The problem with Chinese brands advertising in The Economist magazine

Xiaomi China Brand

Chinese academic He Jiaxun writes in a CGTN op-ed that Chinese brands going global should convey more values, in particular by using Chinese symbols.

« Successful corporate branding can lend itself to the growth of the country’s soft power. » This week, an op-ed column published by CGTN, – the Chinese international English-language news channel, part of the China Central Television (CCTV), based in Beijing -, specifically focuses on Chinese brands.

Interestingly enough, its author, He Jiaxun (何佳讯), 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, is rather critical. « Many [Chinese corporate titans] are still stuck near the bottom of the global value chain, desperate for the next rung up the ladder. This is because they have yet to make brand values part and parcel of their brand-building efforts. »

Lack of emotional ties

He Jiaxun points the finger at brands like Huawei, China Southern Airlines, China Construction Bank and real estate group Dalian Wanda, which have been advertising in the Economist magazine over the last five years. « A problem with these ads is that they played up the functional properties of specific products and services while failing to articulate brand values by building emotional ties with target consumers », he argues.

Only three brands are held up as a model by He Jiaxun :

  • White Rabbit, a Shanghai-based milk candies brand. « One of its most iconic commercials depicts a girl distributing candy to people agonizing over long lines in front of a restaurant. The tagline? Sweetness can be shared to relieve anxiety. » To He Jiaxun, this is echoing a recurring theme of Coca-Cola’s marketing campaigns in China over the years and might appeal to some of the universal values underlying both Chinese and Western societies. He quotes psychologist Shalom H. Schwartz, who said that humans, despite their nationalities, share 11 basic values like benevolence, achievement and hedonism.


  • Shanghai General Motors’ Buick cars, whose TV ads are depicting « the typical workday and family life of an aspiring white-collar employee. » To He Jiaxun, this is an effective way to play out « the search of excellence », a message that the brand has identified as its core value after extensive market research. « The creation of brand values often goes down to alignment with qualities that target customers look for in brands. »


  • Hermès-owned luxury brand Shang Xia, created by Chinese designer Jiang Qionger. « The name ‘Shang Xia’, literally ‘up and down’, hints at a desire to serve as a proverbial bridge between China’s past and present, East and West, art and life and man and nature. In a word, when corporate brand connotations and the symbols of China are in harmony, synergies can be expected », says He Jiaxun.

From 2010 to 2016, he led a group of researchers at the East China Normal University to survey how 889 respondents from 18 advanced economies in Europe and North America, would describe China using three keywords.

Charismatic business leaders

« The three words topping the list, as it turned out, were typical traits of an Oriental culture: ‘friendly’, ‘historical’ and ‘traditional’. By contrast, adjectives like ‘innovative’, ‘enterprising’ and ‘dynamic’ – more often associated with the West – were way down the list », he highlights. And concludes: « However they would like to project an image of the country as an innovation powerhouse, brand managers may do well to continue to cash in on historical symbols of China. »

Then what is the solution for the Chinese tech brands whose added value is precisely innovation? He Jiaxun provides leads: « Another way of conveying brand values is by marrying the personal values of charismatic business leaders to the ethos of the companies they founded or head. » To him, China has a cohort of charismatic leaders, such as Jack Ma of Alibaba and Dong Mingzhu of the home appliance maker Gree. The list doesn’t include Lei Jun, the founder of electronics company Xiaomi, although the brand is highlighted by the photo that heads up the op-ed (above).