To Promote Chinese Innovation, Foreigners Travel the Silk Road With Only Chinese Brands

BYD, Lenovo and Huawei Sponsor a Journey on the Historic Route

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The driving Dutchmen: Maren Striker and Rogier Bikker.
The driving Dutchmen: Maren Striker and Rogier Bikker.

An agency creative and a friend are driving along the old Silk Road from China to the Netherlands using only Chinese brands as part of an effort to promote the innovations they are seeing in China.

Their car is from BYD, the smartphone is a Huawei, and the outdoor gear is from a Beijing-based company with the unlikely brand name of Ozark. Virtually all the products were provided by the marketers, but there was one exception.

"We didn't get the Chinese underwear sponsored, we just bought it ourselves," said Rogier Bikker, a Dutchman who formerly headed the Shanghai office of creative agency Energize.

The trip came about when Mr. Bikker, 26, decided to try something new after five years at Energize, where he worked on campaigns for brands including Heineken and KLM. (He was tapped by the Amsterdam agency straight out of school, at age 21, to set up a Shanghai office.) He saw the road trip as a way to promote the innovations he was seeing in China. He and his friend, Maren Striker, an urban planner, call their venture "Brand New China."

They set off on the three-month, 12,500-mile journey in late July, and Mr. Bikker spoke to Ad Age by phone from western China.

"This is a way to show the world what's happening in China -- because if the world keeps saying 'China is just a copycat, it's just a factory, there's no innovation there,' if we as foreigners keep saying that, then we can just wait for China to pass us by," Mr. Bikker said.

Chinese brands are gaining ground -- Huawei, for example, was No. 3 in the world in smartphone shipments in the second quarter, according to market research company IDC. This year, 95 Chinese companies are on the Fortune Global 500 list of the largest companies by revenue. And yet only 6% of Americans can name a Chinese brand, according to a 2014 Millward Brown study.

Marc van den Helder, Huawei brand manager in the Netherlands, wrote in an email: "What Rogier and Maren want to express -- from 'Made in China' to 'Designed in China,' and a China that is ambitious and innovative -- matches with our beliefs and the way we position the Huawei brand as 'value for money' by offering lots of our own technologies and innovations for less."

Huawei's Ascend P7 touts its 8-megapixel front camera and its ability to take panoramic group selfies. (Huawei has trademarked the term "groufie" in some countries.) Lenovo, well-known outside China since it bought IBM's PC division in 2005, provided laptops for the trip. Ozark, an outdoor brand, was founded in Beijing in 1996 by a Swiss man and focuses on the China market.

The trip's main sponsor is BYD, a company with a focus on electric cars that is backed by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. The brand tried unsuccessfully to introduce its cars in the U.S. several years ago, but Bloomberg has reported the company will try again starting next year.

The Dutch travelers couldn't ride in a BYD electric car because of the lack of charging stations on the Central Asia steppes, so they're riding in a gas-powered BYD F5 Suri.

Other Chinese car brands turned them down. The road trippers' blog notes that "the PR director of one major Chinese car brand -- about to enter foreign markets -- wrote back to us that she did not believe their car could drive that far without breaking down. She obviously did not share our 'brand new China' belief."

Mr. Bikker and Mr. Striker's route will take them through 11 countries, including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. Along the way, they're blogging and putting updates on Facebook. Social media agency Nuffnang Beijing is posting dispatches for them on Chinese social media.

Nearly a month into the trip, how is their Chinese-made gear holding up? So far so good.

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