Branding from the Ground Up

In the Hutong
Surrounded by snow
1721 hrs.

I am usually suspicious about “thought leadership” pieces on marketing that come out of the major management consultancies. These firms have proven strengths in organizational design, operations, production, logistics, and strategy, but when they venture into marketing they tend to stumble for a range of reasons that would fill a book.

I was doubly suspicious of the McKinsey Quarterly article “Building Brands in Emerging Markets” by Yuval Atsmon, Jean-Frederic Kuentz, and Jeongmin Seong because their approach lumps all emerging markets together.  But while the article has its shortcomings, there are nuggets of critical insights in the paper for businesses operating in China.

China is Different…

The authors correctly note that Chinese consumers generally rely more on word-of-mouth to guide their purchasing decisions than do their counterparts in most other countries, especially the U.S. The in-store experience is also more important here. Chinese are more accustomed to changing their decisions at the point-of-purchase rather than leave a store if they can’t get what they came in to buy. Indeed, many consumer marketers find that point-of-sale is the second largest chunk of their budgets (next to advertising) because they will lose at retail what they won in advertising.

Finally, it is increasingly important in China to eschew a purely national approach to marketing and target consumers with a more local approach. China is a patchwork of local habits, climates, dialects, diets, and sub-cultures, and we are reaching the stage in the nation’s development where marketers can no longer afford to ignore that.

…But the Difference is Changing…

Aside from its geographic overreach (“emerging markets” are not all the same) and its broad-brush approach to consumer goods, I have two major quibbles with the article. First, the authors offer a snapshot of consumer behavior but ignore trends that might undermine their points; and second, apart from geography they treat all Chinese consumers as an undifferentiated mass.

First, where people get their advice is changing. While the authors state that only 53% of China’s consumers find online recommendations credible, they leave out the fact that well over half of China’s consumers don’t have access to the Internet.  If you are a company (like, say, Coca-Cola) who needs to reach most or all of China’s 1.2 billion consumers, the Internet is about half as important as friends and family. Conversely if, like a growing number of companies, your target consumer is likely to be online – that is, if she is young, urban, educated, and has money to spend – the importance of the internet is sorely understated.

What is more, as credible online resources emerge, there is mounting evidence that the 560 million Chinese who can get online are giving outside sources greater credibility. As early as 2009, Sam Flemming’s CIC Data noted that over half of online consumers actively sought online feedback on a product prior to purchase, and that nearly 90% paid attention to online buzz on a product whether they sought it out or not. In that case, the Internet runs a close second to friends and family in the purchasing decision.

The importance of the retail shop in the purchase process is changing as well. I spoke with a senior marketing executive for a consumer electronics brand last week who told me that online sales – e-commerce – had suddenly become more important than in-store sales. A growing number of consumers was apparently hearing about the product from advertising, checking with family, checking online, going to the store to look and feel, and then going home and buying the product online. China’s online retail business has now passed an average of $40,000 per second and continues to grow. If the final point of sale is online, how does that change McKinsey’s equation? We don’t know: McKinsey ignores the internet.

…So let’s not Whitewash the Nuances

Finally, the authors ignore the importance of several demographic factors, most specifically age. Although it should be axiomatic, a growing body of research in China delves into how differently the increasingly prosperous older (55+) consumers behave than their under-30 counterparts. Friends and family are essential to the elderly, but for most purchasing decisions the youngsters are relying on peers and the Internet. Older consumers are more likely to purchase in a store, younger consumers are more likely than the grandparents to buy online.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical of the authors: these are, after all, nuances that would not fit into a 3,000 word article. But these oversights point to the problem with taking the management consulting approach to marketing. Grand strategies and broad generalizations may make for mind-tickling patter with clients, but as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details.” The day is long past when marketers can view Chinese consumers as an amorphous mass with uniform habits, and I would wager that applies in Brazil, India, and South Africa just as well.

The Coming Rise of Foxconn

Deutsch: Foxconn Logo
Deutsch: Foxconn Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The High-Speed Train “Harmony”
Enroute to Shanghai
1130 hrs.

The attention given to Foxconn over the past several years has largely concentrated on its role as Apple’s leading supplier in Asia. What we have missed in all of that juicy coverage, however, is the longer-term picture. While it is tempting to believe that Apple will always be strong, that it will always rely on offshore outsourcing for its production, and that Foxconn will be content to play Sancho Panza to its client brands, there are several factors that suggest otherwise. In fact, in as little as a decade from now, Foxconn may itself be a global brand.

Hon Hai Precision built its business as a supplier to the world’s computer and consumer electronics brands. Most of us still see the company a contract manufacturer, an assembler of devices and machines. Yet over the past seven years, the company has quietly added to its capabilities to the point where it is one step away from becoming a fully integrated brand-name electronics company.

Making Nice with Consumers

First, it added a name people outside of Asia could recognize as a brand – Foxconn. You could argue that the brand is tarnished, but the one thing it still has going for it is recognition. Think Oscar Wilde: the company has been talked about a lot, and despite the bad press (much of which has landed on Apple), the scale of the brand recognition alone – and the cost of building recognition for a new brand – might tempt the company to stick with it. If not, building a new brand would be a relatively modest investment for the $25 billion company.

Next, Foxconn began experimenting with selling to consumers with a line of branded high-performance computer components. Even though the target was small – gamers, pro-sumers and specialty computer builders – it gave the company a glimpse of what would be required in a wider consumer marketing program. As a part of this experiment, Foxconn then built the rudiments to of a customer support network, again, providing the company a gut-level understanding of what would be involved in supporting a global consumer effort.

Steel Goes In, Cars Come Out

Equally, if not more important, the company slowly built out a vertically-integrated manufacturing capability. The original thinking was to offer customers faster time-to-market while controlling for costs and capricious upstream suppliers – the latter a perpetual, frequently overlooked headache in China. The company began making its own cases, then its own electronic components. Next, it added product design and development and even the basics of a research capability. As of 2006, the company had over a dozen R&D centers worldwide, and 30,000 patents either granted or pending.

To control the variables in supply chain, it built in a logistics and supply chain management team that focused on keeping customer inventory costs low and prepared it to work with the largest retailers in the world, and built a channel sales organization to support the sale of its own branded components and as an extra spiff to smaller customers.

All told, Foxconn could probably start experimenting with selling its own branded consumer products in a matter of months once it made the decision to go ahead.

Gnawing on the Hand that Feeds

The perceptive reader will ask “why?” Why would Foxconn risk upsetting the Apple-cart, risking the custom of the very companies that put it where it is today? There are several answers to that question, none of which alone would be sufficient to make Foxconn take the leap. Taken together, however, they form a compelling case.

First is profit pressure. Foxconn is probably at the point in its development where it has squeezed as much as it can out of its costs, and costs are rising. Inputs aren’t getting cheaper, labor is getting more expensive, and the company faces a major investment in automation, not to mention the additional expenditures every time Apple or HP needs to offer something newer, cooler, and harder to make. Cost pressures on customers, even Apple, remain acute, so Foxconn is unlikely to see much relief from that front. The only way to turn the profit equation around is to start going around its weakest customers directly to retail.

Second, many of Foxconn’s customers – HP being a prime example – are facing headwinds of their own. The computer industry has matured, people aren’t replacing devices as often, and the field is starting to narrow to two or three industry leaders far ahead of everyone else. The opportunity to find a tempting niche and then burst in to exploit it will grow, especially as Lenovo starts to expand its market share. If Lenovo can do it, Gou will reason, so can we.

Even Apple is not immune to headwinds, and if there is one thing that must keep Gou awake at night, it is his growing dependence on this single customer and the decisions made by its leadership team. And if that company starts making strategic errors and the numbers begin to fall, Foxconn needs a Plan B. What is that Plan B? Samsung? Probably not.

Third, for all of the advantage of working from behind the screen, Foxconn’s fortunes are almost entirely beyond its control, resting in the hands of distant executives making decisions that are none of Foxconn’s business. Don’t underestimate the degree to which this frustrates not only Gou, but every Chinese contract manufacturer who ever dealt with an importer. Your can only grow as quickly or consistently as your customer lets you. Again, if the customers start blowing it, the urge to give up and go around them becomes overwhelming.

At the same time, Foxconn’s customers are arguably as locked in to Foxconn as they are to him. For reasons of speed (time to market) and scale (time to ramp up volume), customers don’t have many choices. Short of the most grievous provocation, few could afford to walk away from Foxconn.

How It Will Go Down

For all of these reasons, Foxconn’s move would have to come under circumstances where it could credibly say to its customers that it had no other choice.

There would need to be a trigger event, the three most likely being that a major customer either goes under, stumbles badly, or takes back production. At this point, Foxconn’s continued growth (if not its survival, if the stumbler is Apple), would be at risk, and Foxconn would need to respond.

Foxconn would likely use a production facility with idle capacity to produce products that it could credibly say did not threaten a current customer (say, Apple), and that possibly was aimed at weakening the grip of a rival on its market share. If Foxconn could make a case that it was going after Samsung or LG, for example, Apple’s objections would likely be few. Foxconn could even offer to forge an entirely new brand and build new factories so that the new venture was plausibly firewalled from customer business.

To be sure, the company needs to fix its reputation and build a global marketing capability. The former is underway in earnest: the company has hired PR counsel (not yours truly) to fix the reputation and to lay the foundations of a global branding and marketing effort. It has also built a worldwide sales force that could be expanded quickly to forge the relationships with retailers that it would need to get shelf space in stores.

But make no mistake that Foxconn’s breakout is both plausible and, given the history of business, inevitable. The timing will be soon – Terry Gou is no longer young, and he would want the transition to global brand to at least begin under his watch, and arguably it will either happen under Gou or it will never happen.

If Foxconn could pull it off, however, the company would have a shot at a long-term future free of dependency on other companies, and set up to compete against Samsung, Lenovo, Huawei, and – if it so wished – Apple.

Watch carefully. The shift will start small, but once underway we will watch the birth of a new global brand.

For China, Inc., Naked Is Not Enough

Hutong West
Caffinated
1015 hrs.

There is a growing cohort of public relations firms that are opening practices focused on helping Chinese companies build better reputations among global audiences. This is a good thing: heaven knows, no group of companies is more in need of this kind of help than Chinese enterprises.

What is discouraging, however, is that many senior professionals in the PR industry continue to misdiagnose the problem. To take one example, in a pay-walled PRWeek article dated New Year’s day (“Chinese Companies Bridging the Comms Gap in U.S. Market”), a senior global agency executive and a Chinese CEO both single out transparency as the missing element for China Inc. as it ventures abroad.

“When [Chinese businesses] come to the US, they think they are being transparent when they are not because our standards are so high in terms of transparency,” Black says. “They have to be willing to open themselves up to regulatory bodies and the public. It’s been a major adjustment.”

One of the early pioneers of the PR business, Edward Bernays, counseled PR practitioners in his seminal 1928 book Propaganda that to be effective PR has to be more than just corporate spin.

“In relation to industry, the ideal of the [public relations] profession is to eliminate the waste and the friction that result when industry does things or makes things which its public does not want, or when the public does not understand what is being offered it.” (Emphasis mine.)

Simply put, public relations is first about getting the company to behave and act in accordance with public expectations, and then communicate that compliance to ensure the public gets it.

For Chinese companies, transparency is useless if all it reveals is a company engaged in unsavory or nefarious behavior. Further, for reasons both political and cultural, that behavioral bar is higher in the U.S. for Chinese enterprises than it is for U.S. companies (or companies from just about any other country). To borrow from Donald Tapscott, if a company is going to be naked, it had damned-well better be good to look at. And Chinese companies need to better looking than everyone else to merit an equal reputation.

The core challenge for public relations practitioners is not only convincing Chinese companies to be transparent, but also – and first – helping Chinese companies to understand and behave in accordance with the expectations of highly skeptical global audiences. Once that is accomplished – and only then – is it time to open up for full scrutiny and communicate that they are doing so.

Naturally, this is not as simple as it sounds, nor is it a lot of fun. The alternative is to spend a lot of time and money first creating a Potemkin reputation, and then more time and money running around plugging holes in the facade. The end result of that fire drill is an also-ran company with a middling reputation that nobody likes very much, and with whom others will do business only if they have no other choice.

The companies that clean themselves up before venturing abroad (or even while doing it) get double credit, first for being sensitive to the expectations of foreign audiences, and then for doing something about it. The payoff not only in reputation but in credibility and trust would be priceless, the need for spin would disappear, and the positive attention would make sales and marketing simple.

Despite the potential benefits, I understand why some public relations executives balk at that challenge. It is scary to face up to a client and tell him or her truths they have no interest hearing. It is outside the comfort zone of a large number of PR people. And let’s not forget: it can be much more lucrative to provide costly palliatives for a crippled reputation than it is to deliver a genuine cure.

But Chinese firms owe it to themselves and their customers to seek out only the P.R. people – both inside and outside the company – who are prepared to deliver a cure, and who don’t babble on about reputation but focus on creating genuine trust.

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