"Five years ago, the top-10 brands in China were American," says Kevin Swanepoel, marketing and interactive director of the One Club, the international organization of advertising pros. "This year, the only American brand in the top 5 was Coke."
But brand-building is a slow game, and the creativity-quashing Cultural Revolution left the country with little strength in bourgeois skills such as marketing, advertising, customer service, and imaginative thinking. That's why the One Club has been holding advertising seminars in China for the past four years. The idea: to feed the vast creative labor demand that's developing as multinational ad agencies establish beachheads in the country and local shops ramp up. The students' eagerness to learn is stunning; their execution often comes up short. "When we ask a Chinese student to do an assignment, we usually get a Chinese version of an American pop poster," Swanepoel says. "We say, 'Guys, you've got to own your own history.' "
So too with Chinese fashion designers, says Joanne Ooi, creative director of Shanghai Tang. "They're very Western-looking. They don't have the confidence in their own cultural roots."
But there are signs that the younger generation is finally embracing its culture. Huang Hung, CEO of China Interactive Media Group, a Beijing-based producer of luxury lifestyle magazines and TV programs, says a crop of young designers is now springing up who manage to signal their heritage without descending into kitsch.
Even more encouraging, Hung says, is that Chinese consumers' attitudes toward brands have changed dramatically in just a few years. Four years ago, she says, a survey by her company found that "flaunting your status" was the number-one priority in choosing a brand. This year, the number-one priority was design.
A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.