meets with favor is the number one consideration; price and value, including quality, the other. And copying the surface of a brand while trying to be as cheap as possible seems to be an attempt at getting the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, it results in products that aren’t as good as they could be, and in “brands” that aren’t brands.

Here is the downside, then: A brand name is not just a name. It is supposed to deliver a value, even imbue its wearer with an aura of success, health, youth, stylishness – you name it. Companies spend lots of money to create and maintain this association. Words and ideas, labels and brands, all carry connotations. A large number of Chinese products, unfortunately, have few connotations other than “cheap.”

Trying to look good and be cheap, but not even delivering on the promise of affordable quality, is not going to lead far. As China is industrializing and changing from being the mere workbench of the world to becoming a global player in its own right, it takes more than cheap production. To build up China’s own brand names will take confidence in a label, quality control to back it up, creativity and good communication. The resources are there, and achieving this would be good both for pride and for practice – but it takes the will to support creative thinking.

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