Rather than rooting for homegrown companies such as Coca-Cola Co. rival Jianlibao or Nike competitor Li Ning, these young shoppers want to be seen as trendsetters and opt for brands with the most street cred, regardless of origin, according to WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide and research firm Synovate.
The two companies surveyed 202 young adults between 15 and 28 in the affluent south China region known as the Pearl River Delta. In addition to Li Ning and Jianlibao, Ogilvy tested the relevance of many local brands against global rivals, such as Southern China Airlines vs. Cathay Pacific Airways; Zhen Wei Si vs. Bossini; and Happy Valley amusement park vs. Disney theme parks.
More than two-thirds of respondents voiced a strong sense of nationalism, rating it eight, nine or 10 (10 being the most important). But even the strongest patriots happily consume international brands on a regular basis. Some 94% of the "more patriotic" drink Coke, compared with 100% of the "moderately patriotic." Nearly 60% of the "more patriotic" wear Bossini, compared with 70% of lesser patriots.
Even though many brands such as Jianlibao "have built their success so far around patriotism," said Salina Cheng, Synovate's Hong Kong-based associate director, Chinese youth who buy them "do not see any direct relationship between patriotism and buying national brands over international ones."
Only 19% of those surveyed considered country of origin a factor in brand choice, with the rest citing price, perceived quality, style, and brand image, all areas where international brands are perceived as more appealing, superior and aspirational. On a scale of one to 10, Nike scored a 7.79 for superiority, compared to a 6.84 superiority rating for Li Ning.
Many respondents were confused over the national identity of some brands. That's in part because multinationals such as Coke and Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. have adopted patriotic platforms to capitalize on moments such as China prevailing in a big game during the 2002 World Cup.
When China won the hotly contested bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, for instance, McDonald's, a hip hangout for Chinese teens, invited customers to watch the announcement on TVs in McDonald's restaurants and offered free hamburgers the following day. Adidas celebrated China's qualification for the World Cup last year by launching a campaign featuring Fan Zhiyi, China's leading football star, marking the first time it created a TV spot specifically for the Chinese market. The ad, created by an independent Hong Kong shop Bang!, featured people from all over China wearing the China team's official Adidas-sponsored shirt, each bearing their own personal number, ranging from 100 to 1.2 billion, to send the message that every person in China counted as part of the team.
Bonding with trendsetters is an act global marketers have perfected for years in the U.S., Europe and Japan. But they need to stay on their toes in the coming years, as local firms such as Li Ning and Legend Computers close the gap between the perceived value of local and international brands by improving the quality of their products, stepping up marketing plans and harnessing teens' fickle national pride.
"It's not about the Americanization of local brands or the liberalization of values, but the affirmation of local quality and credibility. The belief is that China can be as good as the rest, if not better," said Edward Bell, Ogilvy's planning director for Hong Kong and southern China.