Most Americans are comfortable buying US-brand products made in China, but buying Chinese brands is a different game. Despite the ubiquity of Chinese-made goods in Americans' everyday lives, research and anecdotal evidence suggests that association with China hurts rather than helps Chinese brands. This is hardly surprising, given that American images of and attitudes toward China have historically been divided and conflicting.
Look no further than the high-profile purchase by Lenovo of IBM's PC business and its flagship brand ThinkPad in early 2005 for evidence of how these perceptions can affect public acceptance of Chinese firms.
Put simply, in the minds of the American public, the acquisition of a piece of IBM is tantamount to buying a piece of American heritage. The symbolic weight of the nation-state was ever more potent in this commercial transaction.
Branding is not merely about product differentiation. More importantly, it's about identity, attachment and trust.
It must strike an emotional chord with customers and inspire loyalty through communicative devices ranging from brand names and logos to strategic deployment of marketing tactics.
Unlike original equipment manufacturer products, brands command a highly visible presence in the market and their power can be deeply personal. But brand appeal is also fragile. It can be easily diluted and even destroyed if not well cared for.
The vast majority of the world's most valued brands, as rated by Business Week and Interbrand, originate from the United States and Western Europe, with a few from Japan and South Korea.
One key difference between what Chinese companies face and what Japanese and Korean firms once encountered in their brand expansion into the US market is the broader political environment of the marketplace. So far, none of the strongest brands have come from countries with political systems that are starkly different from that of the United States.
If any Chinese company is able to overcome such obstacles and establish itself among the world's top brands, it will represent a great leap forward to a truly global branded marketplace that transcends political persuasions.
To successfully build a brand in the US market, Chinese companies need to consider creating and enhancing their global identity or elements of Chinese identity with transnational appeal.
This presupposes a deep, measured understanding of American consumers and the larger historical, cultural context. It also requires marketing savvy that effectively delivers brand meaning and experience to consumers for product uptake as well as to foster a long-term relationship.
It is also important that Chinese companies highlight their local associations in terms of the extent of local participation in the business process. Chinese companies need to proactively participate in local community-building efforts and to demonstrate good corporate citizenship.
One of the ways to accomplish this is to invest in communities through charitable works and other programs designed to improve their living conditions.
Furthermore, Chinese companies should also make efforts to build mutual understanding and foster goodwill between the two countries and peoples. It is understandable that corporations shy away from engaging in discourse or activities deemed to be outside the sphere of business.
On the other hand, political relations between countries do from time to time upend brand equity in consumer perception and choice. Chinese companies are well advised to sponsor and support programs in the United States that promote the understanding of Chinese culture and society. They can also engage in such efforts through partnerships with non-government, civic organizations in the US.
Wang Jian teaches marketing communication at Purdue University and was previously a communications specialist at McKinsey & Company
Source: China Daily