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MARKETING: Building a Strong Brand in China
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altA brand is a set of perceptions and images that represent a company, product or service. A brand is the essence or promise of what will be delivered or experienced, and so, it is much more than the logo or the slogan.

A brand cannot be 100% controlled – at best it can be guided and influenced. A brand is ultimately defined by the good and the bad, your best product, as well as your worst product. The award winning advertisement and the very bad one that somehow slipped through the cracks of your organization. Your best employee and also your worst hire, ever. Brands are a mix of content, images, and feelings related to all the above parameters, and so brands become psychological concepts.

Creating and maintaining a strong brand requires commitment, consistency, integrity, and continuous attention to detail.

Branding is Business Critical

Branding is critical to obtain long term business success anywhere in the world. A strong brand will increase customer loyalty and satisfaction, which will increase sales and reduce churn. It can even reduce price sensitivity significantly. A strong brand will also lead to increased effectiveness of marketing activities since the brand will ensure higher cut through effects in media.

Main Ingredients in Building a Strong Brand
Behind every strong brand is a compelling idea, which captures customers’ attention and loyalty by filling an unmet or unsatisfied need.
The core essence of building a strong brand is to be crystal clear on what the brand stands for, which is expressed in:

1) The Brand’s Core Values

The brand’s core values not only determine the brand DNA but the entire company’s DNA. To establish core values, first the business, product or service’s core competencies must be worked out. These are what the company achieves for customers, and not necessarily what it does for them. Secondly, existing and potential customers should be analyzed, in terms of what they like and do not like, and which associations they have towards your business. Then key ideas arecreated to establish the brand’s core values. Most often companies define these as single words like: Reliable, Honest, Outgoing etc.

2) The Distinct Brand Personality
Brand personality is a set of human characteristics associated with a brand. Personality is the sum of how the brand behaves and the gender, age, socio-economic class, psychographic and emotional characteristics. The brand personality is often what really differentiates the brand from competing brands. In popular terms one can ask:“If my brand knocks on the door who steps in?” Is it Bruce Lee or Mary Poppins? By asking customers, potential customers, employees and maybe even competitors this question the company will get a good idea of the current brand personality. Sometimes the current brand personality is not the desired one, and so the company needs to define the desired personality traits, and then work long term to change the brand personality. A total makeover is not realistic, but adjustments are possible. Some examples: Marlboro is masculine and Virginia Slims is feminine. IBM is older while Apple is younger.

3) The Brand Promise
The promise is what you make and deliver to your customers and employees consistently. A successful brand promise is unique, compelling and believable. If not, give it another go. The promise should be based on customer, competitor and internal insights. An honest assessment of internal strengths, weaknesses, core competencies and strategic intent must be made. This is a task for top management and not the marketing department since this is closely tied to business strategy. The brand promise should ultimately be translated into a brand identity, including a logo, images and tagline.

When all this is accomplished look at the whole picture and ask:

- Is it relevant?
- Does it make us stand out?
- Does it turn customers on?
- Is it credible?
- Is it durable?

If yes, you are likely to have created a strong brand.

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Brand Building in China
Few markets are as tantalising to global brand marketers as the new consumer-driven China. The “new” market of 1.3 billion people, coupled with the meteoric rise of both size and spending power of its middle class, holds enormous potential. Why is China taking off now? Essentially, the government has given the people the right to go shopping. In 2011, China began its 12th five-year plan, shifting its economic focus from export-led sectors to increasing domestic consumer demand. The plan, passed by the government in mid-March 2011, is designed to transform the country into a major consumer marketplace.

The discipline of building a strong brand is more or less the same all over the world; however there are some China specific opportunities and challenges to encounter.

How to Reach Chinese consumers
While there are consumers in droves, many brands do not know how to reach them. In today’s marketplace, creating a sustainable and successful brand has become a more complex task than in the past. More and more people are trying to avoid advertisements today. Globally, advertising and marketing altchannels are in a dramatic flux because of this. That situation is mirrored in China.

Today, television is the primary channel for reaching Chinese consumers, and it will remain a strong channel in the near future, although its predominance will be challenged in coming years. Some of the biggest increases in online activity can be found in China, where 53% of respondents to a survey had searched for an ad online, 40% had shared links to ads, and 35% had promoted a brand via social networking. There are more than 400 million Internet users in China today, but still less than one-half of the Chinese population has access to the Internet.

More and more, marketers in China are approaching customers with a 360 degree plan, including television, online, print ads, sponsorships, events, mobile advertising, direct e-mailing, public relations, social media, and so forth. The right channel mix depends on the category and on the purpose of the advertising. Right now many marketers in China are focusing on building brand awareness and for this, television is good. As marketing priorities shift from brand development and awareness to sales and geographical expansion, other media will play a critical part.

Brand Liking is not Inherited
Many of the brands that are used in Western countries are ones that people chose because their parents used them. You can say that brand preferences are inherited. However, in China under Chairman Mao, there was little brand choice, so today’s youth are trying brands without any influence from their parents. For younger brands, this is an opportunity, but for many established brands this is a great challenge, since they do not get anything for “free” and they must look at their market position in a different light.

Consumer Insights are Critical, but Difficult to Obtain
It has become increasingly apparent that a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy does not guarantee success in China. A degree of adaption to the Chinese market is necessary for most brands in order to appeal to Chinese consumers. This means altering some brand attributes to demonstrate alignment with local culture and local tastes. For example, some western spirits brands have had to alter their scotch marketing because of the Chinese cocktail that mixes scotch with ice and green tea. In order to do this right, consumer insight is crucial. But China is still an emerging economy, and marketers often feel they do not have the research they need to target Chinese consumers. To complicate this even further, new markets arise all the time and regional differences in China are pronounced but poorly understood, especially among foreign companies.

That is not to say that strong global brands need a complete makeover to compete. Just look at Apple, KFC, and Starbucks for instance.

Finding Marketing Talent is Difficult
Another challenge is finding qualified marketing people. International companies have to have talented young and local marketing staff that can navigate the fast changing digital landscape on their behalf, and who can provide hands-on consumer insight to the company.

The conventional wisdom in China is that there is a new generation born every three years, so how do brands stay on top of this? Nike’s solution is to hire a highly talented group of local staff, who speak English, and who can keep Nike informed. Today, 95% of Nike’s corporate staff in China is locally sourced.

The challenges in China are great, but the potential reward of success is bigger.


By Heidi Skovhus

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