Brand positioning - an experiential perspective
Yao Shujie and Mike Bastin (China Daily)
Chinese consumers display differences from
their Western counterparts
Brand positioning, the image of the brand within
the consumer's mind, is no longer a fixed, static concept. Instead,
it is becoming increasingly dynamic and often varies across
countries and cultures and according to specific consumer
brands enjoy a quite different image across cultures, even when the
branded product and other marketing-mix elements are largely
similar. China and the Chinese consumer provide a good example of
this phenomenon, where many "medium quality" Western brands are
perceived as "premium", "glamorous" or even "exclusive" and
Examples that spring to mind are Starbucks, Apple,
Holiday Inn and BMW, which are all associated with "prestige" and
"elitism" by the new, affluent urban Chinese consumer, while across
Europe and the US they are considered high-quality but functional
obvious reason for this rush to purchase and visibly consume such
"exclusive" brands lies behind the rapid economic and social
development of certain parts of China. Chinese consumers in these
areas, largely the first-tier cities and southeastern coastal
provinces, suddenly find themselves for the first time in a
position to enjoy such expensive luxuries. In consequence, Chinese
consumers with lower purchasing power are also attracted to the
relatively new, glamorous brands, such as clothes and cars, in
order to combat any feelings of inferiority.
why is the Chinese consumer's perception of Western brands so often
associated with prestige and exclusivity when the very same branded
product or service in the West is merely a value-for-money means to
an end? To understand this further, it is necessary to move away
from the traditional view of brand positioning, in which consumer
brand perception starts with the branded product itself and remains
fixed regardless of the experiences during which the brand is
the Chinese consumer, brand image starts with the experience that
the consumer envisages during brand consumption. Chinese consumer
culture, despite economic development, remains rooted in group
orientation and the acceptance of societal hierarchy.
Economic development has simply led to the
immediate and extended family being replaced as the most
influential groups by close friends, colleagues and peer groups.
Achievement of societal position or ranking has also been replaced
by conspicuous brand consumption rather than occupational prestige
where "elite" occupations usually included senior Party positions
or elevated positions in education.
"Face" or "gaining face" often drives brand
consumption among the Chinese, where conspicuous consumption of an
expensive brand acts as a very powerful status symbol.
Western consumers take a far more rational
approach to brand choice; purchases of Apple's latest phone or
computer would be motivated mainly by convenience and
communication, whereas Chinese consumers will rush to the nearest
Apple store, and often camp out overnight, in an effort to be one
of the first to be able to display publicly their new
Chinese consumers are also more likely to form a
deeper emotional attachment to their favored brands, partly due to
the need to aspire to higher societal status but also because
modern consumer culture remains relatively new across China.
Chinese consumers, especially the younger generations, are
therefore bursting with enthusiasm for "new", "cool" and "fun"
branded products and, at the moment, associate such brand values
very firmly with the West.
Celebrity endorsements and product placements also
contribute considerably to the Chinese consumers' emotional brand
attachment. Typical Western consumers react with indifference or
even skepticism when confronted with a famous person advertising or
promoting a branded product, even if there is a clear "fit".
Chinese consumers, however, expect to see a
celebrity heavily involved in the advertising and promotion of
branded products. On Chinese television you rarely see an
advertisement that does not contain a well-known public
Product placement, the use of well-known branded
products as part of a television show or film's actual storyline,
also plays on the Chinese mind differently compared with a typical
Western viewer. A Chinese audience is far more likely to associate
with a brand that appears during the TV show or film, whereas
Western consumers will pay little attention to the brand on display
and simply concentrate on the show itself.
relative immaturity among the Chinese brand-buying public also
contributes to a lack of confidence in their individual
decision-making capability, which often leads to the most
well-known, publicly acceptable (and usually Western) brand chosen.
But this is only a short-term, temporary phenomenon.
is only a matter of time before the typical urban Chinese consumer
reaches a level of maturity and also feels a desire for change, at
which point their brand choice will switch from an emotional,
status-driven decision to a far more rational, analytical and even
Therefore, the message to all brand producers
targeting the Chinese market is, in the short term, continue with a
more emotional position and focus more on the consumer's brand
experience and not just brand image. But be aware of a possible,
imminent backlash against well-known products, where conspicuous
consumption and societal status will not be facilitated by the
purchase and display of expensive brands but by a more innovative,
non-conformist choice of consumption and lifestyle.
Shujie is head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at
Nottingham University and Mike Bastin is a researcher at the