“Belt and Road” China’s Growing Global Brand Success
24 May 2019
Author: Zoe Ruizhu Lin
Increasing geographic competition and country branding makes it more important for China to stand out and develop a unique identity and value proposition through strategic branding. China’s leading international growth, global engagement and developing countries’ growing needs for infrastructure investment have brought tremendous global attention to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) more commonly known as “Belt and Road”. Compared to the ‘Boao Forum’, ‘Shanghai Cooperation Organization’, ‘CEEC-China 16+1 Initiative’, and ‘Made in China 2025’, the Belt and Road Brand is a clear communication success. Belt and Road branding initiatives have received superior press coverage, millions of digital views and significant levels of comments, likes and shares compared to any other Chinese governmental initiatives. For example, the Belt and Road Forum generates 47,500,000 search results on Google compared to 889,000 for the Boao Forum, and 12,300,000 results for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A 6-minute Belt and Road introduction video by Vox in 2018 was viewed over 4.4 million times, which is the most viewed video among all Chinese initiatives. Effective branding and communications have supported the Belt and Road in its bid to enhance openness, cooperation, and investments in infrastructure. It has been popular with local media, citizens and governments.
Belt and Road has been embraced by 126 countries and regions as well as 29 international organizations. Belt and Road is an ambitious foreign policy project for China that needs to be seen by foreigners as supportive, constructive and win-win. The success of Belt and Road branding and communications has significantly enhanced China’s responsible global leader image.
Belt and Road Forum Logo | Source: CCTV News
Belt and Road is a coherent strategy of the Chinese Communist Party and has worked effectively to achieve numerous communication goals. As Merriden Varrall, KPMG Director Geopolitics underlines “BRI is actually just a brand. It’s a marketing tool, a label applied with a sweeping generosity to a huge range of projects being undertaken by a vast array of actors – a large proportion of which existed well before President Xi Jinping announced his pet project in 2013.” As China’s international influence continues to grow, the Belt and Road brand should consistently communicate a modern, responsible and caring China to the world. The Belt and Road is a strong global brand that is positively presented in Asian, European, and African media outlets especially those that have already signed BRI Memorandum of Understandings. The brand has also helped establish more connections between China and other global players including the United States. Developing an effective media plan and keyword search strategy has supported the Belt and Road in being recognized as a distinctive, successful international brand. Backed by a committed and centralized government, cooperative state media channels and a positive $90 billion BRI investment track record, the Belt and Road brand has become both credible and meaningful. This strength has been further leveraged by events such as the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing and the Belt and Road Brand Expo in Shanghai. The Chinese government has also released numerous press releases, websites, documentaries, movies, podcasts, songs, and bedtime stories. According to Google Trends and KW Finder, both tools to analyze search volume and data trends by keywords, “One Belt One Road”, “Belt and Road Initiative”, “Belt and Road”, “New Silk Road”, “Belt and Road Forum” have been receiving considerable attention around the world, especially in Singapore, Myanmar, Brunei, Nepal, and Mongolia.
Belt and Road key brand messages including cooperation, mutual benefit and connectivity have been embraced by the global press and social media. While the Belt and Road Brand has positive associations including infrastructure investment, win-win cooperation and cultural exchange, it is also facing criticisms for debt trap diplomacy, charges of neocolonialism and resistance from a number of countries over specific projects and financing arrangements which are highlighted by George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre. A strong Belt and Road brand not only allows the government to communicate its agenda but also to defend itself from criticism.
Marshall Plan Posters | Source: the George C. Marshall Foundation
The Marshall Plan was key to American brands having tremendous success in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s. The positive image created by the U.S. government via generous initiatives including the Marshall Plan shaped Europe’s understanding of a supportive America after World War II. Similarly, Belt and Road is positively branding a growing China to Belt and Road member countries and laying the groundwork of China’s future image on a global stage. The success of the Belt and Road brand can create opportunities for other Chinese brands and initiatives. Not only true for governments, numerous O2O and B2B brands have benefited from positive consumer reputations such as the China Children and Teenagers’ Fund, China National Petroleum Corporation, China Railway, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Intel and Airbus. By having a strong brand like Belt and Road, the Chinese government can effectively support Chinese products and services exports as well as its public image.
Leading Chinese O2O brands
Analysis of key elements of Belt and Road branding and communications:
1. Target Audience: Belt and Road initially focused on developing country government officials, large infrastructure project directors, established international press, financial institutions, and academia. Social media, tourism, environmental protection and humanitarian aids organizations have not been effectively targeted and can now be addressed based on current Belt and Road brand success. For example, building on the success of the first two events in Beijing, the Belt and Road Forum could become a rotating event hosted in other leading global cities. This would encourage diverse input from stakeholders around the world, and send a strong message that the Belt and Road is an inclusive brand and flexible initiative benefiting all participants.
2. Brand Focus: The Belt and Road Forum has been the key source of brand recognition and media coverage for the Belt and Road brand. Communication outside of these events needs to be more compelling and relevant. There are too many different brands associated with the Belt and Road Forum including Belt and Road Summit, Belt and Road Portal, Silk Fund and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). In addition, a new version of the Belt and Road logo can be developed and used as a single unifying brand. One brand for all Belt and Road activities, events and information is recommended. No one wants to deal with a brand that lacks consistency. Just using “Belt and Road” without any additional wording or references should be more effective and less confusing. Belt and Road is simple and easy to remember and has a positive association with China’s leading infrastructure and connectivity capabilities.
Major Belt and Road Logos
3. Brand Messaging: The Belt and Road has five official key messages or pillars: Policy Coordination, Facilities Connectivity, Unimpeded Trade, Financial Integration, and People-to-People Bonds. These key messages are relevant and valuable for existing and future participants and partners. The one message which is difficult to position, interpret and execute based on current trade situations and past policies is “Unimpeded Trade”. We suggest that this key message evolves into a more attractive and believable message such as “Open Trade Relations”. The Belt and Road brand should also consider reviewing the messages “sustainability”, “transparency”, “quality” and “innovation” for potential relevance.
4. Influencers: President Xi Jinping initiated the ‘Belt and Road’ in 2013 and has been actively and constantly promoting it in different scenarios. President Xi is regarded as the leader and the most important KOL for the Belt and Road. He effectively addressed the pain points of the current Belt and Road and left a positive impression of an evolving global brand. To build on this success and widen the target audience one could now introduce more diverse local and international influencers from the private sector. “Belt and Road Representatives”, “Belt and Road Ambassadors”, and “Belt and Road Friends” could engage decision-makers and citizens to participate in the bigger campaign.
5. Visual Identity: The Belt and Road key visual is the Dayan Pagoda（大雁塔） located in Xi’an, which is the ancient beginning of the silk road. This was appropriate for the first phases of development and can now be transformed into a more international and modern symbol that reflects a more connected and innovative China. The strong use of bold blue, red and yellow could be replaced by more digital-friendly and softer color tones. One lead color could be selected for promotions to improve recognition.
6. Media: Belt and Road has developed diverse content for all types of media including TV, print, outdoor and events. As we move forward, the brand tonality should be more engaging with the target audience, using a professional, inclusive and accessible tone. Media allocations could focus on smartphone and app-based media. Future events should include more interactions and user-generated content, as the brand becomes more open and innovative. The brand would also benefit from more social media engagement and gaming features.
Belt & Road Brand Perception
PBB is very impressed with the value and engagement levels created for the Belt and Road Brand by the Chinese government. We look forward to experiencing its future consolidation and modernization reflecting current technology and social trends. Adding new brands for additional forums, initiatives and programs to the Belt and Road would dilute its message and damage its current brand focus strength. One central Belt and Road brand can contribute more effectively to developing China as a true “win-win” global player for a fast-changing and risk-filled world. We think if the positioning is managed intelligently it should help increase the acceptance and recognition of Belt and Road, and further contribute to global infrastructure developments and a harmonious international community.