Does a brand always need to market on values?

While the world looks at reaching the Chinese market, it seems the Chinese idea of branding is a polar opposite of western brand values.

At Flamingo’s recent salon, titled ‘China: Divides in the value systems’, James Parsons, managing director of Flamingo Singapore, questioned what is arguably the central tenet of a Western brand marketer’s belief system when he asked “does a brand like Huawei really peddle values?”

Parsons argued that instead of trying to create an emotional attachment to its products, the company simply tries to create products that resonate because they’re good. Western marketers think that appealing to higher-order consumer values are the only way a brand can get customers to relate to it; in Huawei’s case, it clearly isn’t (and it’s doing just fine – a press release revealed that it earned revenues of CNY113.8billion, approximately US$18.5billion, in the first half of 2013, a 10.8% increase over the previous year.)

The salon saw four panelists – Parsons; Rob Campbell, regional head of planning at Wieden + Kennedy Shanghai; Zhang Ting, project director at Flamingo Shanghai; and Leta Hong Fincher, author of the book ‘Leftover’ Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China – discuss the changing values of Chinese consumers and how this is affecting marketing:

The importance of filial piety

As a nation China takes filial piety very seriously. According to Hong Fincher, the Chinese government recently implemented a law requiring children to visit their elderly parents. Concern for one’s parents is clearly reflected in the purchasing habits of the Chinese citizenry, who try to observe filial piety remotely.

Flamingo Shanghai’s Zhang Ting shared that Xiaomi, the Chinese phone brand that has been much talked about since their hiring of Hugo Barra (previously one of the public faces of Android), is being used by Chinese children to introduce their ageing parents to the pleasures of smartphones, which they then use to stay connected. Further, Zhang mentioned how children will utilise China’s robust ecommerce system to purchase goods for their parents who often live in other cities. This way they can, for example, help their mothers buy groceries.

A disproportionate level of confidence?

Wieden + Kennedy’s Campbell shared how the 2008 financial crisis created the perfect storm for the rise in Chinese nationalist sentiment: ‘Digital pervasiveness grew, especially for the Olympics …The world financially collapsed, and because (the Chinese) had digital coverage they could see it and it was utterly shocking because the West was always best…and (people) saw China’s rise as well.’ This means that Mainland Chinese are much more confident in their national identity.

However, Campbell claims that the crisis gave Chinese business “the wrong level of confidence because it led to arrogance.” Clearly a little skeptical of the current capacity of Chinese businesses to conquer the West, Campbell mentioned the example of the Chinese sporting goods brand Li-Ning, who opened a store outside Beaverton, where Nike is, “like a challenge(to Nike).” According to Campbell, Li-Ning thinks that it can succeed in the West primarily on scale.

Censorship and creativity

When discussing creativity – arguably the cornerstone of the advertising business – Parsons stated bluntly that “creativity is dangerous for a government that wants to control people’s lives”, talking about how after the Tiananmen Square incident, the government took specific measures in its education policy to reduce availability of arts-related educational material.

Hong Fincher built on this by illustrating the paradox of a government that wants to promote culture and creativity, but also tells its people that they cannot think in certain ways. She said that the government has implemented “7 don’t speak” – issues that people are not allowed to speak about at universities – which she says has had a dampening effect on academic freedom at Tsinghui University, where she is pursuing a PhD. She stated that on the one hand the government wants to stimulate innovation and research and development and creativity, and on the other hand it says “you can’t think in (a certain) way or you’re going to be censored.”

Which is not to say that China lacks creativity, however. According to Campbell, culturally China has been very creative; it’s just that in China creativity is less about self-expression and more about furthering the individual or the community.

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