Tuesday, November 6, 2007

China's image lacks appeal, not strength

As I reported in last quarter's edition of the Nation Brands Index, China's international image is sliding quite rapidly now: exactly the opposite of what China's leadership was hoping for in the buildup to the all-important Beijing Olympics. China's score in the Index has always been very weak on the 'governance' and 'people' axes, but is now losing rather than gaining ground on 'products'; it is still ranked very positively for 'culture', but not 'tourism'.

The recent welter of episodes relating to dodgy products made in China has further damaged the brand image of the country, and, if it continues, will significantly slow down the process of taking the 'Made in China' brand from merely ubiquitous to actually trusted, and ultimately desired. I once predicted that within ten years' time, we would start to see American and European products being launched on the marketplace with fake Chinese-sounding names in an attempt to make them appear more desirable than their real country of origin would allow: but this goal - which, let us not forget, Japan managed to achieve in just a few decades - looks further off than ever.

The Chinese leadership is frantic to create a better 'soft power' image for China in its potential marketplaces around the world, and the huge investment in Confucius Centres, the Beijing Olympics, the Shanghai Expo, its increasing aid donations in Africa, the more moderate and collaborative foreign policy in some areas, the acquisition of trusted Western brands by Chinese companies, are all part of this strategy. In his recent speech to the 17th Party Congress, Hu Jintao spoke again of his aim to create trusted Chinese export brands - echoing the same promise made several years ago by the then Vice-Premier Wu Bangguo, as I reported in my 2003 book Brand New Justice - but this ambitious and complex manoeuvre is proving exceedingly hard to stage-manage on China's own terms.

Part of the problem is that China is a bull in the global china shop, and is becoming simply too powerful to be able to carry out the delicate manipulations necessary to build a positive and trusted image in other countries. Take yesterday's news that the Chinese oil firm PetroChina has trumped US rival Exxon Mobil to become the world's biggest firm, with a market capitalisation of a trillion dollars: no matter how you tell a story like this, the reaction of many ordinary people is more likely to be fear than liking or respect.

Brand China is going from invisible to overbearing in one leap. At least the United States enjoyed a couple of centuries of admiration and affection before starting to experience the downside of its success in the global marketplace.

As I pointed out in Brand America, America's current image problems have at least as much to do with its achievement of many of its economic aims as its frequently unpopular foreign policy: the world loves and supports a challenger, but let it succeed in its challenge and acquire the power it seeks, and the love will quickly turn to fear, and the fear to hatred. China is getting there in one short step.

China has the economic and increasingly the political strength to do pretty much whatever it wants: but the one thing it cannot do with all that power is to make itself much liked. And as its leadership has clearly understood, being liked is the fundamental prerequisite for building modern, market-based Empires on the U.S. model.