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How to create branding that resonates with Chinese consumers

by Antoaneta Becker
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Nescafé and Harbin Beer have shown that brands can stand out in the crowded Chinese market and create a message that resonates with Chinese consumers, writes Anita Xu from creative agency Jones Knowles Ritchie

We now live in a highly digital world where having an e-commerce channel is no longer just an option, but a necessity. This is especially true in China’s sophisticated marketing landscape, where most companies must establish an e-commerce presence and leverage innovative technologies just to stay competitive.

The Covid-19 pandemic has convinced many businesses to finally embrace e-commerce as many realised that the presence of an online platform could mitigate the impact of physical shop closures. The recent lockdowns in many parts of China have caused even more companies to do the same.

The e-commerce sector is now saturated. Consumers are spoilt for choice. It has become incredibly difficult to stand out from the crowd.

In the past, advertising was one of the primary means of helping a company stand out. But research has shown that unless performed properly, advertising has little impact on consumers. In a widely cited study of 143 television ads by the Ehrenberg Bass Institute, only a dismal 16% of advertising was recalled and correctly attributed to a brand. In other words, without brand distinctiveness, 84% of ad spend went down the drain. The WARC Marketer’s Toolkit 2021 also found that two-thirds of survey respondents said that advertising suffered from a lack of distinctiveness during lockdowns.

But what is brand distinctiveness and how should brands in China leverage it to set themselves apart from the competition?

launchpad CBBC

Don’t just be different. Be distinctive

Brand differentiation and brand distinctiveness might seem like the same thing, but they are most certainly not.

In a nutshell, brand differentiation is about setting a brand apart from the competition based on a difference. For example, an organic egg can be said to be different from the regular eggs on the shelf because it is organic. But place this organic egg brand among other organic egg brands, and this differentiating factor disappears.

The crux of brand distinctiveness lies in being true to an identity. Just as no two people are the same, no two brands should be either.

There are two pillars of brand distinctiveness:

  1. Authentic brand purpose and values
  2. Consistent, impactful brand experiences that reflect this purpose and values.
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Authentic brand purpose and values

Having an authentic purpose and a set of values has become vital to business success, as consumers are increasingly buying products not just to satiate material needs but also because a brand resonates with their own purpose and aspirations.

According to the Accenture Chinese Consumer Insights 2022 report, 57% of respondents said the pandemic has caused them to rethink their life purpose and priorities.

Furthermore, research has shown that lonely consumers have a tendency to forge connections with brands that have values they resonate with. As loneliness levels have spiked due to the recent spate of Covid lockdowns in Shanghai and beyond, more and more consumers could now be in search of a brand they can connect meaningfully with.

But this doesn’t mean that brands should alter their purpose and values according to what consumers want. When brands are “true to themselves,” consumers with the same shared values will naturally flock to them and become loyal supporters, with prime examples of this including Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s.

Harbin Beer

Brand distinctiveness can also be seen in the rebranding campaign for China’s Harbin Beer.

Established in 1900, Harbin Beer is China’s oldest brewery, hailing from a city in northeast China with a culture that is renowned for its fusion of East and West. New ideas are always welcomed in Harbin, which boasts a lively street scene complete with colourful graffiti.

Before the brand revamp, the beer was becoming increasingly distant from its audience and risked becoming irrelevant to consumers. Taking the lead on the rebranding, creative agency Jones Knowles Ritchie’s goal was to allow Harbin to unleash its energetic, optimistic spirit and celebrate its legacy as China’s first beer.

These notions were captured in the first character of Harbin’s Chinese brand name, “哈ha”, which represents laughter. To reflect the brand’s progressive and bold attitude, Harbin’s iconic “Ice Mountain” was transformed into a modern “ice mountain lightning bolt”. The result was a bold visual language that broke through the conventions of the commercial beer category.

This new brand identity enabled Harbin to quickly re-connect with young consumers and show that it shared the same progressive attitude, unapologetic point of view and pride in their culture and identity.

Just a month after the launch of Harbin’s rebranding campaign, Harbin sold 8.5 million bottles of beer, a five-fold increase compared with the same period in the previous year.

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Impactful and consistent brand experience

A brand’s purpose and values are nothing more than a few lines in a brand guideline if they cannot be expressed clearly and coherently.

To sustain brand loyalty and maximise brand recognition, brands must manifest their purpose and values, and forge an impactful brand journey that unifies all touchpoints and mediums. The end goal is to offer a consistent experience for consumers no matter where or when the brand is seen.

From a product’s packaging to the elements featured in trade displays and digital apps to experiential activities, all brand assets must project the same brand identity.

One recent rebranding that leverages impactful visuals and presents a consistent experience is Nescafé Rich Blend.

Nescafé Rich Blend

For this campaign, Jones Knowles Ritchie set out to create powerful brand assets that would enable Nescafé to promote its new brand image in an efficient and memorable manner.

With a focus on communicating that the brand’s products are “real and authentic,” coarse details such as paper tears, rough edges and uneven textures were used to achieve the same raw, unadulterated feel that comes with a good cup of black coffee – no sugar, no additives, just purely roasted and utterly delicious. The shape of Nescafé Rich Blend’s new bottle was also reimagined as a creative device that carries the brand message in many forms including text, illustrations and motion graphics.

These assets were rolled out in China across different touch points, from out-of-home advertising to trade displays to pop-up events, creating a seamless and consistent brand experience that made the brand instantly recognisable and memorable.

This brand identity, brought to life on social media and in online stores, contributed to a 75% increase in e-commerce gross merchandising value (GMV) after only four weeks.

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Becoming a top-of-mind brand

Brand distinctiveness has always been integral to a brand’s success, but its importance in the digital, post-pandemic era has been significantly amplified.

With consumers becoming cagier about their spending thanks to growing economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, being able to stand out is ever more critical. This is even more so for foreign brands in China today.

With nationalist consumption on the rise and more high-quality domestic brands making their way onto the market, foreign brands no longer have as much sway as before in China.

Therefore, it stands to reason that every brand must make brand distinctiveness a part of their brand strategy if they want to stand out in the massive Chinese market and win the hearts and minds of consumers.

Call +44 (0)20 7802 2000 or email enquiries@cbbc.org now to find out how CBBC can help you find the perfect partner or supplier to support the growth of your business in China.

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