Some say Chinese time-honored brands are a mountain of gold, waiting for visionary investors to explore. But others deem it a field of mine, having little hope to get renewed from being outdated. Panos Dimitropoulos, cultural insight leader at Added Value, a WPP strategic marketing consultancy, analyzed from his perspective on Chinese time-honored brands, and offered tips to make their future continue to be honored.
How has the status of Chinese venerable brands changed in recent years? What are the pros and cons of being a state-owned brand?
Being state-owned gives you impressive distribution networks, investment stability, and access to many resources. These brands have typically been around in China for a long time, and the businesses have a deep and real understanding of consumer tastes and needs. This provides them with a great competitive advantage to provide superior products and services. The advantage of Chinese brands also lies in the traditional Chinese culture or the heritage of a certain period of history. For people who have the similar experience, the brands can produce emotional resonance for sure. Still, most Chinese brands do not have a clear image that stands out from the competition, or we might say they are “products” rather than “brands.” They are not stylish or modern enough, so it’s difficult to attract younger consumers. In addition, scandals surrounding quality of production and supply chain integrity have created some barriers for these brands. The recent government crackdown on corruption has put large corporations under much greater scrutiny.
What’s your impression of China’s time-honored brands? Do you think that time is really an honor for them? Can you name some of such brands that you deem successful?
Time is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it suggests that a brand enjoys very high awareness while the quality can be guaranteed. On the other hand, people may feel the brand old-fashioned and no longer exciting. Therefore, although brand heritage can be important in terms of awareness and status, it is only half the story. It is equally important for a brand to keep in touch with changing times; otherwise it appears old-fashioned and out-of-date, and will fade away like an old memory. Linking tradition with contemporary themes ensures a brand move from “time-honored” to “timeless.” Shanghai Jahwa has done a fantastic job of creating premium brands in the personal care category, such as Herborist and Liushen. The company has demonstrated that it understands the needs and preferences of today’s consumers and it continually creates high quality products for them. Yun Nan Bai Yao is another good example of this. With deep roots in traditional Chinese medicine, the brand blazed new trails in oral care. Yun Nan Bai Yao has shown how a time-honored brand can ride the wave of consumer trends and build commercial success over time.
What can the government do to support such state-owned, time-honored brands?
Celebrating the quality and relevance of Chinese brands is critical to their success, enabling people to feel proud of the amazing craftsmanship of things made in China. Twenty-five years ago “Made in China” meant, to many, something that was cheap and likely to break. Today, most of the world’s most famous brands make their products in China. The government has a role to play in promoting and reinforcing continual improvement in quality and innovation. When it comes to brands’ overseas expansion, the government should be a strategic resource. Marketing these brands overseas is also about marketing China as a country. There is opportunity for the government to tell a well-orchestrated China story.
Do you think foreign expertise can help to revive such brands? If so, can you give some examples?
Foreign expertise can help bring more advanced know-how and methodologies in branding and marketing. For instance, the use of cultural insight can help a brand create a distinct meaning. It can help a brand tap into the latest cultural shifts in order to stand out from competition. However, the brand needs to be very clear on how to keep the brand essence when tapping foreign expertise or it would run the risk of losing its identity and cultural heritage.
Creating a new brand or reviving an old brand? Which is easier? How can the image of an old brand with a long history be revitalized?
Neither is an easy task. The trade-off of creating a new brand or reviving an old brand takes into consideration many variables. Reviving an old brand should require less investment as long as the brand doesn’t carry negative connotations in terms of brand image and product quality. But we must also consider whether a brand has simply “died out” due to cultural irrelevance or whether there is an opportunity gap yet to be explored — Rebranding will be easier to succeed if the product has good quality and consumer trust under such a circumstance.
Why is it that some foreign brands seem timeless and fashionable for such a long time?
By keeping up with branding evolution and trends. Nowadays it is not enough to just keep bombarding consumers with advertising messages. The quality of the message is more important than the quantity. Nowadays, great brands are cultural entities, connecting to the cultural zeitgeist of their consumers. Communications become an end in themselves by telling stories that create culturally motivated consumers to purchase products in order to become part of that culture. The best brands respond and evolve with culture. They are constantly refreshing their cultural messages. One great example is Levi’s jeans. The company has constantly reinvented itself to stay relevant to new generations. The Marlboro man, too, has changed from generation to generation.
What’s your recipe for reviving China’s time-honored brands?
Lessons of branding are quite simple and work across continents and generations. Brands are merely products with personalities. You need to define what your product is about and how it differs from and even surpasses its competitors. Its personality needs to be true to itself and culturally relevant to consumers. The emphasis should be on staying relevant, emotionally and culturally, to today’s consumers. Time-honored brands need to ensure that they don’t just rely on their history and heritage. They need to keep up-to-date and reflect changing consumer tastes. They need to realize how consumers are becoming more sophisticated. These brands really have a good opportunity at present to capitalize on the growing pride of China and the Chinese themselves. They are well placed to do this by leveraging their history and their unique “Chinese-ness.” But to do that, they also need to move with the times, always do.
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Article: ECNS News