Whom Can You Trust with your Social Media in China?

Hutong Forward
Counting the helicopters outside my window
1629 hrs. local

Note: Over the summer I taped a segment for Thoughtful China where I talked briefly about what agencies to use for social media. The response has been huge, so I wanted to expand on my point here, especially as so many people are in the later stages of planning their China marketing efforts to begin after Chinese New Year.

Yunnan 2009-02-04 08-10
Internet cafe in Yunnan (Photo credit: sweart)

Most companies in China have yet to realize out that making the best use of social media demands more than a twenty-something customer service person posting links to content on the corporate website. This is understandable: social media is a relatively recent phenomenon (compared to, say, print media, or even the web), and the art of using social media for business is evolving with blinding speed. That means that today’s smart social media strategy is obsolete tomorrow.

This has provoked the companies who want to stay ahead of the game to turn to outside agencies. Unfortunately, the solution is more confusing than the problem. Jockeying for relevance and revenues, nearly every kind of agency in the marketing business is cooking up products and services to help companies handle their Chinese social media programs. Social media absorbs so much of the Chinese public’s time and attention that agencies feel they either must create a social media offering or consign themselves to the junk pile of history. The one-upsmanship between agencies is earnest, and sometimes desperate.

Elephants and blind men, meet social media and agencies

That would be fine if the solutions proffered were similar. They’re not, because each type of agency sees social media through its own prism, and approaches the medium accordingly. Advertisers approach social media as another form of advertising, or as an appendage of offline campaigns. PR people approach it as a fast channel to reporters or as a way to bypass journalists altogether. Digital agencies approach social media as a way to drive hits to digital content lodged elsewhere. And social media specialists want us to believe that social media is so different that it demands a special mojo, and it should be left to them as experts.

Ultimately, the agency a company ends up choosing for social media management is usually a function of how the firm has organized its internal marketing function. If there is a social media team, the agency is likely to be a specialist social media house (after all, if you are a specialist in social media, how would it look if you hired an ad agency?) If, on the other hand, advertising covers social, the ad agency will get the nod. And so on.

(I won’t bother to talk about companies who hire agencies to scoop up masses of zombie followers or who astroturf social sites with fake laudatory posts: any firm engaging in that kind of behaviour is going to get its just desserts in the form of bad publicity and ultimately negative ROI).

Social Done Better

This approach is understandable, but it is bass-ackward. What social media does that is unique is provide a space where people, not brands, dominate the channel. It is a space that is not just about promulgating a message, but about listening, responding, and demonstrating that a brand can be a person, too.

The real ROI from social, therefor, comes from the conversations people have about a company and its products with minimal encouragement on the company’s part. In short, the he trick to winning in social media is to get other people talking about you and delivering your messages far more than you do about yourself in all other media, and the more influential those people are on the behaviour of others, the better.

For that reason, the agency that should be handling your social media in China should be:

  • A firm that is used to cultivating influencers over time
  • A firm that understands how to develop, deliver, sustain, and support powerful messages; and
  • A firm that knows how to monitor opinion, respond rapidly and appropriately in the face of a crisis or opportunity, whether that is a product problem or a corporate scandal.

To me, that’s not an agency full of creatives, of people who write apps, or of social media “experts.” It is, on the other hand, an agency filled with smart communicators. Find one of those, and you have found the agency to help you in China’s lava-fluid social media milieu.

Qualcomm: Cometh the Reaper?

Hutong Forward
Learning not to eat fish 400 miles from the ocean
1840 hrs. local time

LinuxTag 2011 - Qualcomm
LinuxTag 2011 – Qualcomm (Photo credit: LinuxTag)

Two days ago, QUALCOMM (QCOM) announced that its chipset business was the subject of an investigation by China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission. Details are sketchy, as the company has been instructed to keep the details to itself. It appears, however, that the issue is whether QCOM’s chipset business, QUALCOMM CDMA Technologies, is an effective monopoly in China.

Yesterday I got a note from Edmond Lococo at Bloomberg, who was curious about the degree to which QCOM’s critical China business will take a hit as a result. (Full disclosure: QCOM was a client from 2000 to 2004, but I have had no direct interaction with the company for nine years.)

As I told Edmond, reports of QCOM’s monopoly are exaggerated, to say the least. Apple makes their own chips, as does Huawei, and MicroTek and local upstart Spreadtrum been supplying China’s smartphone market for years. To suggest that Qualcomm has anything approaching a monopoly defies the facts: one need only check the specs on the 10 most popular phones in China to ascertain as much.

Impact on QUALOMM

At this point, though, it is hard to say what impact this will have on QCOM’s sales in China, which represents some 49% of the company’s revenues. There have been no specific accusations made, and few handset manufacturers who are committed to the QCOM architecture are likely to change on the basis of an unspecified investigation, particularly for those devices well along in the development cycle.

Where this may impact QCOM will be in the case of companies who are not committed to the architecture for devices in development, but who are looking to make a decision on chipsets in the coming months. This means that the longer this goes on, or if there are accusations of a specific nature levied at QCOM, there may be a meaningful impact. In the meantime, however, I expect many manufacturers to take a “wait-and-see” attitude.

Why Qualcomm, and Why Now?

There could be any number of reasons behind this: it could be concern about Snowden’s allegations; retaliation for Huawei’s treatment in the US; a growing nationalist discomfort with the success some foreign companies have enjoyed in China; or, indeed, a specific issue with QCOM. But suggesting any or all of these reasons at this time is little more than speculation.

As this all plays out, I expect we will learn more, and that we will soon know whether this is aimed at a single company, or whether all foreign enterprises in China should be concerned.

In the meantime, the wise course for any company would be to assume that “the bell is tolling for thee,” and address the specter of a changing business climate head-on.

Is it Too Soon for Xiaomi to Go Global?

Aluminum protective metal bumper case cover fo...
XIAOMI MI2S (Photo credit: dayjoybuy.com)

Hutong West
Wiping the floor
2117 hrs.

I had a long talk with Michael Kan at IDG recently about China mobile phone maker Xiaomi and its high-profile hire of Google refugee Hugo Barra to head up the company’s international expansion. The core of our discussion was around whether it would make a difference. Michael was circumspect about his opinion, but I wasn’t: Hugo is a great hire, but he will not easily solve the challenges to Xiaomi’s global ambitions.

Xiaomi has a strong market in China, built on powerful devices that sell at very modest prices, on a slightly patriotic appeal (buy Chinese!), and on some deft PR by founder and CEO Lei Jun. Where the company differs from other Chinese manufacturers of inexpensive Android phones is that it is attempting to build an ecosystem of its own that is meant lock in users and draw revenue on content and services in the same way that Apple has done.

Now that Barra is aboard, the bet in some quarters is that a major international push is in the offing. If it is, I wish Lei, Barra, & Co. best of luck. They are going to need it, because the minute they step outside of their China cocoon, things are going to get different for them very quickly. The three biggest challenges I see aren’t even marketing related. They boil down to distribution, strategy, and resources.

They Can’t Buy What They Don’t See

China is a retail-based mobile device market. This means that any mobile phone manufacturer can get counter space in a retail store and sell an unlocked phone to the public. The only challenge is to get people’s attention so they look for you. Lei has figured that out, which is what draws people into the stores.

Markets like the US, though, are carrier-based. This means that in order to be sold to the public, you must first win over one or more of the mobile network operators, who will then sell your device (locked) for their network both directly and through authorized retailers. As a result, there is a relatively modest number of devices available in the US, and breaking in is tough. Most carriers start out with new manufacturers (think LG and ZTE) in an arrangement where the manufacturer’s brand never shows up on the device: it is branded by the carrier. Over several years, that can change, but it will take time, and there are unlikely to be shortcuts for Xiaomi.

Cheap May Not Be Enough

Xiaomi is no stranger to competition: China’s mobile market probably has 70 handset manufacturers offering 800 devices on sale at any given time. In the US, however, it will face competitors who have the home-court advantage that Xiaomi is used to having. Apple, Samsung, HTC, LG, Google, Microsoft, Huawei, and ZTE bring more cash, technical muscle, marketing prowess, and corporate attention to the global markets than Xiaomi can afford.

Certainly there have been David-Goliath stories before: every company in the US mobile phone business with the exception of Motorola started out as an underdog. But against a particularly brutal array of competition – including Chinese rivals who can match and beat any cost advantage Xiaomi can bring to the table – Xiaomi is going to have to figure out what it can offer to non-Chinese users that its well-funded, technological-powerhouse rivals cannot. Will it be innovative, and how? Can it find a neglected niche? Will it grab onto a powerful partner, and if so, whom?

Or will the company try to duplicate its software and services ecosystem overseas?

To his credit, I get the feeling Lei understands that “cheap and cheerful” is not an option.

Going Too Many Places At Once?  

China’s entrepreneurs face great temptation. Once they are successful in one business, many of them begin to think they can be successful in other, unrelated lines. There are so many green fields and blue oceans in China that the urge to move into those new areas is almost irresistible. That siren song is too-often fatal. I have watched from the inside of two giant Chinese companies as these sideline businesses sucked capital and attention from the company, allowing more focused rivals (often foreign) to leap ahead.

Xiaomi is showing early signs of entrepreneurial attention-deficit disorder. The company is already in software and services in order to secure profits that it would be hard-pressed to make on its inexpensive devices. Now Lei wants to move into internet-ready televisions, a product line that has become much easier to make but no less difficult to sell to the public, and dozens of local brands already crank them out, undercutting prices. This means that Lei will need to get into a services and content business in order to make profits from any TVs he sells.

Then comes the globalization. Lei has said that he will turn to Barra to run international markets. That would be ideal if it would work. Chances are, though, that it won’t. The fundamental business decisions that will need to be made in order to turn Xiaomi from a Chinese company to a global one are going to draw on the valuable time of Lei and his lieutenants.

All of that distraction will take place at a time where Lei will need to shore up Xiaomi’s position and defend it against the onslaught of competitors keen to rip his market out from under him. The company is number six in China in smartphone sales according to some analysts, but that position is far from secure. One misstep in its core business and it could go very wrong.

Oh, and About that Name…

This is normally the point where I would bring up the fact that non-Chinese outside of China would be able to pronounce “Xiaomi.” The real issue, though, is not getting people to pronounce the name, but getting people to care enough to even try. Consumers around the world have no idea who Xiaomi is, or whether it is a creation of the Ministry of State Security in a plot to listen in on the world’s conversations. Beyond the technical, beyond the strategic, there is the simple issue of getting people to know and care about you. Chinese companies are notoriously bad at this, and as adept as Xiaomi has proven itself in China, it is a long leap to build that faith across the Pacific.

The good news for Xiaomi is that Barra gets all of this. When I saw him at the China 2.0 conference at Stanford earlier this month, he had no illusions. In his offhand remarks you could hear him honing his messages as much for external audiences as internal ones: this is going to be a long slog, and Xiaomi needs to be ready for it.  At the moment, though, it is unclear whether Lei Jun has the stomach or the war chest for a long battle against the established names.

The hard decision that the company will face soon is this: are we better off focusing that effort today on winning in China, engaging in a token overseas effort to seed long-term awareness and eventual trust; or do we go whole hog in both directions, aiming for the top spot in China and a dozen international markets at the same time?

If Lei Jun has is way, watch for Xiaomi to try to score some quick, modest wins overseas to generate buzz. The wise move at that point would be for Lei and Barra to start raising serious money to enable them to take on Samsung, Google, Apple, HTC, and Microsoft.

Either way, this is going to be both fun and educational to watch.

Bill Bishop on Apple: We Need More Mojo

Temporary Hutong, Wangjing
K-Pop O.D.
1307 hrs. 

Sinocism editor Bill Bishop wrote a thoughtful piece about Apple (“Apple Needs China Mobile Deal to Regain Smartphone Mojo”)  that ran in USAToday late last week. Reading between the lines, Bill’s motive for writing the article is to give context to the excitement that rumors of a China Mobile deal are stoking among Apple shareholders. Since even before the iPhone was officially introduced in China in late 2008, speculation has been rife about whether, when, and how China Mobile (CMMC), the nation’s largest carrier in number of subscribers, would offer the phone to its users.

Five years later, the speculation continues. Yet while Apple fans talk up the company’s stock with visions of a Yangtze-sized cataract of money that flow into Cupertino’s coffers, questions persist about exactly how big of a win it would be for the company.

Tim’s Empty Quiver

First, as Bishop points out, Apple lacks leverage with China Mobile. At this point, Tim Cook’s company needs CMMC more than the carrier needs Apple. The iPhone has a shrinking share of an increasingly competitive market, and the company has made no secret of the extent to which its profits depend on China. China Mobile would almost certainly have used those facts as leverage in negotiations.

Arguably, China Mobile does suffer for not having the iPhone in its display cases, but the company has managed to do quite well without Apple, especially as the selection of devices that run on its unique TD-SCDMA 3G network and its new TD-LTE fourth-generation network. For this reason, it is possible, if not likely, that Apple made commercial concessions to get China Mobile to offer the phone. China Mobile is unlikely to be prepared to subsidize sales of the phone, especially given its keen watch on cost management over the past years. Apple may not be able to expect the high returns it once enjoyed on the device, especially if China Mobile agrees to put a bunch of advertising dollars behind the introduction.

More Users, or Same Old Users?

Second, and more important, we do not know the extent to which China Unicom and China Telecom have slurped up everyone in China who wanted an iPhone. Because a phone number change is mandatory when upgrading to a smartphone, many people took the leap with China Unicom, whose once anemic network has improved radically in recent years. As such, most of those who really wanted an iPhone may well have gone ahead and jumped to China Unicom or China Telecom.

Granted, China Mobile does have 130 million 3G users who don’t have an iPhone, and you can bet if China Mobile cuts a deal with Apple both companies will put big marketing dollars behind the device. But most of those users were added to CMMC’s 3G rolls after China Unicom introduced the iPhone, so you have to wonder whether those users are really going to care.

Finally, while a deal with China Mobile is a necessary step for the iPhone to regain its market share and “mojo” in China, it is not likely to be sufficient. As even Bishop admits, the iPhone is not “cool” anymore. Making it available to a whole lot more people is not going to help the cool factor much, and is likely to sandblast off whatever remains of the iPhone’s snob appeal. It will become, in the words of a good friend of mine, like “wallpaper:” ubiquitous and unremarkable. And that, for Apple investors, means that the premium will be eroded.

More than just Distribution

Facing a steroidal Samsung, plucky HTC, and local favorites Xiaomi, Huawei, ZTE, and Lenovo, all running some form of the increasingly impressive Android operating system, the iPhone needs more than a larger addressable market: it needs to get sexy again.

That’s a tall order. Chinese mobile users swarm to and discard phone manufacturers periodically, never to return in the same masses again. This happened to Ericsson and Nokia in China. Within three years of getting dumped by Chinese users, Ericsson was groping for a partner to save its bacon in the devices business. Nokia lost its luster three years ago, and today its mobile phone business on its way to becoming part of Microsoft.

I’m not ready to suggest that Apple is entering a similar tailspin. But what it does over the next six months will determine whether it regains its seat at the head of China’s mobile phone table, or whether it gets shoved further and further down the ranks in a very robust market.

Yes, But Is It Music?

Chocolate Love
Chocolate Love (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hutong Forward
Bandwidth? What Bandwidth?
0812 hrs.

A quick, slightly irreverent digression.

Watching Channel V on a particularly jet-lagged Saturday night in Beijing, I was confronted with the MCountdown Summer Special, a live K-Pop extravaganza featuring girl-bands and a few of their male equivalents in a sort of contest, with one live performance after another. After nearly an hour of suggestive choreography, revealing costumes, plastic surgery, and male dancers used as, shall we say, props, all set to music that can most charitably be described as “unremarkable,” you are led to an inescapable conclusion: this is not music, it is soft-core porn.

For a sample, Don’t believe me? Go to your favorite online video site and look for videos by a band called “Girl’s Generation,” Korea’s own Pussycat Dolls. Try this one. Watch. Uh-huh. The appeal is decidedly more glandular than aesthetic. I don’t mean to pick on this particular group, they’re just one example of the genre.

As Richard Burger and others have proven, Asia has a schizophrenic relationship with sex. Prostitution is openly tolerated in Confucian Asia, and functional polygamy – in the form of mistresses and their male equivalents – is censured only in the extreme, usually when corruption is involved or the male shirks his marital obligations. At the same time, the region is home to some of the most repressive laws regarding pornography. Leaving Muslim Asia aside (where the public discussion of sex is limited to political spitball contests, the courtroom, and scholarly discussions on what the Koran permits), it is brutally difficult to buy, view, or download porn. Touch, the authorities seem to tell us, but don’t look.

Music videos are the exception. Across Asia they are the one place you can go to watch young, healthy, attractive females gyrate suggestively, anytime you want.

And that’s the point to all of this. If your target market is hormonally-active Asian males, regardless of age or nation, this is clearly your outlet. Forget print and movie celebs: this is where you want to spend your advertising and endorsement dollars.

Big Pharma, Bad Medicine, and What GSK Can Teach MNCs in China

Hutong West
Watching Louis Malle films
0813 hrs

I’m a little late to the bar with my take on this, but here it is, in three parts. Experienced China hands – go straight to the third section below.

When I first joined a global PR firm in China in 2000, I spent one day in my first week reviewing potential clients with my new boss. While my beat at the time was technology companies, I suggested we also look at pursuing some healthcare clients, maybe the big pharmaceutical companies. Surely, I thought, growing prosperity would send the demand for medicines skyrocketing, but local challengers would bring increasingly heated competition. A high-profit industry vulnerable to local competition sounded like the ideal client for us.

My boss gave a derisive snort and told me to forget big pharma. Seeing my confusion and taking pity upon the ignorant, she softened, and then gave me an eye-opening education in the ways of the pharmaceutical business in China. I won’t recount the details, but the gist was that pharmaceutical firms didn’t need public relations, because, allegedly, they marketed their wares in a rather more straightforward manner: they simply spiffed hospitals and physicians for prescribing the drugs.

Why spend money on PR, the thinking went, if what you needed was sacks of cash? I promptly forgot about Big Pharma in China until two weeks ago. Now it is clear that the plight of GSK and its cohorts is something none of us should forget.

The China operation of GSK stands accused of price fixing, of bribing doctors and hospitals by funneling those funds through travel agencies, hiding the bribes as travel costs and thus engaging in fraudulent financial accounting, and of conducting an internal investigation that failed to turn up any of these actions – actions the company now acknowledges were perpetrated by at least some employees.

This is an ugly litany, but it is not a new one. For over a decade it has been something of an open secret that some major pharmaceutical firms have been pursuing some variant of the pay-for-prescribe model. Doubtless, over the years many of those companies were counseled to cease such practices by employees and advisers. (There is some speculation as to why GSK was singled out as the monkey that would kill the chicken, but I’ll leave that to others.)

But one wonders whether, under the circumstances, GSK had a choice. It is a China business truism is that once a company has been through the market entry obstacle course and has begun generating (often spectacular) profits here, the pressure to sustain and grow that flow of cash is enormous. News about a company’s business in China moves the share price, and the prospects for business in the PRC is a key topic at a growing number of quarterly earnings calls. And the question is never “how” a company is doing business in China, but “how much.”

Capital, like justice, is willfully blind.

In a market where doctors make a pittance, where hospitals are overwhelmed yet constrained from charging reasonable rates for  care, the medical profession aches for streams of revenue that will keep the wheels on, if not line the otherwise threadbare pockets of underpaid physicians and administrators. Pharmaceutical companies foreign and domestic offer a ready source of cash, inciting a practice so pervasive that any drug firm unwilling to pony-up is simply not in the game. Add those pressures together, and a company could find itself fairly pushed down a slippery slope.

Having invested heavily for years in people and facilities and immersed in an industry where “everyone does it” and apparently gets away with it, it is easy to see why a company like GSK might be tempted – nay, compelled – to engage in behavior considered unethical or illegal elsewhere. At that point, the only alternative was to pack up and leave. This, it seems, was never an option.

And that is precisely the point.

GSK and several other multinational pharmaceutical firms look set to undergo a public revelation of the ugliest parts of their China businesses. That these revelations will damage the companies prospects in the world’s largest market is a given. All that remains to be seen is how far the Chinese government is prepared to go in sanctioning these companies for their past behavior.

Those events will take their own course. What must concern us now is a more urgent question: what other industries in China hide similar practices?

Already in the past week the Chinese government has taken to task the handful of international firms supplying infant formula to the Chinese market. The charge: price-fixing. Never mind that local companies in the same industry, by taking production shortcuts, have earned a reputation for sickening and killing children with their product, and that parents able to afford it in desperation have taken to buying imported formula often smuggled from abroad.

In so doing the government has sent a powerful message not once, but twice: no industry or company, however vital to the well-being of the Chinese people, will be allowed to engage in illegal and unethical business practices, and the foreign firms will be punished first and with greatest vigor.

In so doing, the government accomplishes three aims: it slows or stops practices likely to enrage the populace; it sends an unequivocal warning to its own local industry; and it cripples or eliminates foreign competition for its own local firms.

To every other multinational company in every other industry in China, ask not for whom the bell tolls. Xi Jinping’s administration has put the world on notice that no matter what local firms do, unethical and illegal business practices on the part of multinationals in China will no longer be tolerated, and in fact they’re coming for the foreigners first.

It is time for an immediate and thorough self-examination for the kinds of business practices that will not withstand government or public scrutiny. The time to clean up is right now, even if it cost contracts, relationships, and hard-won business. Failure to do so only puts off the reckoning and ensures that the cost will be much higher when that reckoning comes.

And there is one more lesson for the leaders and directors of any company that does or would do business in China, perhaps the most important of all.

A company entering the China market may well decide how much it is willing to spend in time, resources, and capital to attempt success there. No board worth its name would underwrite a leap into the PRC with a blank check: at some point, the cost is higher than it is worth. There would be no shame in such a decision, if for no other reason than the list of companies who have given up on China after finding no long-term payoff is long and distinguished.

But it is rare to find a company that has set an explicit limit on how far it is willing to go ethically to succeed in China, to say “here are the things we will absolutely not do in order to win in this market,” and gain board and shareholder support for that initiative. The readiness to define how much a company is willing to invest in the pursuit of success in China, but the failure to define how far it is willing to go to do so is what ensnares good companies like GSK in a web of worst practices.

And that is the lesson for all of us: if we do not draw a line in the ethical sand, stating in advance that our success in China will not be won at the cost of our ethical bottom line, we are effectively licensing the people building and operating our offices and operations in the PRC to do anything in the pursuit of financial gain.

Whatever your ethics, the Chinese government is now making clear the practical costs of pursuing such a path. If there is a future for foreign enterprise in the PRC, it belongs to companies who are prepared to live and die by a better standard of behavior, not to those who follow the lead of the meanest actors in the market.

Branding and BRICs

“Brazil leads in BRICS’s brands”
Jerry Clode

Added Value – Source
March 17, 2013

BRICS summit participants: Prime Minister of I...
BRICS summit participants: Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh, President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev, President of China Hu Jintao, President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff, President of South Africa Jacob Zuma. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a thought-provoking article in AddedValue’s Source blog, Jerry Clode notes that Brazil’s brands are going global while China and India’s brands seem mired at home. Clode probes why, and believes he has found the answer: Brazil’s brands do well because they have creative Brazilian people who are confident enough in their culture to it in a way that is meaningful to people overseas. And, by implication, China does not.

He notes:

Looking at the two Asian BRICs, China and India, we see increasingly discerning and globally literate middle class consumers who are placing increasing expectations on local brands. But a lack of concomitant confidence to tell local brand stories that move beyond quixotic foreign stereotypes seems largely absent.

The answer to creating Chinese brands, he suggests, is simple: Chinese companies just need to be more confident and down-to-earth when presenting narratives to global customers.

It’s an interesting argument, but I am not sure it would do the trick. National provenence carries different baggage for Chinese and Brazilian brands. Chinese companies must operate against the unappealing background of China’s messy national emergence. China’s assertive geopolitics, cultural differences, and a reputation for producing poisonous foods and questionable quality in toxic sweatshops have left a deeper impression on the world’s consumers than panda bears, kung fu, and calligraphy.

This is a problem that extends far beyond the ken of marketers to solve. The status quo is our canvas, and the aura of Chinese-ness is and will be for the foreseeable future more a curse than a blessing for all but the most extraordinary of Chinese brands.

At a more immediate level, uncertainty around company ownership in the PRC means that Chinese brands are assumed to have some affiliation with the Chinese government and, by extension, its activities. Meanwhile Brazil carries much more positive images for global consumers, it’s government is not perceived as threatening, and it can capitalize on the common European cultural origins of its primary audience.

For the time being, marketers for China, Inc. must address this with the grand strategy followed by Japan’s most successful brands: deodorize. Back when Japanese brands began their global breakout, they did their research and discovered that their “Japanese-ness” was a liability, and behaved accordingly. Nissan used the “Datsun” marque in the US from 1960 to 1980 to avoid being associated with the brand name used on trucks the company made for the Japanese army in World War II. Matsushita picked out the name “Panasonic” for similar reasons.

Most Japanese brands did not go so far as to change their names, but their Japanese origins and essence were played down in all aspects of marketing and sales. Origin was incidental, neither positive nor negative. What was important was the product and the credibility of the company that stood behind it.

Until such time as China’s companies no longer struggle to free themselves of the constraints of the nation’s global image, they can rely only upon their own good work. For most, if not all, that will mean leaving Brand China behind in their quest for global markets.

China and Soft Protectionism

In the Hutong
What, cold again?
2142 hrs.

Protest in Hong-Kong against WTO on december 2005
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though we may not be talking about it much, those of us who watch China for a living are looking forward with a mixture of dread and anticipation to the upcoming “two meetings,” the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress and the China People’s Political Consultative Committee. Even though the die of China’s future leadership was cast at the Party Congress in November, the coming NPC is the juncture where the reins of government are handed over to the new leadership, and the retiring members of the Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao entourage graduate to the status of “elder statesmen.” For that reason, this is the point at which we will all be watching for some indication of how Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will run the show a little differently.

While some will be looking for signs of political reform, my eyes will be cast elsewhere, namely to trade. What I want to find out is whether and how the new administration plans to play by the rules it signed up for when it acceeded to the WTO eleven years ago. Or, indeed, how it intends not to do so.

Since at least the early days of the Hu Jintao administration it was clear that the so-called Fourth Generation of leaders was somewhat less enthusiastic about playing the globalization game, and much more interested in just keeping a lid on the place. Stability was the name of the game, and the spirit of we-can-take-whatever-free-trade-can-dish-out that exuded from Zhu Rongji like a heavy cologne was blown out the window when Zhu left the building in 2003. In its place came a series of policies that I term collectively “Soft Protectionism (软保护主义),” a series of measures and behaviors that allow China to circumvent the intent of the global free trade regime almost at will.

Soft Protectionism, as I see it, consists of several pieces.

National Standards. We see this most blatantly when it comes to technology. The government establishes a standard based on a technology that is locally developed, and by so doing secures all or at least part of the market for Chinese output. The TD-SCDMA standard for third-generation mobile phones is a great example, as is the WAPI wireless LAN standard that was supposed to supplant Wi-Fi. China has learned that this policy is best conducted when it is done within the parameters of global standards-making bodies like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE.) Through organizational activism, horse-trading, and the occasional theatrical tantrum, China is able to gain acceptance for standards that are, in some cases, little more than laboratory experiments. Using this global legitimacy, the standards ploy becomes legitimate. And lest you accuse me of being biased, let me make clear that we Americans all but invented this game, and we perfected it with our bull-headed nationalist behavior when it came to standards for digital televisions and the first digital phones. China is simply turning the tables.

Creative Use of Non-Tariff Barriers. Despite the openness promulgated by the WTO, there are still back doors that will allow governments to selectively protect industries. The first and favorite of these is the so-called National Security Exemption from the World Trade Agreements. The key phrase is “Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed . . . (b) to prevent any contracting party from taking any action which it considers necessary for the protection of its essential security interests”

That exemption gives wide latitude to any government willing to interpret it liberally, and China can and does do so, especially when it comes to information products and software. Other countries use this exemption to ensure that they have access to weapons production in the event of international isolation. The U.S. uses it, for example, to ensure its ships, tanks, and warplanes are all made by factories on US soil, but it does not use it to stop the import of foreign merchant hulls, diesel trucks, or civil aircraft. China, according to Nathaniel Ahrens at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is comfortable crossing that line.

China also manages to restrict the free trade in publications, television, film, and music by stretching the WTO’s Cultural exemption (introduced by France in 1993) beyond the breaking point. Under the guise of protecting its vulnerable culture, China requires specific approval for any publication, recording, video, or film coming into the country. Keep in mind that we are talking about the culture that for nearly two thousand years has managed to assimilate every culture and nation that tried to subjugate it. Nonetheless, the exemption is used at every juncture.

Passive resistance to WTO Rulings. Rather than submit to WTO rulings it does not like, China conducts a passive-aggressive policy of resistance, even at the risk of undermining the institution. Dan Harris of China Law Blog fame put it like this:

“China still intends to remain within the WTO so as to be able to obtain certain trade benefits. Rather than openly disregard the minerals decision, China will resort to “procedural games” (游戏规则) to render any response against China ineffective as a practical matter. China is proud of how it has  used “procedural games” to avoid its responsibilities to respond to adverse WTO decisions and it openly states that it will continue to use this approach in these “national interest” cases. In fact, the term “procedural game” has become a standard feature of the China’s trade policy vocabulary.”

Government Catch-up initiatives. These are the micro-level great leaps that the government attempts to engineer over time in order to substitute domestically-made products and technology for locally-made equivalents. The past thirty years has seen China-government sponsored initiatives succeed in “catching up” in several industries, including shipbuilding, digital telephone switches, heavy trucks, wind-power generators, and solar power, and it is attempting to do so in automobiles, commmercial aircraft, microprocessors, and encryption software. The end result is the same: serviceable and appropriate products from overseas are gradually pushed out by government programs designed to deny them access to the market.

Government encouraged SOE support. This comes in many forms, but the most prevalent is outright cash payments. By offering low-interest or permanently rolled-over loans for state owned enterprises through state-managed policy banks at either the national or local level, China creates effective trade subsidies that are not counted according to international standards. A senior Obama administration official confided in me on the sidelines of the Strategic Economic Dialogue in Beijing last year that China’s export loans dwarfed even the U.S.’s generous programs through the Export Import Bank.

There is not much that the US, the EU, or any grouping of governments can do about any of this, short of an all-out trade war, if China chooses to continue with these policies. What this means is that even as a full-fleged WTO member, China is still capable of providing a protected environment for its firms, and has proven willing to do so.

Such policies will help companies beat foreign interlopers at home, but at what cost? At some point China will confront the other edge of that sword, whether in the form of having its behavior mirrored by other countries with tit-for-tat trade measures within the scope of the WTO; or by discovering that the companies it protected at home were weak and unprepared when venturing abroad.

For Xi Jinping, the choice in the coming months is whether to continue to use Soft Protectionism as the nation’s de-facto trade policy, or whether he will instead switch off the pumps and force Chinese companies to build the resilience necessary to beat global competition away from home. For the companies themselves, as Sunzi said, “Enemies strengthen. Allies weaken.” The wise Chinese company will seek to step out from under Beijing’s umbrella as early as possible to learn to compete on a globalized playing field, rather than a nationalized one.

Luxury Cars: The Non-China Chinese Market

Lamborghini & Ferraris
Lamborghini & Ferraris (Photo credit: Axion23)

In the Hutong
Work Break
1945 hrs.

On Valentine’s Day, the always excellent Jing Daily published an article (“Ultra-Luxury Auto Sales In China Surprisingly Robust, But Are They Sustainable?“) that calls into question whether those stunning new Lotus, Maserati, Bentley, and Ferrari dealerships that are sprouting up around China are in for some hard times. Economic uncertainty and the potential that Xi Jinping‘s administration might discourage conspicuous consumption apparently has many buyers holding off on purchases. The spectacular Beijing accident a year ago that claimed the son of a powerful Party official and one of his passengers has made ultra-luxury cars an unintentional symbol of cosseted elites and official malfeasance. Markers of success are becoming stigmata of excess.

But the Chinese party is not over for the luxury car-makers, although a change in strategy may be in the offing. It may be time for the Ferraris and Bugattis of the world to learn from the purveyors of less expensive luxury goods, because the real market may not be in China: there is a fair chance that the majority of Chinese who will be buying ultra-luxury cars in the future will be buying them overseas.

Naturally they won’t be doing so in order to ship the cars back to the PRC (with the exception of the occasional gray-market beast that cannot be found in China or Hong Kong). Instead, they will be buying their high-speed bling to park them in the garages and and driveways of the homes they are buying in North America, Europe, and Australia.

Adjusting to this shift will mean changes in the way these cars are sold outside of China. Dealerships will need Chinese speakers on the showroom floor and in the service bays. Sales literature and owners manuals will need to be available in Chinese as well as the local language. Manufacturers will need to create Chinese websites for markets where Chinese isn’t usually spoken. And that is just a starter list.

The really smart manufacturers will set up Chinese-language customer service hotlines and owners clubs that cater to Chinese speakers in North America and Europe at least. They will advertise online in Chinese and in the mass media of the Chinese diaspora. And if they’re really smart, they’ll offer those special models and features that are designed to cater to the tastes of the new global Chinese elite.

None of this is mandatory, of course. For some brands, the snob appeal is derived in part by the derision with which it treats even its best-heeled customers. But the wiser luxury car manufacturers will realize that the Chinese are coming to the world: best to reach out and meet them before they decamp to the competition – or decide to spend their money on something else.

Luxury Goods: Meet the Experience Hunters

Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills
Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Hutong
Warming-up a little
1453 hrs.

The Chinese New Year holiday is a period where many of China’s well-heeled consumers travel abroad, so it was no surprise that CCTV ran a story on how many Chinese consumers use their trips not just for sightseeing and relaxation, but for buying luxury goods. The national broadcaster took China’s 80 million international travelers to task for spending $30 billion abroad last year buying luxury goods, and criticizing them for not spending that money at home.

Laurie Burkitt at The Wall Street Journal picked up the story, noting that Chinese duties raise the price of Rolex watches, Gucci shoes and Louis Vuitton purses between 30% and 50%. One can see why the government is concerned: that’s somewhere between $9 billion and $15 billion in lost import duties, plus the lost value of rents, income taxes for shop workers, etc. The brands are starting to realize where the bread is landing: Gucci is apparently halting all domestic Chinese expansion plans.

Luxury is an Experience, not a Purse

The media coverage of this transnational luxury buying spree implies that a hunt for bargains is all that sends these buyers abroad. Yet while price is doubtless an important motivator, there is more to it. What most analysts – and probably a few brands – are missing is the unarticulated value luxury consumers place on the experience, those intangible factors that makes buying the purse, the shoes, the watch, the dress so deeply satisfying.

One factor for Chinese in particular is mental comfort. It is not much fun consuming conspicuously in an environment that heaps growing opprobrium on bling buyers. Better to go somewhere where your purchase is at least taken in stride, if not celebrated. These days, that means buying in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, New York, Beverly Hills, London, Paris, or Milan – not Beijing or Shanghai.

But there are other factors that make up the luxury buying experience, factors captured in such post-buying questions as:

  • Where did I buy this?
  • What was the service like?
  • Did the salespeople make me feel at home?
  • Why was the experience special?
  • What was different  about buying there than in China?
  • What was I able to get there that I couldn’t in China…or anywhere else?

Any and all of these factors have the potential add greater meaning to the purchase, make its acquisition more gratifying, and deepen the relationship with the brand. Equally important, they add to the “show-off” or “shai” value of the item. The new owner not only gets to show-off the bauble to her friends, she also gets an excuse to relate the trip, the circumstances, and the feelings she took from the purchase process itself, all to the admiration (or envy) of the people whose respect is important to her.

Some Brands Get It

On a vacation trip in 2008, my wife bought a limited-edition LeSportsac Tokidoki handbag designed by Simone Legno at the LeSportsac store on Waikiki. The store was a delight, the location superb, the service was so good that even my son and I felt good about coming into the store, and that is saying something. My wife had never heard of Tokidoki  before, but the whole experience of buying the bag was such a delight that she came back the next day to buy one for her mom. To this day, five years later, she still talks about the bag, and has a deep affinity for LeSportsac.

Christine Lu of Affinity China is out ahead of the industry. She has begun leading luxury shopping tours of the U.S. for Chinese ladies that go beyond high-end store-hopping. Shops on Rodeo Drive, Park Avenue, and Waikiki are prepared in advance, provide engraved invitations, put on private fashion shows with Chinese narration, serve champagne and chocolates, and arrange to have purchases taken back to hotels while the ladies continue their day. As a bonus, Christine will bring along a Chinese celebrity or two, and tweet/blog/weibo aggressively, raising the profile of the trip and making mere attendance prestigious. The stores who work with her get it: the experience is every bit as important as the quality or design of the items that go in the bag. Expect these kinds of events to grow into a trend, traveling trunk shows where the groups come to the stores.

So all of this is interesting to be sure. Here is why it is important.

Today, it’s Price, but Tomorrow it Won’t Be

Understanding the non-price factors that drive Chinese to buy abroad is going to grow in importance. At some point the Chinese government will figure out that it needs to take steps to keep the luxury dollar at home beyond lame propaganda campaigns to shame buyers as unpatriotic. That will mean eliminating the price difference for buying at home. Either the government will have to start levying duties at airports and ports of entry (insanely hard to do and guaranteed to cause congestion at China’s overwhelmed airports and borders,) or they will need to eliminate duties altogether.

It is anyone’s guess on which course Beijing chooses, economic logic notwithstanding. When that happens, luxury brands will have their own choice to make: they can either play the zero-sum game, doing nothing and watching overseas purchases slowly leech back into China; or they can play the growth gambit, sustaining patronage overseas while building sales in China.

I’m betting the brands will want to do the latter, so I expect to see them taking steps to improve and even differentiate the buying experience for Chinese luxury consumers. At the very least, we will see more luxury stores with Chinese speakers and creating the kind of buying experiences that Affinity China is teaching them to offer.

I expect it will (or should) go beyond that. The brands will realize that simply offering a cookie-cutter experience in every store worldwide misses the point for their clientele. Each city, each store has to offer a different but equally compelling experience that reflects the brand in a unique way. This starts with store layout, but also speaks to decor, merchandise, and layout that reflects the location, and even offering items that are exclusive to that store. Let’s face it: even Disneyland has learned to differentiate its parks worldwide. Can luxury brands be far behind?

It is a truism (or should be one) that long after the price of an item is forgotten, the experience is remembered. Price will bring China’s increasingly sophisticated luxury customers in your door, but the experience will form the basis of a lasting relationship.

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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CNOOC and The ARC of Chinese Global Acquisitions

China National Offshore Oil Corporation, Beiji...
CNOOC Headquarters: transparent enough? (Photo credit: william veerbeek)

Hutong West
Enjoying the Air
1825 hrs.

Canada has given the “all clear” for the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) to purchase upstream oil and gas developer Nexen, a company with reserves in Canada and the Gulf of Mexico (among other places) and, perhaps more important, some interesting capabilities in shale oil and oil sands. CNOOC’s interest begins with the reserves but the long-term value of Nexen lies in its oil sands capabilities. China has an estimated 14.5 billion barrels of oil locked up in oil sands, a quantity that is over twice the nation’s proven conventional reserves. Even with the technological hurdles, the value of Nexen to China and its energy security would be huge.

One Down…

CNOOC faces one last hurdle: the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS.) That body has not been particularly kind to Chinese companies of late, and it has come under fire at home for an approval process that is opaque by Washington standards. There are still those in Congress and industry who flatly oppose any Chinese investment in U.S. fossil fuel assets or reserves. What this decision will come down to is how well CNOOC has laid the groundwork.

Regardless of the outcome in Washington, the fact that the purchase of what one senior Canadian executive called a “bit player” in the energy business has caused such a stir is an indicator that despite CNOOC’s groundbreaking efforts to build goodwill in government and industry, China, Inc. has a long way to go before it is viewed in American capitals with anything but suspicion.

More Spadework

The next bit, though, is the hard part. Building support among like-minded oilmen and politicians with bigger fish to fry is easy. Winning over the growing slice of America that believes the worst about China and state-owned enterprises is going to demand more than schmoozing: a wholesale rethink of corporate behavior is in order.

The formula that CNOOC and its fellow Chinese companies will need to follow when pursuing global mergers and acquisitions begins with the company’s actions. How has the company behaved in its operations both in China and abroad? Has it operated in a transparent manner, or has it used its government ownership as a fig-leaf to hide its activities behind a veil of secrecy?

Has the company been fair with its partners? Has it built up a genuinely positive environmental record (one that partners and foreign competitors would agree is world-class?) Does it behave in a high-handed manner, or does it operate with humility? Is it out for long-term cooperation, or does it just want to dismember its acquisitions for a few key personnel, some technology, and its reserves?

Next, the company has to consider its reputaiton. If it is behaving well, does it get credit for its actions across the full scope of its stakeholders, or do too many people fail to discern a difference between CNOOC and other oil companies? For that matter, is it seen as a company, or is it perceived as little more than an extension of the Chinese government? Is it telling its story to enough of the right people to matter? And, by the way, who are the right people?

M&A success for China’s companies abroad – for any perceived interloper, for that matter – rests on cash plus positive corporate behavior plus credit for that good behavior with all audiences. Actions + Reputation + Cash. Anything less leaves a deal dangerously vulnerable.

It will be interesting to see how things progress. CNOOC – and China – have a lot riding on this deal.