A Young Woman's Mission to Brand ChinaPublished: December 01, 2010
Zhao Shuyu, the president and founder of Beijing-based WHO2 Branding & Design, is part of the evolving entrepreneurial economy of today's China. Not only does she have the chance to establish her new business, but she can also help other companies strengthen their image in a changing market. "For a long time, China's low production costs have established it as an OEM provider," says Zhao, 25, referring to an original equipment manufacturer, or firm that makes products that are purchased by another company and retailed under the purchaser's brand name. "But it's been my vision to move my country beyond that stage and to establish its own designs and its own brands."
Brand identity is fast becoming an important competitive advantage in China -- sometimes a tough sell in a country bound by tradition. Zhao, whose one-year-old company has 10 employees, is challenging cultural and social barriers by asking businesses to embrace the concept of standing out from the crowd. Zhao strengthened her own entrepreneurial message this past April as a Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women scholar at Tsinghua University where she says, "breaking my self-limitations" was her most essential takeaway.
"The evolution of business in China is astonishing," notes Michel Santi, emeritus professor of strategy and business policy at HEC Paris, which partners with Tsinghua University to train women entrepreneurs in China. "The younger generation isn't the only one keen on what is, for them, a new business concept like brand identity; 40- to 60-year-olds are also excited." Having a brand identity is a part of a business's success, he adds, "regardless of the industry you are in."
Zhao, who changed her course of study at Beijing Normal University after her freshman year from international finance to art and design, believes profits and creative, strategic image building are inextricably linked. "Companies want to make more money, but what many don't realize is that offering a generic product won't help them to reach that goal," she says. "Instead, our branding and design company tries to show them that adding value by establishing a brand can let them stand out and increase their revenue."
Mission Statements and Value Propositions
Large corporations often serve as models for strategies that can be adapted to smaller-scale businesses. Chinese companies seeking to develop their own brand identities can look at the experience of Beijing-based Lenovo, a multinational computer technology company that has become the fourth-largest computer vendor in the world. Lenovo has worked in the past few years on its own branding strategy, centralizing its global marketing communication operations in Bangalore, India, as a means of building one strong brand identity.
According to "'Going Glocal': Can Lenovo's Marketing Hub in India Reach Consumers Worldwide?" -- published in June 2010 in India Knowledge@Wharton -- Lenovo is focusing on its image with consumers after making some key acquisitions of other computer brands. Said Steve Starkey, Lenovo's vice president for global marketing: "The primary reason to centralize our marketing services was to ensure that we build one identity of the new brand 'Lenovo' all over the world and maintain the same quality of execution in all countries. We were a new organization and did not want Lenovo to have a different personality, essence and value proposition in different countries."
Establishing a strong, cohesive identity will help businesses gain competitive advantage, whether in one market or many different markets, notes Santi. It is important for a company to first have a defined mission statement and value proposition. "A good value proposition, or clear idea of the value being created for the customer, will be focused on a target and will differentiate the company from its competitors," Santi says. "Without it, a business may be in trouble."
According to Entrepreneur magazine, the tried and true rules of brand building are: Be different; know your customers and your brand; focus all your efforts on the brand, from packaging to e-mail signature blocks; start small and build from your strengths, i.e., -- start building your brand where you can get the best return on your money; and protect what you have by legally registering your brand name and logo.
Zhao is busy spreading the branding message in her country, noting that satisfied clients -- including high-end travel companies, a Chinese energy drink manufacturer and a variety of Chinese cities trying to position themselves as cultural and travel destinations -- pass her name on to other companies that want to establish a unique identity. What does she consider the keys to successful brand building? It is difficult to define a specific formula, notes Zhao. "The challenge is to first gain an understanding of what my clients really need and want," she says. "There is no simple answer to developing branding strategies and design innovation. Different businesses, different markets, different countries require different ways." In the end, she adds, "brand is telling a story."