Enter the Dragon

01 Feb 2012|Added Value

Growing without a stink

As the economic might of China grows, so too does the ambition of Chinese brands to expand internationally.   In fact, several Chinese brands have already started to gain traction in the West. Successful examples include Haier, a white goods manufacturer, and Lenova and Huawei, who offer computer and communication solutions.

A noticeable feature of first wave of successful Chinese brands abroad is a distinct lack of “Chinese-ness”.  There is nothing in the brands’ imagery that clearly marks them as “made in China” or culturally recognizable as Chinese.

Interestingly, the global export of Japanese brands followed a similar strategy in the 1980s/1990s.  Conscious of negative memories associated with Japan’s wartime aggression, brands avoided displaying overtly Japanese characteristics in their design or expression. From Sony’s Walkman to Super Mario and Pokemon, the deluge of Japanese electronics and entertainment consumer brands were culturally neutral showing no sense of their national origins. This was in direct contrast to the global expansion of American brands in this period, who, true to their stereotype, proudly displayed their American provenance as a form of competitive advantage.

Cultural theorist Koichi Iwabuchi has argued that the success of Japanese brands internationally is based on the ability to be “culturally odourless” by avoiding any negative association that can be made to your home nation.  In other words, not being “culturally stinky”.

Sony Walkman 1980’s

This tried and tested approach could similarly give Chinese brands with global ambitions an advantage.   Especially given the unease around China’s economic influence in the West coupled with moral concerns about human rights which create a potential barrier to brands of Chinese origin.  A practical way to shortcut consumer concerns is to avoid a connection being made with China or Chinese culture whatsoever.

An interesting example of a brand adopting this approach is Aigo – a producer of digital devices and cameras.  The brand’s name in Chinese means “the patriot” – which creates a direct link to patriotic pride – something that is very marketable in China.  However for the international market, the brand strips away its nationalist credentials and symbolism.   Aigo’s international brand logo features their sponsorship of the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes Formula One team and swaps Chinese text and features for more generic lines and curves.  It sits nicely alongside fellow McLaren sponsors such as Vodafone, Mobil, Santander, with nothing that draws attention to Aigo as being a Chinese brand.

Chinese brand ‘aigo’

In the context of Western fears about a resurgent China, it appears that an absence of Chinese-ness may characterize the initial success of Chinese brands abroad.  Put simply, not creating a cultural stink will be the best way for Chinese brands to engage Western consumers as they get used to the idea of these new global Chinese brands.


By Jerry Clode. Jerry works in our Cultural Insight team and is our resident expert on culture across Asia-Pac having lived and breathed it personally.

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