China Mobile? Yes. According to the Brand Z Top 100 survey of global brands from WPP Group's Millward Brown Optimor research unit, the state-owned Chinese company falls into fourth place, with $39 billion in brand value.
That's despite the fact that the telecommunications giant does not sell services outside its home country and has not shown a strong aptitude for marketing.
"China Mobile is not nearly as aggressive in its branding activities as Microsoft or Coca-Cola, or even many of the other top global brands mentioned in Millward Brown's list. They don't flood the market with bells-and-whistles promotional materials like, say, Coke. They don't need to," said Edmund Hung, an analyst in Beijing at Norson Telecom Consulting.
Even within China, its name rarely crops up with Lenovo and Haier in debate over which mainland companies will be the first to create true global brands.
China Mobile's ranking came as a surprise even to Zhang Yixin, Millward Brown Optimor's Beijing-based Asia/Pacific director. "When we saw the results, we double- and triple-checked everything to make sure we hadn't made a mistake," she said. "China Mobile was probably surprised as well."
In addition to assessing brand values, the survey took into account each brand's effectiveness in driving business earnings and an index of expected near-term brand growth, said Ms. Zhang. China Mobile qualified even though its sales are in a single country--unusual for a global brand. Its size is partly due to lack of competition.
"China Mobile achieved its position [in our survey] by having the biggest subscriber base compared to any other mobile company in the world, but the potential of this market is five times what they have achieved to now," said Ms. Zhang.
Hot industry with scale
Even if China's telecom market is opened to foreign competition, China Mobile has a 'significant advantage in terms of infrastructure, services and content that would be extremely difficult for foreign competitors who are not Chinese-speaking to manage."
"They're in a hot industry with a lot of scale," said telecom consultant David Wolf, CEO of Wolf Group Asia in Beijing. "If we went strictly by an international standard of marketing here, we"d be hard on them, but they're doing a good job for this category by local standards."
China Mobile certainly has size on it side. With 255 million subscribers at the end of February 2006, the company is the No. 1 mobile phone service provider in the world's largest mobile phone market, in terms of total subscriber numbers. Even so, less than one-third of Chinese are mobile phone users.
Spun off from China Telecom in 2000, the company caters to the country's diverse demographics with a wide range of products such as M-zone, a youth-oriented service with a rebellious image and lots of games; Gotone, an upscale service for business people; and Shenzhouxing ("Easy Own? in English), a pre-paid service developed with China Merchants Bank.
Telco to lifestyle brand
Its strength comes from "a good background, solid infrastructure, and being part of a hot category," said Viveca Chan, Hong Kong-based chairman of WE Worldwide Partners, an independent Chinese agency network.
China Mobile "has also done a good job leveraging sub-brands with value-added services to develop customer loyalty and create revenue, helping it develop from a phone company to a lifestyle brand."
For example, business travelers using Gotone can gain access to lounges in domestic airports. M-zone, meanwhile, has teamed up with outside partners like the National Basketball Association and MTV for co- sponsored contest promotions.
China Mobile's only real competitor, lackluster China Unicom, has 130 million subscribers who spend much less on lucrative value-added services like the SMS messages, games and ringtones that generate more than 20% of China Mobile's revenue. The company's customers send about 700 million short messages per day, according to Xinhua news agency, and sales from ringtone downloads topped $50 million last year.
"China Mobile isn't an 800-pound gorilla, they're an 8,000-pound gorilla here," said Richard Robinson, Beijing-based VP-international business development at Linktone, a China Mobile partner providing wireless, interactive entertainment products and services to local consumers.
To its credit, he added, "China Mobile has become more sophisticated in branding over the past year," but it pales in comparison to veteran marketers like Marlboro, IBM and Toyota, whose brands ranked below China Mobile in the BrandZ survey.
Six national pitches
Brand consistency has been a struggle. The company is carved into two dozen divisions by province, each of which appoints its own agencies, usually local shops that handle small projects for low rates. Like many Chinese companies, China Mobile works through layers of teams with no centralized marketing director to guide the brand's development.
The company's latest effort to shake up its image is the promotion of Li Dachuan, a veteran of the company's marketing at the provincial level, to director of its marketing and sales division, part of China Mobile's market operation department.
To cement control of China Mobile's diverse brands at the national level, he held a review for six assignments that ended earlier this month and included dozens of local and international agencies.
The coveted national corporate branding assignment was won by Optimor's WPP sibling Grey Worldwide in Beijing following a pitch against the incumbent, WPP's Ogilvy & Mather, Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi and Raynetwork, a local agency in Beijing. (See related Player Profile)
Grey also won national creative account for China Mobile's Gotone service and Ogilvy retained the M-zone business. Interpublic Group of Cos." Lowe Worldwide won creative for the Easy Own mass brand as well as a new data service that will be launched as part of China Mobile's upcoming transition from 2.5G to 3G, while Tian Xing, a local consulting firm, will help China Mobile implement its Olympic marketing.
Because of their lack of experience, Chinese clients and agencies sometimes have a hard time working together long-term, so there's a lot of turnover and short-term assignments in this market, admitted Dan Mintz, chief creative officer of DMG, an independent agency that has marketed M-zone in eastern China since it was launched in 2001.
"China Mobile is not nearly as bad as other state-run companies, but it depends on the weather and time of day whether they treat us a brand partner or as a supplier," he said. "They also do a lot in-house and their range of services is all over the map. China is so big, it's not easy for them to coordinate."
In one sense, China Mobile's surprising appearance in the BrandZ survey reflects most of all how quickly and powerfully China's economy is growing and how fast the executives who run Chinese companies are starting to adapt western business techniques.
"What got them to this position wasn't marketing, but marketing and the groundwork they"ve laid will keep them in the No. 1 position as China opens up and changes over time," said Mr. Mintz.
Fast Facts: China Mobile
--255 million subscribers compose the largest base of any mobile phone company in the world
--the No. 1 mobile phone service provider in the world's largest mobile phone market
--customers send about 700 million text messages per day
--ringtone download sales topped $50 million last year
--value-added services like SMS messages, games and ringtones generate more than 20% of its revenue