Culture a big factor in branding campaigns

He Jiaxun
A noticeable feature of brand campaigns in China over the past few years is the increasing representation of explicitly Chinese elements.
He Jiaxun

A noticeable feature of brand campaigns in China over the past few years is the increasing representation of explicitly Chinese elements.

Brands often go into overdrive to endear themselves to local consumers.

Typical examples include McDonald’s opening in 2014 of a flagship Chinese-style restaurant called “Eatery” and its archrival Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “Original+” concept store that opened in Shanghai in 2016. Both were decked out in Chinese themes.

Local brands have also weighed in. Herborist, a brand owned by cosmetics conglomerate Shanghai Jahwa, names a skin care product tai chi, in a tribute to the Taoist principle of balance.

This kind of marketing gimmickry, focused on leveraging cultural icons, is different from the strategy designed to encourage favoritism toward local brands by arousing ethnocentrism.

This phrase refers to the preference of buying products from one’s own country with the purpose of protecting the economy and the jobs of locals.

Local elements

The first strategy plays out through accentuating consumers’ identification with local cultural elements; the latter, however, revolves around playing the “patriotism” card, namely, whipping up concerns about the adverse impact of import goods on local brands.

To examine how these two forces shape consumer behavior, I led and co-authored a study years ago that involved sending some 1,051 questionnaires to students and MBA alumni from five cities — Shanghai, Shenzhen (Guangdong Province), Nanchang (Jiangxi Province), Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province), and Kunming (Yunnan Province). We collected 912 valid questionnaires.

The reason for selecting these cities is that they are typical of certain consumer idiosyncrasies.

Shanghai and Shenzhen are cosmopolitan coastal cities. Their long-time exposure to external influences predisposes citizens to a higher degree of acceptance of import brands.

Kunming is a melting pot of ethnic groups. The city, with a dominant homegrown tobacco company and a pharmaceutical firm making herbal medicine, hardly feels threatened by any import brands.

Nanchang is a city that boasts unique cultural heritage like ceramics. But it has few well-known brands and its geographical location — far from the coastal areas — means that its populace has a weaker incentive to protect local industry or favor foreign buys.

Hangzhou is home to a host of domestic powerhouses, many of which are producers or retailers of consumer goods. This is an area replete with competition between local and overseas brands. Therefore, Hangzhou residents are thought to be more ethnocentric.

Indeed, brands like Wahaha, the nation’s biggest beverage group, have played the “patriotism” card before, with its “Very Coke” — the Chinese answer to Coke and Pepsi — using the tagline “Coke for the Chinese” to attract customers.

In the questionnaires we handed out to respondents, surveying their attitudes across four product categories — ranging from shampoo to sneakers, from handsets to bottled water — domestic brands are pitted against foreign rivals: Slek against Rejoice, Lining against Nike, Oppo against Apple, Nongfu Spring against Evian, to name but a few.

For the sake of brevity, I shall only share a few findings that reflect the complex relationship between consumers’ stated preference and their actual purchase behavior. Cultural identity, the study found, can boost the preference and actual purchasing of domestic brands and decrease the preference of import brands.

Culture matters

However, one’s domestic bias due to cultural identity does not directly translate to reluctance to buy import brands. Ethnocentrists who proclaim their love of domestic brands like Oppo may end up buying Samsung. Words are not always matched by action.

In comparison, the relationship between relative preference and actual purchasing of domestic or import brands is stronger when cultural identity is involved than when consumer ethnocentrism is concerned.

Past research on the impact of cultural identity often suffers from perception of China as monolithic. Regional variations within the country are so huge that they defy a simplistic generalization or profiling of consumers.

A lesson for marketing managers is that they should develop relevant campaigns to appeal to consumers’ feelings of belonging.

The somewhat parochial practice of playing the “patriotism” card becomes irrelevant or at least holds much less sway. Instead, a country’s soft power and cultural icons would be more useful than ethnocentric overtones in cultivating consumers’ preference for domestic brands.

Some brands, such as the casual wear apparel company Metersbonwe, have been savvy in blending cultural identity and consumer ethnocentrism in a good way in some of their campaigns.

For instance, historical cartoon figures harkening back to the 1980s and 1990s were once printed on the Wenzhou-based brand’s T-shirts as part of a campaign known as “the rebirth of Made-in-China.”

For those who choose to leverage cultural identity alone, the liquor brand Luzhou Laojiao offers an example. The distillery capitalized on the country’s booze heritage and aesthetic tradition to come up with a premium spirits known as “Guojiao 1573.”

The last point I want to emphasize is that when companies design marketing ploys around cultural identity, they should be mindful of the immense regional disparities across China. This often isn’t so apparent to import bands. What works in Shanghai may not work in, say, Kunming. Marketing strategies thus need to be customized.

And they ought to be formulated on the basis of taking into account the different mentalities of individual consumers and perceiving the immense Chinese market as a combination of highly segmented and heterogeneous sub-markets, each possessing its own predilections, or perhaps, bias.

The author is head of the Institute for Nation(al) Branding Strategy at East China Normal University and concurrently the Chinese dean of the university’s Asia-Europe Business School.

Special Reports