[4 March 2008]
If you’re expecting a book about dumplings and one child per family, read no further—Brand New China: Advertising, Media, and Commercial Culture is about as academic and business-minded as its title implies. Written like a college textbook and packaged like a novel, Brand New China blurs the line between storytelling and statistical analysis, making for an interesting, complex read.
As current professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at the Masschusetts Institute of Technology, and author of several books on Chinese pop culture, author Jing Wang certainly has enough experience behind her, at least academically. This shows through in Brand New China, whose graphs and 35-page-long introduction left me searching for a blackboard and scratch paper. Think of “Freakonomics” crossed with your freshman year anthropology textbook crossed with a business meeting—no-nonsense, analytical, and frequently surprising.
Wang’s main argument in Brand New China is one of metamorphosis and flexibility. As a country still struggling to emerge from out of its post-Mao hangover, China’s major companies face problems with the juxtaposition of an individualist, Western-influenced “new China” versus the communal comfort of the “old China”. Using familiar company names like Kotex, Virgin, and Microsoft, Wang makes Chinese advertising slightly less intimidating for Western readers, while making note of how regionalized these companies have become.
Transnational companies, like Coca-Cola and KFC, have begun ad campaigns that cater to specific demographics. Coca-Cola’s famous “windmill commercial” features scenes from Northern China and uses festive, traditional Chinese music, while many Chinese KFCs offer some entrées that their Western counterparts lack—“Old Peking Style Chicken Rolls” with sweet bean sauce, fried chicken with star anise powder, mushroom chicken porridge.
Yet this so-called “localization” is not always what it seems, Wang argues. She quotes Bruce Oltchick, the former executive vice president of advertising sales at Star TV: “What makes a brand ‘local’ is how intimately it’s perceived by consumers and how relevant it is to them. In reality, it’s irrelevant who owns the brand or who manufactures the brand, or who markets the brand, etc.
Wang’s analysis of this “branding” technique for China—selling not simply a product, but an idea and an image—is thorough, and even eye-opening at times, for those not familiar with general ad policy. But for marketing students or businessmen, China’s ever-changing image is nothing new. In an article titled “The Brand New China”, author Benjamin Shobert discusses how China is facing what is “typically the beginning of a profound realignment of their business toward other intangible activities—such as product innovation and brand-equity exercises—that were previously not essential for their business to be successful” (Asia Online Times, 28 September 2006).
China’s branding “realignment” has been discussed at this length for some time. Other books have been published in recent years on its business and academic elements, but it has not been researched on the emotional and psychological level at which Wang presents commercial culture in Brand New China. Here, popular culture and national identity take the stage alongside company mergers and net profits, showing how branding can take place even on a subconscious level.
A commercial for Beck’s beer, for instance, challenges socialist thinking with both its slogan—“listen to yourself, drink Beck’s”—and its visuals, which feature “individualist”-themed images (i.e., a crab breaking away from its group, scuttling towards a bottle of Beck’s). Kotex’s localized branch of feminine care products in China found success in the slogan, “Free myself, do whatever I want,” versus their older, less popular slogan of “a comfortable feeling just like any other day.” Wang uses colorful examples like these to illustrate the dynamics of Chinese marketing in an immediate, approachable way, without delving deeper into complex numbers and figures.
At times, however, Wang’s mind seems to wander from subject to subject, without appearing to concretely connect chapters. She introduces the technicalities of branding in the first chapter, then jumps from commercial advertising to youth demographics to bourgeois bohemians (“bobos”) in the next several chapters. To give her credit, each chapter is very carefully and smartly organized into sub-chapters, with entertaining titles like “Red Dot or Not: That Is The Question” (in reference to the “red-dot” commercials by Kotex) and “Bobo Fever”. Had Wang described the people of China and their branding tendencies first, then perhaps the jargon in the first chapter would have had a little more context.
The language in Brand New China would certainly be an obstacle for someone looking for an easy read. Unless you want to impress your office peers by reading it on your lunch break, I would not recommend bringing this anywhere that could involve distractions. As an academic resource, Brand New China could prove to be extremely useful, as it contains a wide range of information about Chinese branding, from specific local companies to consumer trends.
While the complex language may seem like a deterrent for the majority of the casual reading public, it is in fact a boon in reverse. That this book has even been published outside of advertising circles is enough to bring China’s growing prominence as a branded culture to the rest of the world. Outside of the current crisis with tainted food and outsourced workers, China’s advertising scene has been largely ignored.
It may do well for the millions of university students who study international business to pay attention to Brand New China. As Chinese language class sizes grow and East-West relations gain more attention, it seems as if the world is pushing for an increased awareness in Asian spheres. Wang brings China forth as an individualistic consumer culture that may shock Western readers with both its idiosyncrasies and parallels to Western markets. She offers insight on what is today an immensely important piece of the international puzzle, and cleverly pulls together the psychological and traditional elements of commercial culture to create a well-rounded, illuminating read.