If you were to type the word “China” into a search engine, you’ll likely see a number of boldface headlines declaring the strength of the Chinese economy and its breathtaking growth. China is without a doubt a rising power, one of the most exciting marketplaces in the world, and an emerging battlefield for brands.
This year, two Chinese brands made it onto the Top 20 of the BrandZ™ report of the Most Valuable Global Brands. China Mobile ranked 9th, while ICBC, the largest bank in China, came in at 11th place. Other brands included China Construction Bank (24th) and Baidu, the leading search engine (29th). The rise of Chinese brands is no longer a distant prediction but a foregone conclusion, which has created tremendous opportunities for the nation as well as for marketers.
A Significant Barrier Stands in the Way
While the brands above illustrate the ability of Chinese brands to capture a dominant share of the domestic market and even make notable strides abroad, a significant barrier still stands in the way. As Chinese and global consumers consider brands that are made in China, consumers are undoubtedly asking themselves the question: “Can I trust these brands?”
Trust has become one of the most pressing issues surrounding brands in China. If you’ve ever bought anything in China, you’ve probably asked yourself whether the product you’re buying is authentic, of a reliable quality or something you can trust. The doubts are not unfounded, as it seems every day we hear of instances where companies have betrayed consumers’ trust. Many have accidentally purchased fake goods from shops that had marketed the products as high-quality imports. Others ponder long and hard over the purchase of a mobile phone after reading about exploding faulty batteries that had been manufactured by a major company. The media recently lambasted a respected luxury furniture importer after it was discovered its products were not imported after all, but rather, manufactured locally in China using sub-standard materials. Even a famous high-end restaurant chain that prides itself on its commitment to healthy living was found to have violated some of the most fundamental food safety principles, such as recycling oil and intentionally serving old seafood in a desperate cost-cutting measure. And of course, few have forgotten the tainted milk scandals of the late 2000’s that even today, cause fear and uncertainty amongst mothers.
All of these instances, and many more like them, have created a growing sense of consumer hesitation, distrust and uncertainty towards Chinese brands. Establishing and delivering trusted brand experiences will be a pivotal barrier for Chinese brands to overcome before truly stepping forward.
Thanks to the meteoric rise of social media in China (including Sina Weibo, the “Chinese Twitter”), information is now far more transparent and faster spreading. People share information, opinions and perspectives from their brand experiences far more freely and easily than ever before. Even culturally, Chinese consumers show a greater tendency to rely on the validation of peers and family members when it comes to purchasing decisions. For these reasons, brands must realize they can no longer fly under the radar and hope poor brand experiences are easily forgotten. Consumers are getting much more sophisticated at sharing and benefitting from the brand experiences of their peers.
While Chinese brands often turn to advertising as a way to engage the hearts and minds of consumers, perhaps the critical first step is to go out and deliver trusted products and experiences that the market can be proud of.
How does a brand establish trust?
It begins with the understanding that trust is not what a brand says about itself, but what people say about the brand. When thinking about this post, I found something interesting. If you search on Baidu for the phrase “trustworthy Chinese brands,” you will dozens of results featuring Chinese brands using elegant language to describe how trustworthy they are. But again, consumers are not so easily fooled. It’s the delivery of the brand experience, not just brand communications that truly establishes trust.
This quote from the American scholar Robert C. Solomon also captures it well:
“Building trust begins with an appreciation and understanding of trust, but it also requires practice and practices.”
As Mr. Solomon suggests, Chinese brands first need to internalize the importance of creating and delivering trusted brand experiences. What kind of company do they aspire to be? What is the promise they are making to their stakeholders that is not only relevant and compelling, but also something they can deliver consistently and at an uncompromising level?
Once the organization understands the promise they are making, they have to begin bringing it to life through “practice and practices.” It has to be hardwired into the culture and values of the organization so that everyone is aligned around the promise the organization is making and fully onboard with the commitment to quality and trust. It has to be delivered consistently over time across every touchpoint of the organization. There must be ongoing governance and audits of the brand to ensure the promise is being made not only through communications, but also through product, retail experiences, customer service, digital and any other interaction where the consumer experiences your brand. After all, great brands let their customers “experience their promises” anytime and anywhere, and only through the sum of their positive, trusted experiences can trust begin to take shape.
As in life, trust as it relates to brands is a fragile thing. They say trust is like a piece of paper; once it’s crumbled, it no longer can be perfect no matter how hard you try to smooth it out. Chinese brands must treat trust, and the promise they make to their stakeholders, with a profound sense of care. Only then will they forge the type of lasting relationships they need to thrive in the highly dynamic Chinese market over time.
Cecilia Yu is a strategist for the Siegel+Gale Shanghai office.