“Belt and Road” China’s Growing Global Brand Success 

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.

BRF logo and flowers

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.

Google Trends PBB Creative

Google Trends

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.

3 BRI | PBB Creative

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 Creative

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.

Top 6 Belt and Road YouTube videos:

1.     China’s trillion dollar plan to dominate global trade by Vox on Apr 5, 2018 – 4,389,522 views

2.     Why China and the U.S. Are Vying for Dominance in Pakistan by WSJ on Sep 10, 2018 – 1,664,719 views

3.     China’s New “Silk Road”: Future MEGAPROJECTS by The Daily Conversation on Jun 2, 2017 – 1,093,779 views

4.     China’s One Belt One Road Could Make Or Break This Poor European Country (HBO) by VICE News on Jun 13, 2018 – 866,379 views

5.     How is China’s New Silk Road transforming Vietnam and Laos? | Full Episode by CNA on Sep 30, 2018 – 695,828 views

6.     The New Silk Road: Ambition and Opportunity | CNBC by CNBC International TV on Feb 2, 2018 – 493,243 views

Top 5 videos on Chinese official channels:

1.     China’s Belt and Road Initiative at Five Years II: International Impact by CGTN on Aug 24 2018 – 216,246 views

2.     The Belt and Road Initiative一带一路 连接你我【中英字幕版】by Go China! on Sep 22, 2015 – 118,227 views

3.     What’s the Belt and Road Initiative? – “Belt and Road Bedtime Stories” series episode 1 by China Daily on May 7, 2017 – 117,585 views

4.     Music Video: The Belt and Road is How by New China TV on May 10, 2017 – 90165 views

5.     Durian ‘Little Thai’ takes us on a journey along the Belt and Road by Belt and Road Forum on April 19, 2019 – views unknown

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Simple logo, simple success

The logos below have gone through very few changes since their creation. Why is that?

Because the simplicity of their shapes and concepts gives them iconic status.

Because, through the rigor of their design, they blend impact and versatility while also conveying a feeling of quality to the consumer.

Because excessive modernizations based on trends and fads constitute a rejection of a brand and of its history.

A simple logo is easy to recognize, understand and is incredibly memorable. It is when a logo is simple and possesses the immediate obviousness of a given fact that it has the potential to be iconic. A logo doesn’t have to specify what products or services the brand offers. Instead, its mission is to capture the attention of the consumer and effectively communicate the identity of the brand. After all, sporting goods giant Nike has used the simple swoosh since its beginnings in the 1970’s as its graphic ambassador.

A logo must be well-constructed and functional in order to remain relevant decades after its creation. Focus should therefore be placed on simplicity and versatility rather than visual effects and add-ons intended to make it more appealing at a given and brief period of time.

A simple and well-designed logo can easily go through minor alterations without sacrificing its identity. It is highly unwise to replace or profoundly alter a logo according to the latest trends if the ambition is to develop a brand that can stand the test of time. Graphic designer David Airey, said it best, stating “Leave trends to the fashion industry .  Trends come and go…but where your brand identity is concerned, longevity is key. Don’t follow the pack. Stand out.”

One would think the latest technological advancements render age-old logos obsolete. This is absolutely true for weak logos. However technological innovation only serves to boost an already strong logo. Over the last 10 years, responsive design has given us a smooth browsing experience across devices and screen sizes. This has also resulted in the simplification of these logos while illustrating their timelessness and scalability.

Even in this age, logos must remain themselves and true to their history. It is a sign of strength and of confidence in the brand, and will be viewed as such by the consumer. See below for some of the logos we’ve done.

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Top 3 Marketing tips for a trade mission in China.

We were recently invited to share marketing and advertising advice with a trade mission of foreign companies seeking business opportunities in China. We met very interesting companies in industries such as entertainment, education and technologies, who have a successful track-record in their home countries and want to explore ways in which their business can extend into what is soon to be the largest economy in the world.

Without going too much in the obvious importance of having a clear value proposition and competitive advantage compared to local players, our experience with some of these companies has inspired us to share a few simple marketing tips that can be easily applied and increase your chances of having a successful trade mission, whether you are looking for investors, business partners, or clients in China.

1. Adapting your content: language and context

Following an initial consultation, some of the companies shared their profile, and selected case studies so we/or potential partners could understand their value proposition.

Most of the companies interviewed achieved the baseline of having their website and marketing materials in Chinese and English. Risking to state the obvious, this substantially increases your chances of making your content understandable to Chinese business people, as English is still not a very commonly understood language. That said, having both is much better, since some decision makers may be expats as well.

However, we found that most companies had not considered the importance of CONTEXT in their translated content. Translating content is much more than translating word for word. When adapting your content to a foreign language such as Chinese, foreign companies should take into consideration what local people may know or not know about the context of their service, which may be obvious to readers in their homeland or in other countries. Therefore, make sure you select content translators that understand how to market your products or services. These translators should also understand your business goals, so they can really articulate your message to the readers.

(if it can be bad from Chinese to English, it can also be bad the other way around)

2. Make your content easily accessible/sharable

Another company we met offered an entertainment solution which we feel has a lot of potential in China. It was also a pleasant coincidence as one of our clients sprang to mind as a local business partner. We therefore organized an introduction via WeChat. The foreign company was pleased to share some photos of its services as well as a website link. The local partner responded with greetings and a link to their official WeChat account, which provides access to their solutions, past events, and products. The initial introduction brought many small challenges that could easily have been avoided.

Problem: The foreign company’s website is hosted on a server that is hard to access from China.

Solution: For a company establishing itself its China with function driver website, it will eventually be a good idea to have a Chinese Domain Name (.cn) and server. Having a server in China requires a local business license, (or working with a third party like us), and registering a ICP, with local authorities, which can take weeks. That said, for companies only exploring opportunities, or for which their website is only a front of their business, having a Hong Kong-based server can easily do the job, and this can be done in a day or so.

Problem: The videos and media content of the foreign company are hosted on platforms blocked in China (or not fast enough), such as YouTube or Vimeo.

(What happens if people try to access your Youtube video from China)

Solution: You’ve probably heard of the Great Firewall of China, and if you haven’t, well Google it (unless you are in China). Long story short, many social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), among other things are blocked, or slower in China. Therefore, it may be frustrating for Chinese companies to try to access your content. Hosting video on local platforms such as Youku or Tudou may help them have a better experience when trying to understand your company. This goes hand in hand with creating an H5, or more locally adapted content.

Problem: When receiving the Official Account Link, the foreign company then asks for “an actual link”, not knowing that a WeChat Official Account is an app leading to all the content they need to know about the counterpart. Awkward.

Solution: Read Next Section

3. Understand WeChat’s basic functionalities

You can already find many WeChat specialized articles online, and if you are really serious about having a presence on this platform, you should consider working with a local agency (we know a good one), to help you create a strategy. But we also understand that you may not want to commit just yet. That said, you should at least have a basic knowledge about WeChat before coming to China.

WeChat is an all-in-one app: Think of Facebook, Skype, Apple Pay, What’s APP, all put together, on steroids. When we say on steroids, it basically means that through its mini programs, WeChat allows other companies to create built-in services (such as bike/car sharing, food delivery, e-commerce, etc.)

  1. WeChat is the #1 social and commercial communication tool. To a certain extent, it’s replaced emails as it’s used for file sharing, setting up meetings, sending locations for meetings and much more. It’s definitely the best way to stay in contact with people based in China.
  2. WeChat is widely used as a marketing and promotional tool, through WeChat Moments (Facebook Newsfeed’s equivalent), paid advertising, WeChat Groups, and WeChat Official Accounts. A WeChat official account is basically a web application built within WeChat. It’s almost fully customizable allowing you to link it to all available WeChat functionalities (payment, location, etc.)
  3. WeChat is a closed platform, meaning that it’s not compatible with other social media, or your website, and other social media.

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WeChat in 2018: Mini-programs and Brand Zones

Earlier this month, Tencent hosted the annual WeChat Developer’s Conference in Guangzhou. WeChat Creator Allen Zhang set the agenda for the year on what we can expect from the social media juggernaut. Within this context, here are two areas within the vast WeChat universe you China-focused brands would be wise to follow.

WeChat Mini-Programs

In a previous post on trends to follow for 2018, we identified WeChat mini-programs as a space to be watched carefully this year. Mini-programs are basically apps-within-apps, providing an intuitive user experience within WeChat, integrating social media, e-commerce and payments. The user experience is enhanced through faster loading speeds and a more customized service-offering than a normal app delivers. Brands can collect customer data, drive direct purchases or redirect traffic to e-stores and physical locations, encourage faster customer service and so much more.

With 1 million developers putting in work across 2,300 third party platforms, it’s no surprise mini-programs are starting to infiltrate much of our daily life. It’s changing the way we get around town, order food, pay for utilities, get movies tickets and worst of all, pay taxes. For those of us lucky enough to afford one, Tesla even has a mini-program to help owners find charging stations. At the more affordable end, popular super-market April Gourmet recently opened its first fully-automated AKA staff-less supermarket through its mini-program. WeChat’s eco-system lets users do almost anything without leaving the APP.

It’s then easy to see why the uptake transcends industries to include the likes of Dior, KFC, Zara, Nike and Starbucks all having buying their own mini-program. Boasting over 170 million daily users, the power of Tencent, and 1 million developers, we can confidently say that mini-programs will become an increasingly necessary avenue to expand your digital reach within WeChat and China as a whole.

WeChat Brand Zones

Last December, WeChat opened up its previously closed ecosystem to brands presenting a fundamental change to how the social network operates. With little fanfare, WeChat sneakily unveiled a new feature called “brand zone” under the cover of its new version 6.6.1. Brand zone puts all of a brand’s WeChat activity in a one-stop-shop, giving users easy access to brands’ official WeChat accounts, boutique stores and customized content.

According to a report by Curiosity China, the new function allows brands to control traffic within the zone, redirecting visitors from one section to the next and is an ideal first step in traffic monetization. The brand zone provides one port of entry which can be a WeChat official account or mini-program. Importantly, the brand zone gives brands exposure to users that aren’t following its official account. To be clear, individuals and media organizations don’t enjoy the same access to non-followers within WeChat.

So far, luxury brands seem to be the earliest adopters in using the brand zone as they comprise the majority of the select group of 12 premium brands using the feature. For instance, Cartier uses the new feature to redirect visitors to its H5 store for direct sales while Gucci simply redirects visitors to its own website. On the other hand, Longchamp links its boutique store to its WeChat mini-program for direct sales. Still in its infancy, we expect the brand zone feature to take a similar path that WeChat mini-programs has in its first year with some bumps in the road, ultimately revealing more about its applicability as more brands use the feature.

So to conclude, here’s a rundown of the benefits WeChat mini-programs and its brand zone feature provides:

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