Overseas expansion in a more contentious world requires new brand-building skills
An open letter to CEOs of Chinese brands going global
by Chris Reitermann
Chief Executive, Asia & Greater China
Dear Chinese CEO,
The world has become a rather complicated place. The political environment over the last year has changed dramatically. The trade war between the US and China has changed the playing field for Chinese brands in their quest to “go global.” Where Chinese companies were welcomed with open arms only a few years back, now, more than ever, they are looked upon with a skeptical eye and given a wary welcome (if they’re welcomed at all).
In addition, there has been a shift in leadership. Many Chinese companies are now world leaders in their respective fields, especially technology.
But these leading Chinese brands often run into trouble on the global stage.
Operating as a follower in a politically welcoming environment is a completely different game than being see as a global leader in a complicated, protectionist environment.
Chinese companies going global need to think about their brand much more carefully than they have done in the past. Selling in foreign lands is relatively easy, but building a global brand is difficult and requires steadfast commitment. A brand is not an ad campaign, but a platform and belief that guides everything a company does and how it behaves—it must be crafted carefully.
A brand platform—a clearly articulated point of view on the world and the company’s role in it—should resonate across all stakeholders (government, press, customers, consumers, employees) and position the company as the embodiment of a set of values irrespective of the company’s bottom line. Building this platform requires brands to take these actions:
You must Lead. A company needs to be human, it needs to be understood. This is what the world expects from leaders now, and companies are beholden to the same expectations.
You must do more. Connecting the world and making it digital is no longer enough, providing a smartphone to everyone is no longer enough. Neither is building good affordable cars or the best value refrigerators. That is what every company aims for. Companies today need to answer these questions: What’s in it for the world? For the people? For customers? For governments?
You must build trust. There is a general fear of all tech companies (new and old, Chinese and Western). People are worried about privacy, jobs, data—innovation in general. While they see the benefit of advances, they’re also worried about where this is all leading to. Now add to that the reputation that comes with being a Chinese company—the misconceptions and lack of understanding; one can understand why the world fears a tech or auto leader coming from China.
You must own the narrative. To overcome this, Chinese companies must open up and tell their story to the world. They must clarify purpose and intent. They must act as a good person—emulating transparency, humility, compassion, and hope.
Tell a human story
A company’s story needs to be told in a human and exciting way. Products need to be explained in language that a normal person can understand. The problem is, most Chinese companies are lost in tactics—because they sell (mostly) and forget about a narrative. Tactics, however, eat brands. There is certainly a need for the immediate and tactical work, but it needs to lead into a broader narrative. Strong brands use good communications to build shields for when things go wrong, or when products are not as good as they could be.
Chinese companies need a “Smarter Planet,” a “Network Intuitive” or a “Just Do It.” Not a slogan, but a belief—a belief supported by products, solutions, behaviors, and innovation to bring the company to life. This belief can be expressed in many ways, including: CEO speeches, events, products, interviews, ads, and employee attitudes and behavior. But all of it needs to build up to one consistent brand platform.
中国公司也需要自己的“Smarter Planet”、“Network Intuitive”或“Just Do It”。这些不是口号，而是一种信念——一种由产品、解决方案、行为和创新支持的信念，它能让公司焕然一新。这种信念可以通过多种方式表达，包括CEO演讲、活动、产品、访谈、广告以及员工的态度和行为。但最终目标都是要形成一个一致的品牌平台。
To build this type of shield requires someone in your company to own the message, someone senior and strategic who can make decisions. Someone who is interested in the whole company and not driven by short-term financial goals, but clearly sees the long-term goals of the company. A strong Corporate CMO, a caring and involved CEO.
It requires a financial commitment. Many multinationals have spent hundreds of millions in branding efforts when they entered China, how is a Chinese brand going outbound any different? There is no “Chinese Way” in going global.
It also requires time. Those big, bold ideas that are needed can’t just be produced and executed overnight. No brand platform can be built in a few weeks, even months. A long-term commitment and vision are vital.
Many Chinese companies continue to struggle to do it right, simply because there isn’t enough focus on long-term and a lack of empowerment within the organization.
I am 100 percent certain that if this is done right, it will change how the world sees your company. It will create a much more positive and favorable environment around the globe to operate in. I am also absolutely confident that the return will be 100-fold. This is the key ingredient to becoming a true, global brand.
Thanks for reading.