A Brand Culture Approach to Chinese Branding in the Global Marketplace

By Wu Zhiyan, Janet Borgerson & Jonathan Schroeder

SchroederGlobal brand literacy is expanding rapidly, as is the appeal of brand identity, for a growing number of brand conscious Chinese consumers. Below, Wu Zhiyan, Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder examine how Chinese branding efforts express significant aspects of Chinese brand culture, and explore the possibilities and processes of constructing global Chinese brands.


Our research on Chinese brand culture investigates the processes and possibilities of developing global brands via a brand culture approach. Often, studies in international marketing and consumer research overlook the ways in which brand development adapts to market conditions and, importantly, contributes to public discourse. Although contexts and situations may be acknowledged to influence, if not determine, brand meanings, the co creative power of multiple brand actors is often overlooked.

In contrast, a brand culture approach directs our attention to shifts and changes that occur through repeated interactions between various actors across time and space. In this way, a cultural analysis of brand development draws attention to emerging new knowledge around the co creation and circulation of brands and cultures, highlighting gaps in previous approaches. Culture, which includes aspects of particular histories and moments of creative innovation, can be perceived as a resource upon which branding processes and practices can draw. Yet, there are many ways in which branding processes and practices – and brands themselves – go beyond this subsidiary role, and indeed, co create culture.


How is a Brand Culture approach different?

Brand culture opens up a way to think about and manage brands that moves beyond typical brand management. Brand culture emphasizes brand heritage, history, and legacy and how these create associations, meaning, and value. Brand culture focuses on how brands share stories, build community and solve problems.

Moving away from the trend to study the managerial aspects of Western brand building in Chinese contexts, we examine how Chinese branding efforts express significant aspects of their own brand culture. In our research, we use a Chinese perspective to examine the capacity of Chinese brand culture to serve as a complement to existing models of brand globalization. We investigate conceptual and strategic relationships between brands and culture, and reflect the concerns of Chinese companies interested in developing global brands. In so doing, we explore the possibilities and processes of constructing global Chinese brands, which include calling attention to the growing significance of the Chinese diaspora.

Towards this aim, we have conducted in depth studies in multiple locations, drawing upon several years’ worth of work with consumers, employees, managers, and executives. In taking a cultural approach to branding, we focus on the circulation of cultural meanings, objects, and identities across time, space, and cultures. This enables in-depth examination of participant experiences gathered through interviews and observation, and offers wider implications for the understanding of Chinese brand culture.


Global potential of Chinese Brands

It has been argued that Chinese brand globalization has yet to grasp the needs and desires of foreign consumers; and that many Chinese firms remain deficient in global marketing expertise and adequate communication skills, and consequently suffer from a low reputation. All in all, China seems to lack competitive advantage for building global brands.

A manager of a Chinese housewares and appliance company in Shanghai relayed an international trade exhibition incident that sums up several key issues in Chinese branding. On the morning of 4 March 2008, a representative of Kohler, a leading global brand, stormed over to the Chinese brand’s display to complain. He said that the multi-functional computerized shower cabin exhibited by the Chinese company was a counterfeit of a Kohler original. The Chinese manager was asked to remove it immediately. Later, in private, he revealed: “Actually this product is genuine [Kohler]. It is the latest style and I have bought it for this exhibition. It is very easy to reproduce.” Supplementary details from a manager of a Chinese kitchenware and bathroom appliance company in Changzhou confirmed this claim: “It is not difficult to produce these kinds of products. You know, the parts are all available in the Chinese market. We just buy it and assemble it. So we can produce every product the clients require.” His declaration embraces an aesthetic that has dominated China’s industrial rise.

A contrast to this perspective emerges from key features in contemporary branding, which has shifted from merely identifying products toward building strong connections and creative cooperations with consumers. Moving Chinese brands from a focus on commodities is crucial; and clues to this process emerge from brand culture and the way in which aesthetic values and historical culture inform, and suggest understandings of, a global reception of branded products and services. Recognizing ever evolving brand culture, or more specifically the co creation and circulation of brands and cultures, offers significant opportunities.

Our initial investigations did indeed indicate that Chinese brand globalization has familiar problems, including images of low-price and low-quality and a poor understanding of the needs of foreign consumers. Interviews with CEOs of well known Chinese brands revealed gaps in their brands’ globalization resulting from poor knowledge of global marketing, branding, and export culture, combined with the negative image of Chinese products across the globe.

However, our interviewees suggested that musician and entertainer Jay Chou provided a model of successful Chinese brand development, and that the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony proved that similar events in the future could enhance the image of Chinese brands worldwide. Further, our informants at the international trade exhibition ultimately pointed out that the poor repute of Chinese brands might be improved by applying new paradigms, particularly drawing more intensely on Chinese-styling and design innovation to improve and distinguish contemporary Chinese products.


The Importance of Global Diaspora Market Reach

Our three case studies offer possible visions for developing global brands – brands marketed not just to a Western audience, or a local Chinese market, but also to a worldwide ethnic diaspora. Global ethnic diaspora refers to the movement of people, forced or voluntary, from one or more nation-states to others. A diaspora includes people who reside outside their origin country and away from its citizens.

We have defined “global brand” as one that reaches multiple markets around the world, even if those markets are primarily diasporic, that is, serving a manifestation of the home market in other countries. Our research has suggested how Chinese global brand contexts can draw upon the reach and extent of diaspora to develop brand meaning and image.

Moving Chinese brands from a focus on commodities is crucial; and clues to this process emerge from brand culture and the way in which aesthetic values and historical culture inform, and suggest understandings of, a global reception of branded products and services.

Brands may gain a strong foothold in global markets by targeting diaspora markets worldwide because diasporic consumers typically eliminate the need to translate a foreign brand. Our three case studies suggest that images of modern Chinese life animated by global fashion resources can be used as leverage in appealing to Chinese expatriate populations. In other words, cultural similarities, such as abstract Confucian values and common cultural symbols that exist among ethnic Chinese who constitute a vast untapped market across the globe can become the basis for developing Chinese brands globally. The three cases reveal that the symbolic value of global brands functions as a substantial resource to satisfy cultural needs that exist among ethnic diaspora.

For instance, his highly successful global tours demonstrate the immense appeal of Jay Chou, his musical style, and his cultural affiliations among young expatriate Chinese in the US, Canada, and European countries. In his capacity as a Chinese music artist, Chou expands the symbolic value of his origins through his quotation of Chinese poetry, martial arts, and myths, and through his hybridisation of traditional Chinese music and various Western pop genres. These strategies of multi-dimensional cultural mining not only establish Chou’s authentic credentials for a strong fan base in China and Taiwan, but also augment perceptions of him as a highly desirable icon of modern China amongst fans across the Pacific Rim and further overseas, as hundreds of Chou fan sites attest.

Our second example, the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, can be said to have successfully grappled with the issue of China’s identity anxiety. It helped present a new China – strengthened by economic success, technological growth, and modernisation, but nonetheless grounded in the values of its rich and proud cultural past. The opening ceremony tapped into the emotions of domestic Chinese and the Chinese diaspora worldwide through performances that evoked nostalgia and authenticity, and generally elicited pride in national and cultural identity. In particular, elements such as the old Silk Road tableaux, the Beijing opera vignette, and the expansive gesture of thousands of performers playing the fou, grounded the opening ceremony in historical Chinese culture, and provided a common cultural experience for many Chinese observers.

Shanghai Tang’s brand success shows that using Chinese cultural symbols – old and new, positive and controversial – can successfully launch a brand onto a global stage. Some scholars have stated that the cosmopolitan image remains important in catering to the expatriate Chinese population. We propose that Shanghai Tang proves much more. It shows that cosmopolitanism is simply not enough, and that it is more the use of traditional Chinese images filtered through contemporary design and fashion systems that really speaks to Chinese communities worldwide. The Chinese diaspora provides a key ingredient in the global success of the brand.


What makes Chinese brand culture stand out?

Our selection of Jay Chou, the 2008 Beijing Olympics Opening ceremony, and Shanghai Tang, a global fashion brand with aesthetic roots in Chinese historical culture, as illustrative case studies, is fully consistent with a mostly unwritten and unspoken consensus around exploiting Chinese cultural specificity towards the global development of Chinese brands. Although these three cases may seem “under the radar,” we believe that together, they provide unique insights into the relation between brands and Chinese culture, and offer intriguing possibilities for thinking about global Chinese brands. Rather than canvass the usual suspects, such as Haier and Lenovo, we set off to investigate an unconventional trio of cases. We acknowledge that they represent different realms of branding: Jay Chou is a celebrity brand, we frame the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony as a branding event, and Shanghai Tang represents a more traditional luxury fashion brand. Yet, each engages Chinese cultural resources in their efforts, and each reveals similar aspects of the co creation and circulation of brands and cultures.

Collectively, these three cases offer a lens through which to study Chinese brand development in the global marketplace and shed light on the ways in which brands and culture co create and inform each other in global brand culture. We use these insights to argue for the development of Chinese brand culture into a strategic resource. This is not a simple matter of drawing upon a shared set of characteristics in all cases; rather Chinese brand culture reveals itself as a subtle and complex resource with a diversity of applications, impacts, and impressions. For example, we explore seemingly contradictory embrace of Old Shanghai and Mao era images to forward fashion; the successful ways in which hybrid musical composition combines Confucian values, martial arts, and hip hop beats; and the voyage of mythical Apsaras from ancient goddesses to space age consumers.

Historical Chinese culture and modern Chineseness often take the form of global brands. These are no ordinary brands, but rather ones that attract millions of consumers worldwide and thousands of managerial workers both within and outside China. The enormous market success of Jay Chou, the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, and Shanghai Tang shows that the landscapes of Chinese brand development are vast and growing, with huge untapped potential. These investigations and reflections should provide impetus to other Chinese brand builders, as well as brand builders overseas, to rethink their brand development strategies in terms of culturally aware brand strategies, including the role of local cultures in developing recognisable global brands. Of course, brand builders must also factor in the potential negative impact of such brand building: excessive cultural reproductions and representations can lead to a vogue for misleading and meaningless versions of local cultures, and a related dissolution and denigration of these.


Global Brand Literacy and Brand Identity

Global brand literacy is expanding rapidly, as is the appeal of brand identity, for a growing band of brand conscious Chinese consumers. Our research examines the open discourses of brands composed and co-created with consumers, but also with managerial workers and the media, in an effort to analyse meanings and circulations of brands and cultures. It blends theory-building research from the social sciences with cultural analysis tools common in the humanities, and thereby draws the study of brand culture and branding into the social sciences and cultural studies.

Shifting Chinese brands away from a focus on cheap commodities, toward brand development, provides an opening for a brand culture perspective. An analysis of Chinese brand culture suggests that aesthetic values and historical culture inform, and hold out possibilities for, a global reception of branded products and services. We have argued further that ever-evolving brand culture and, more specifically, the co creation and circulation of brands and cultures represent key opportunities for the development of Chinese global brands. The Chinese brand panorama is opening.


This article is adapted by permission of the publisher, from the book From Chinese Brand Culture to Global Brands: Insights from Aesthetics, Fashion, and History by Wu Zhiyan, Janet Borgerson, and Jonathan Schroeder, © Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK. All rights reserved. www.palgrave.com

About the Authors

Wu Zhiyan is an Assistant Professor at the School of Management, Shanghai Institute of Foreign Trade. She has worked in the Chinese garment manufacturing sector, and was a marketing supervisor at CUIPPC, an intellectual property firm in Beijing. She has a B.A. in English from Beijing Foreign Studies University, an MSc in International Management and a Ph.D. in Management from University of Exeter, UK.

Janet Borgerson is a Visiting Scholar at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Her teaching and research focus on issues related to culture, identity, and experience at the intersections of philosophy and consumption. She has held tenured faculty positions at Stockholm University, Sweden and the University of Exeter Business School in England, with visiting positions in New Zealand, Thailand, and China. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Jonathan Schroeder is the William A. Kern Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He has published widely on branding, communication, consumer research, and identity. He is the author of Visual Consumption, editor of Conversations on Consumption, and co-editor of Brand Culture and The Routledge Companion to Visual Organization. He is editor in chief of the interdisciplinary journal Consumption Markets & Culture. He received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of All China Review.