From culture clash, to cultural collaboration

He Jiaxun
When global brands leverage local cultural elements. They should keep in mind the products' target audience and specific users, to make the best of local cultural elements.
He Jiaxun

Editor's note:

The endorsement of Chinese elements in product design and marketing is often central to global brands’ localization in China. This cuts both ways. Good and bad examples abound.

Professor He Jiaxun, an authority on branding and marketing, recently shared his views about utilizing Chinese elements and the common mistakes to avoid. He 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.

FOR many years, Chinese elements have been conspicuous in global brands’ Chinese marketing campaigns.

In April 2014, McDonald’s opened a Chinese-style flagship store called “Eatery” furnished with Chinese ornaments such as lanterns, bamboo steamers, an abacus and black brick walls.

In the past, these kinds of elements mostly were used in advertisements, but today they are widely employed in product development, design and packaging.

Take product development. Hazeline not only markets a black seasame shampoo, but has released a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) shampoo in partnership with the Tongrentang Pharmacy in Beijing.

In terms of product design, the Swatch’s Artist series watches bedecked in Chinese elements, Adidas’s dragon-emblazoned line and an IKEA table that resembles a table-tennis table all contain elements that are quintessentially Chinese.

With more designers turning to China for inspiration, cultural specialities like embroidery, ink painting and ceramics have made their way into the lines of luxury brands including Louis Vuitton, Prada and Chanel.

This amount of chinoiserie is such that it is becoming excessive.

Its popularity not only reflects China’s ascendency in terms of its soft power, but also signifies a new approach to brand positioning and brand assets.

Although a wealth of Chinese motifs proliferates, there is no academic consensus on a clear-cut definition of “Chinese.”

My tentative definition is as follows: They either originate from Chinese tradition, or are symbols, spiritual meanings or items that have emerged over the course of social development, thus are closely tied to Chinese culture. A majority of Chinese people should identify with them and they remind consumers of Chinese rather than non-Chinese heritage.

Normally, global brands are paradigms of Western culture, while Chinese “elements,” by their very nature, simply add Chinese cultural aspects to an essentially Western product. So, how do we achieve cultural fusion?

Global brands have their own associations. For example, according to some surveys, Häagen-Dazs is associated with love, sweetness and romance. Tiffany’s is dream, romance and luxury.

On the other hand, different Chinese cultural elements mean different things. For instance, moon cake symbolizes reunion and harmony. Hongbao, a red envelope containing gift money, is a sign of luck, fortune and good wishes.

When global brands utilize local cultural elements, three scenarios will likely occur.

First, their brand association is positively correlated with local cultural elements. In other words, they tend to be in harmony. When Häagen-Dazs released an ice cream moon cake, this was interpreted as a good blend of cultures, since its brand association is well aligned with the cultural meanings of moon cake.

But for Tiffany’s pendant in the shape of Hongbao is less desirable, because the jewelry maker’s brand association doesn’t resonate with red envelope’s cultural connotations.

Second, companies’ brand association doesn’t clearly tally with local cultural elements. This is because the same Chinese elements can mean different things to different people.

For instance, the peony epitomizes fortune, purity and love. Peony-shaped jewelry is an auspicious sign for the elderly, but young consumers are likely to associate it with love and purity.

A netbook by Hewlett-Packard bears the sign of a peony. HP brings to mind words like innovation and creativity, values that have nothing to do with the cultural meanings of a peony.

Third, companies’ brand association is conflicting with or contradictory to local cultural elements. For example, 11 years ago Starbucks opened an outlet inside the compounds of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The coffee shop, relocated half a year later, was decorated in a way redolent of the ancient Chinese court. The contrast between the brand association of Starbucks, an icon of American consumerist culture, and the cultural meanings of its venue could not be starker. This is an extreme situation which brands should be wary of.

All in all, the first scenario is the best when global brands leverage local cultural elements. They should keep in mind the products’ target audience and specific users, to make the best of local cultural elements and to align them with brand position and associations.

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