When you ask people “What are the key things that make a brand succeed in China?”, you usually get a very predictable answer that includes: hire a celebrity, work with KOLs and, as of late, be sure to do livestreaming. Basically, follow the herd and do what everybody is doing nowadays.
Yet some brands succeed, and others do not. So, why is that? Some would answer, those who did not succeed, simply did things wrong (i.e. they did not pick up the right celebrity etc.). However, there are many reasons for not succeeding in China from not investing enough, to being a brand with low awareness (even in its home country) and therefore not being trusted, to not adapting quickly enough, to not understanding what matters to Chinese consumers, nor trying to blend in with the local culture in a caricatural way. The list is endless.
But rather than just learning from mistakes, we would like here to focus on a few successes and zero in on a precise aspect which helps some brand succeed, namely the branding itself.
The first component of a highly successful brand in China is its logo. Is it iconic or not? Iconicity is key. We should not forget that Chinese characters constitute the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world. Some of the most commonly used characters, were originally pictograms, which depicted the objects denoted, or ideograms, in which meaning was expressed through an icon.
The Apple logo is meaningful, it stands for knowledge and creativity. The Mercedes star stands for power and dominance, the Nike swoosh for victory and movement, the Gucci two Gs for luxury. The logo transcends any tagline. If your logo is highly recognizable and helps make a statement, it will be key. In China, more than anywhere else, brands are used to make statements.
The name is also key. Names in China should have a meaning. Look at Timberland. When the brand finally decided to change its name to a more meaningful Chinese one, sales started skyrocketing. They changed their Chinese name to ‘Teeboolang’, 踢不烂 which in Chinese means: “Kicks but doesn’t break”. The meaning of the brand and its USP became integrated in its name.
One should remember that while brands in the US and Europe speak about themselves mostly through interruptive video advertising (be it on TV or on Youtube), brands in China are almost always in the hands of influencers who convey their message. This is why brands need to make it easy for others to speak about them.
This is particularly true for new brands.
China is a winner takes all market where consumers don’t like newcomers. They like big brands and leaders which they can trust.
It is therefore extremely difficult to launch a new brand. In order to be successful, a new brand needs to quickly make an impression. And with limited investments at first, generating quick “word-of-mouth” is the only viable option.
In order to do so, the product, its name, its packaging and its branding in general should almost be a campaign theme. ‘Single dog’, ‘Perfect diary’. These are two examples of successful brands which I would call ‘Campaign Brands’. Brands even the worst KOL can’t get wrong. They are brands that consumers will quickly want to talk about and that small influencers can easily promote because their message is so obviously embedded in their product.
Let’s first look at ‘Single dog’. Danshen Liang, a Shanghai-based snacks label has found success targeting affluent singles. Their packaging features the image of a dog head – a play on the internet slang danshen gou (meaning ‘single dog’), which is the name young singles like to call themselves online to joke about their lifestyle. Their packaging is highly recognizable, well designed, with bright colors renewed every month. They promote a single lifestyle with messages such as “Just Free”, “Single, but not Alone” “Love Yourself”. These messages often appear on the product itself as slogans. Chinese consumers love slogans. Nowhere else will you see more people wearing sweaters or T-shirts with slogans.
A second example: Perfect Diary. The brand became the hottest cosmetic brand among generation Z in less than three years. Two years after its launch it became the first brand to break 100 Million sales on TMall on Double 11.
The brand recently upgraded its logo wordmark to two letters P and D (in order to become iconic), P standing for Perfection and D not just for Diary, as in the original brand name, but also potentially for Discovery, Diversity and Difference. Perfect Diary encourages young women to explore the unlimited possibilities beauty offers (‘Unlimited Beauty’ sometimes appears as a slogan).
Each new line of product the brand launches is based on a source of inspiration which also inspires a collaboration with an IP. Wild predators’ eyes inspire a 12 shades eyeshadow palette and a collaboration with Discovery. In the same way the portraits of the Metropolitan Museum of Art inspire a lipstick and a campaign, Chinese landscapes an eye shadow palette and a collaboration with China’s National Geography.
Because of its spectacular and almost immediate success, Perfect Diary was able to quickly make big marketing investments, but this just made the initial recipe even more successful, faster. Now it has become big and beautiful.
Even if it did lots of things right, one of the ingredients of its success definitely lies in this capacity to be a ‘Campaign Brand’ built to generate a conversation through the “all-in-one” integration of product, brand and campaign.
Simply put, a shareable brand.
Therefore, the first rule to keep in mind if you want your brand to be successful in China is to pay careful attention to the first elements of branding such as the name and the logo. You may not be able to change your logo, but at least you can ask yourself how meaningful your name is in Chinese? A good understandable tagline in English is also helpful? Right after, you should be careful that your products speak for themselves, that is to say that when third parties talk about them, the story is almost a campaign idea embedded in the product.