On Aug 1, 2014, the Chinese embassy in Washington D.C. held its annual reception commemorating the 87th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. As always, the event was meticulously managed. But what struck me the most was an assortment of flyers on display at the registration desk. The flyers, produced by the Bureau of International Publicity of the Chinese Department of Defense, looked like something one may find on the bulletin board in a Chinese government building, rather than professional public relations kits carrying Beijing’s message to the world.
This is a branding problem
PR or marketing professionals familiar with global and cross-cultural communications would easily point out a list of things on the flyers that may be improved in order to communicate the message – and by extension, the “China brand” – with more effectiveness and grace.
Chinese leaders and academics have feverishly advocated the idea of public diplomacy, but on many occasions, the enthusiasm fails to translate into effective implementation, which would greatly benefit from design elements more empathetic to the recipient culture and less stiff in lexicon.
The China brand has also performed poorly in the private sector.
In fact, Chinese brands are perceived less favorably in the US market than those of many competitors. This is paradoxical and ironic given China’s perceived status as a global power. But with China’s outbound investment exceeding foreign direct investment for the first time in 2015, American consumers can count on seeing more Chinese brands online and in their local supermarkets. For instance, during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, hundreds of Chinese brands signed up. How these brands try to communicate with consumers will have significant impact on the overall perception of the China brand.
Indeed, the world’s second-largest economy faces a serious branding problem, in both policy communications and business marketing – which are becoming increasingly intertwined in our time. Strategists may rightfully argue that the less than favorable perception of China in the US is a result of the shifting balance of power in world politics; but the devil is in the details. At a time when social media and fragmented information affect even the most focused policy analysts, one flyer or one video clip may be all it takes to shape perceptions of China.