How The Chinese Became Global Branding Geniuses

In the same way China approached its preparations for the Beijing Olympics, businesses have fully detailed each sensory impression a product will have on consumers. One company's ultimate objective: Become a global leader in car manufacturing. Look out, Detroit.

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There I stood, having just been given permission to see an area of a building that few were allowed to enter. As I opened the door to the first room, the unmistakable smell of freshly cut grass pervaded my senses. The air was misty, the colors were light green, and the Mandarin name of the room I'd just entered, translated, meant "The people from the Nordic countries." With my Danish background, it was comfortably familiar—the colors seemed lifted directly from the designer Arne Jacobsen's catalogue, the smell took me right back to my parents' garden, and the air was full of spring sounds Scandinavian birds make at dusk.

The building I found myself in was huge—about the size of a football stadium—and it was located some 200 miles outside of Beijing. With the same level of zeal its country used in preparing for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, this business was fully detailing each sensory impression its products will have on potential consumers. For this business, the objective is to become a global leader in car manufacturing. Here, thousands of cars were lined up to leave an ultra-modern production facility, which, until recently, featured all the familiar global brands. Now, there was a new take on it. The cars that stretched, row upon row, were all Chinese brands designed specifically to appeal to foreign markets.

The world soon will see the ability of the Chinese to absorb new ideas, and fast-track them into the mainstream with accuracy, skill, and speed. In a very short time—despite a rocky start—they have grasped the essence of branding. In fact, their embrace of the fact that branding is a sensory discovery has put them ahead of others in the same industry operating on the other side of the globe.

Beside the Nordic room was another room, one that focused on precision and detail. Surprising details of how, for example, Germans perceive mechanical movement, compared to the Chinese idea. Looking at a sliding door, it opens slowly, then speeds up, before slowing down to a perfect stop. In contrast, the Chinese door would swish open quickly and stop with an abrupt bang. The colors—gunmetal gray, black, white, puce, and olive. The shapes—perfectly symmetrical. The sounds—deeply resonant. Overall—a very conservative feel. Welcome to Germany.

For almost three years, a team of scientists, researchers, anthropologists, and psychologists traveled the world to study the most inspirational and innovative countries in the world. They carefully selected the best features of those countries, focusing on those aspects that could influence the evolution of Chinese brands, shape their innovation process, define their future, and most importantly, serve as a model for their success.

It seems like history repeating itself. Way back in the 1980s, the Japanese developed their version of the "German Room." In order to surpass competing nations, they had to fully understand how they worked. They learned their lessons well, and Japan went on to build among the best-selling cars in the world.

China wants to be next. But they didn't start out as naturals at understanding how branding works.

Over the years I've worked with Chinese people, I've been somewhat taken aback by their perspective on the world. Their skill in producing sophisticated technological products is awe-inspiring. And yet, when it came to understanding the concept of branding, they seemed to struggle with the notion.

After spending weeks and weeks inside some of the largest Chinese companies teaching the fundamentals of creating an emotional brand, a CEO approached me, indirectly of course, to ask when we would begin work on creating the actual brand. For him, all the emotional stuff seemed irrelevant. The business was the product. This was particularly striking in light of the fact that, more than any others, the Chinese have an even greater passion for brands than, say, Russian or Japanese consumers. A recent study reveals that the average Chinese consumer feels the need to wear at least three branded items to feel comfortable at work. Yet, when probed further, they were at a loss, unable to define the features of a brand. However, they had no difficulty describing the product. It seems that for them, the product is the brand. The emotional connection is simply absent.

The irony of this did not escape me as I found myself in this exclusive area of European sensibilities, the Nordic room and the German room. Especially given the fact that the very CEO who wondered when the "real" branding of his product was going to begin had commissioned more than 200 people to create an unprecedented database of the world's consumer profiles.

At the end of the day, that very same CEO was so proud as he asked me what I thought. The answer was obvious—I was more than impressed. I was intrigued to understand the end result of our work.

I asked him what he intended calling his new car. I imagined a Toyota-like name, or perhaps one with a German lilt. He looked at me, answering with absolute certainty, "It will be a Chinese name, of course." He was firmly convinced that the time has come for the Western world to understand that there's another language dominating the conversation, and that's Mandarin. He went on to explain that the brand would only be written in Chinese, because, after all, there are enough people in the world who speak and read Mandarin, and it may very well be to others' advantage to learn to do so, too.

In the same way as when he first asked me to focus more on branding in my training sessions, and then to subsequently see him learning and changing his mind, something altered in his demeanor. It was like the last word had been spoken. He meant what he said. Soon we will find it necessary to speak Mandarin—especially when buying the brands of tomorrow.

Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology—Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September 2011.

Read more by Martin Lindstrom: The 10 Most Addictive Sounds in the World

[Image from Flickr user Buou]

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  • Colin Clarke

    Entirely interesting that the Chinese corporation would go to such great lengths to design products that have unique emotional appeal to specific audiences in different countries around the world, but when it comes time to stamp a name on it they bail out on their own research and defiantly give it a Mandarin name.

    Apparently they don't understand branding as well as you thought (but they are getting closer!).

  • Ron Strauss

    I welcome their competiton as a global player. That brings with it responsibility. Responsibility to protect IP rights - because now they also have something to lose when 'grey market, ' 'black market,' and counterfeit goods are manufactured under Chinese-owned brand names and sold around the world.
    China has comprehensive IP laws, but they're not enforced in a manner that really dents the activities of Chinese based violators. Even if a brand owner wins a judgement, the amount is usually inadequate to compensate them for their losses - the median damage award is about 15% of the amount the IP owner claims.* Most claimants in the cases reviewed are from US, France, Japan, and Germany, and make up 50 percent of plaintiffs
    This may change as retail scanner data becomes more available to document losses.
    *Source: China: Intellectual Property Rights Protection In China: Trends In Litigation And Economic Damages, Article by Kristina Sepetys and Alan Cox;

  • mod*mom

    i want to read your book.
    my friend is always arguing whether bloggers influence people to buy things.

  • Chris Reich

    I commend our Chinese competitors for taking the trade battle up a notch.

    I wish, however, that U.S. corporations would be as serious about global competition. We are soon to be the "also rans" in the trade race.

    There is a famous study about having people from different countries watch an aquarium and then report what they observed. The American will tell you about the biggest fish in the tank and how he chased the other fish or how they avoided him. The Asian will describe the community of fish and how that community interacts.

    Big difference in perspective means big difference in work product. We're soon to be displaced as the biggest fish in the tank.

    Chris Reich

  • AB

    I usually agree with the posts on this blog, but I think it is kind of crazy to believe that Americans are going to learn Mandarin to buy a car or any other consumer good, for that matter. Never underestimate the laziness of the American population.