Campaign Asia’s Jason Wincuinas on Chinese Brands with Global Aspirations, How They Engage Customers and the Transparency Gotcha

Jason Wincuinas, managing editor of Campaign Asia-Pacific

Teaming with the BBC and Campaign Asia, we’re participating in a roundtable in Beijing next Monday (8/18) that takes on the topic of Chinese companies building global brands. Jason Wincuinas, managing editor of Campaign Asia-Pacific will “referee” the session.

As a prelude to the big event, we flipped roles with me peppering Jason with questions.

Here’s the Q&A.

Lou: I’m looking forward to seeing you in Beijing on the 18th for the roundtable on Chinese companies going global. I’d love to hear your perspective on some questions.

Jason: Thanks Lou. This is a topic that really interests me. My first trip to China was in about 1995. I was an importer then, buying traditional porcelains and arts for sale in the US. That experience was fantastic, but the China I saw then is gone. The one I saw about 10 years later when I moved out of that business is also gone. And the one from 2008, just after the Olympics had its impact, that China is hard to find now too. And really, China of last week is already a bit dated. The rate of change is spectacular.

Lou: I hear you. It’s the type of change that leaves your mind out of breath. There was a great line in your LinkedIn profile: “Every consumer touch point is an opportunity for brands to tell their story and sell real value.” Do you think Chinese companies have taken this mentality to heart the same way Western companies have?

Jason: I believe very few companies around the world have truly taken that idea to heart. But for Chinese brands it may be even more important for them as far as building a brand image outside the home turf. Fair or not, there is a low-cost/low-quality perception they have to overcome. Often that means overcompensating.

Most businesses do one thing really well and that one thing is what they are in business for. The rest then just sort of follows—sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Often what a brand does really well is enough to carry the business. But not always, and as soon as real competition comes along, whatever weaknesses were there become far more apparent. Apple is an example of a brand that works on consistency from product to web to physical store and into customer service.

Lou: Is there a Chinese brand that comes to mind that delivers on this Apple-like consistency?

Jason: Xiaomi is showing the world that a local Chinese brand can disrupt everything.

Xiaomi successful Chinese brand and customer engagement

There was just news recently that it pushed Samsung off the top spot in China as far as volume sales. And that’s after Samsung came in as the number one brand in Campaign’s Top 1000 Brands ranking. Xiaomi’s strategy of responding to customer requests with frequent product updates shows a Chinese brand can take this idea to heart and push the envelope for marketing and customer service. The product itself is one thing, but the fact that the product can get better even after you own it and that those improvements can come from your own suggestions—that’s a fantastic brand story—who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

This is a kind of marketing that some might categorize as growth hacking. But that’s the idea when I talk about using touch points other than the traditional advertising message to boost brand image. Marketing isn’t just advertising—it’s selling an idea and standing behind it all the way. Anywhere you can reinforce that brand idea it’s worth doing. But it should be forethought, not an afterthought.

Lou: Can you think of a Chinese company that’s particularly skilled in applying the concepts of storytelling to its communications? Alibaba certainly gets a lot of mileage out of Jack Ma’s personal narrative (i.e., worked as English teacher, first venture called “China Pages” failed, etc.).

Jason: That’s a good question and I’m afraid my lack of language skills will skew my answer here. As far as a brand story in English, I’ve always thought Lenovo’s history makes for a compelling business tale. I like how it has grown from essentially just an assembly line, into a manufacturing giant and then into an international brand name. Now buying Motorola, it’s shown it can look ahead and see where it needs to go to grow.

Lenovo store in China

But maybe the area where Chinese brands do the best “storytelling” is less about narrative and more about engaging consumers on a level they prefer. The way Xiaomi growth-hacks and involves customers in the R&D processes sends a compelling message to people. What Chinese brands seem to be getting adept at is more along the lines of how they talk to consumers, which is through mobile devices. Mobile is the language of the future.

Little things like parking a new car on a busy pedestrian street, painting it with bright attractive colors and putting QR codes on it so people can get pricing and model information on the spot through their phones, that says something to consumers. The MG brand (part of Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation [SAIC]) did that in China. It’s not exactly storytelling, but there is a narrative there about brands understanding consumer needs for time and trying to give them something useful to make their lives easier. The key word there is give. Give is much better than tell.

Lou: As a general rule of thumb, is it fair to say that private enterprises in China are more ready to build their brands on a global playing field than the SOEs?

Jason: I’d have to agree with that. SOEs still enjoy protections, and sheer size means they have less to worry about commercially. Like any industry, if you have go out every day and win in the market versus getting a paycheck at the end of the week no matter what—who do you think is going to work harder in that situation? It’s just a different dynamic. But going global will change the playing field. Can PetroChina or Sinopec become the next Royal Dutch Shell? Maybe.

Sinopec station Chinese brand storytelling

Lou: Based on your observations, are there one or two common mistakes that Chinese companies often make when embarking on a global brand-building effort?

Jason: Chinese brands have the same trouble going global as any nation’s brands, and that’s getting the local picture right in any of the markets they want to enter. The history of branding has lots of funny examples of poorly translated slogans or name brands. Ever try selling a Chevy “no go” (Nova) in Mexico?

Uniqueness, exclusivity: those are selling points with many consumers, but foreignness is often a bridge too far. The difference between exotic and unfamiliar is the same as between desire and caution. European fashion brands seem to get a halo from their foreignness, but those are the “exotic” exception. Everybody else has to tap into the local ethos, and that is not easy. Failure comes when brands aren’t willing to bend. I can’t tell you how many Chinese manufacturers I used to buy handcrafted goods from that had the term “animal byproduct” in the company name. Blaah. Granted that was business-to-business and in an era much different than today, but a name like that has zero chance outside the little world those companies operated in, even if some of them made really beautiful things.

Transparency seems to be another area where Chinese brands have trouble. Not that Microsoft or Facebook don’t obfuscate when it suits them, but there is an element of Chinese society that seems to maybe put a higher value on one’s privacy or the right of authority to brush off questioning. Can you imagine anyone asking Jiang Zemin what kind of underwear he prefers? But Bill Clinton answered that question while campaigning without hesitation.

Bill Clinton PR and transparency

That’s not what won him the election, but the perceived straightforwardness of the Clinton brand did win it. And therein lies the trouble for Chinese brands. They’ll have to be a lot more open and forthcoming than what they are accustomed to in order to succeed in the West—maybe even more so than their local competitors. That might be a double standard, but it’s one that could trip you up if you go in unaware of it.

Lou: Back to Lenovo, which is a poster child for Chinese companies who have successfully built a global brand. Do you anticipate that we’ll see more Chinese companies acquiring Western brands as a means to accelerate the global brand building?

Jason: From a business perspective that’s inevitable. They may not all be headline-grabbing ones like Smithfield or Motorola, but management consultants and economists I’ve spoken with all expect a great deal of M&A over the next five years. One forecast from The Economist shows China fully passing the U.S. as the world’s largest economy by 2018. It is highly unlikely that kind of power shift would come without companies changing hands. If nothing else, the distribution channels that Western companies own will be low-hanging fruit to empowered Chinese brands looking for overseas expansion. When the Lenovo/Motorola merger came through, at Campaign we looked at that as mainly a brand deal. Lenovo doesn’t really need more manufacturing base; it might want some of the patents, but Google kept all the best ones for itself. However, the readymade market access to North and South America, as well as the built-in brand recognition—that’s only valuable to a growing company like Lenovo. It was definitely a smart strategic move. And the circumstances that led to it can’t help but repeat. Countries will likely cry “national security” at some deals (energy and petrochemical could prove to be sensitive areas), but FMCG, sports goods, finance, automotive, electronics, services, food, earth-moving and building equipment—there’s lots of potential there.

Lou: When I was growing up in the 1960’s, Americans associated cheap and low-quality goods with the “made in Japan” stamp. Yet, today it’s just the opposite. Americans think of Japanese products as high in quality and worthy of a price premium. It was the Japanese carmakers who led this perception turnaround. Can you see one particular industry sector in China leading the way in changing the perception that Chinese companies win based on the lowest price?

made in china logo - global Chinese brand

Jason: Technology. Lenovo is one example. Xiaomi is another. These firms are proving they can build both reliability and innovation, much like your auto example. Consumers came around to Japanese cars because the manufacturers packed in more features, pushed quality and met consumer needs. Today Chinese brands might still use price for leverage, but I expect that to fade. There’s too much wage pressure within China, raw materiel cost parity globally and other economic pressures. China’s cost advantage has an expiration date. After that, the only way they will win in the market will be based on the better mousetrap. Xiaomi has outmaneuvered global names in its domestic market. It won’t be easy, but replicating that success outside China is not such a stretch.

Lou: Consumer electronics are as vital to modern life as autos were 50 years ago?

 Jason: Right. In Hong Kong a car is a nice-to-have, but in most advanced economies it’s a must-have. Even if you work for minimum wage in the States, you typically need a car to get to that job. Digital devices are now just as essential; they are the division between taking part in the modern economy and getting left behind. If you are not online, you barely exist. Taking the internet with you—tablet, laptop, smartphone, phablet, etc.—puts a new definition to your mobility in very much the same way the car did.

China has some scale advantages in making these devices, as well as a better comfort level as far as working in a fast-moving market. You can’t discount a century’s worth of growth in just a 30-year period. That creates a certain mindset, and it’s an environment Chinese engineers are used to tackling; they have become experts at incorporating the latest innovations. And they certainly don’t suffer from the “not invented here” affliction. Charges of copying aside, engineers at some Western firms won’t even use development tools from a third-party vendor—it all has to be done in-house. That attitude can translate into sluggishness. And in the digital era, if you are not creating at a running pace then you’re a dead man walking.

 Lou: Any final thoughts not covered in the questions?

Jason: Why do meals in the south of China always start with soup but ones in the north finish with soup? No one has ever been able to answer that for me. I’m looking forward to our lunch.

Lou: See you in Beijing.

Brand China - global business storytelling

I appreciate Jason taking the time to offer his unfiltered perspectives. If this was sports talk radio, he would have just won two tickets to a San Francisco Giants game.

I’m sure the Monday roundtable will look at these areas and others in more detail.

With so many Chinese companies with global aspirations targeting the U.S. as their top overseas market, I’ll be sharing a point of view based on being on the receiving end of these brand-building efforts.

It should be lively discussion.


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What a Surprise. Journalist Prefers to Interview Executives Minus PR.

Relationship between journalists and PR professionals

The “How PR can play nice with journalists” post has really become a genre in itself.

I still get a kick out of the BusinessInsider classic, “Dear PR Lady: Here’s Why I didn’t Open Any of Your 3 Email Pitches.”

The latest missive comes compliments of the Huffington Post, “How to Stop Pissing Off Reporters” (would love to see the A/B testing on “upsetting” vs. “pissing off”). Maggie Quale interviews Jolie O’Dell, managing editor of VentureBeat on the act of PR repentance.

I actually agree with most of Jolie’s guidance:

  • Empathize with the reporter
  • Don’t over-craft the pitch
  • “No” means “no”
  • Etc.

But one Jolie tip caught my attention:

“Another sticky situation PR folks find themselves in is deciding whether or not to attend a briefing with the spokesperson. It’s another one of those delicate balances between providing support for the client and micro-managing the process.

‘I’m a professional doing my job,’ Jolie adds. ‘I don’t violate my position and I’m not here to antagonize anyone. So you don’t need to take notes on every word exchanged. Your CEO doesn’t need a babysitter. They are adults. Show us both the respect we’ve earned and let them take their call with the journalist solo.’”


Maybe if the interview takes place at an IHOP that’s down a busboy.

Characterizing a PR person accompanying an executive during a press interview as a “babysitter” is misguided (to be kind).

I would venture to guess that more than half of media interviews end with some type of follow-up. This can be as mundane as resending a photograph or as expansive as finding multiple third-party sources to comment on a specific issue. Such follow-up often slips between the cracks, even with the best-intentioned execs. Plus, hearing the action items firsthand provides clarity to the PR person on exactly what needs to happen to close the loop.

Two, hearing the executive answer questions on his/her company and the industry adds to the PR person’s understanding of the space as well as the executive. Of course, this doesn’t directly benefit the journalist conducting the interview, but absorbing this type of unscripted dialogue strengthens a PR person’s knowledge — a plus for future interactions.

Last, I appreciate that nothing causes a journalist to get cranky faster than a PR person jumping in and saying, “Stop right there” (Meat Loaf circa 1977), when the executive is getting to the good stuff. At this point, it’s worth acknowledging that the journalist’s agenda and the executive’s/company’s agenda are not one and the same.

An effective PR person recognizes that the more “fresh” and compelling the executive’s perspective, the better for the journalist and the more likely coverage will appear. At the same time, there is content that serves the journalist’s agenda, but not the company’s agenda (like sharing the details on an unannounced product). Making sure the executive doesn’t share off-limits information is also part of the PR person’s role during a press interview. Naturally, journalists prefer to interview executives solo because it increases the probability of extracting off-limits information.

Still, experienced PR folks know how to navigate this “dance” so that both parties get what they want out of an interview.

Side note: If you enjoyed this post, you might check out “How to Measure Storytelling in Media Relations.”


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Why PR Should Lead the Charge for Organic Search

I wrote a post in June stating that PR’s digital opportunity would come at the expense of SEO consultancies.

Here’s the core rationale —

Virtually every buyer around the world conducts some form of online due diligence, often plugging keywords into Google. As search engines increasingly favor quality of content — not technical acuity — in delivering search results, PR sits in the perfect position to address this.

Media coverage and the sharing of compelling content both generate backlinks in a natural way – emphasis on “natural,” not buying backlinks on a street corner in Bucharest – which turns out to be a top indicator for search engines.

business communication and organic search

With this in mind, we’ve created a SlideShare deck called “The Blurring Line Between Digital Marketing and PR.” It lays out the dot-connecting logic for emphasizing organic search and why PR should lead the charge … assuming PR shifts to applying storytelling techniques in creating content (more on this in the deck).

The Blurring Line Between Digital Marketing and PR from The Hoffman Agency

We speak from experience that started with an experiment in 2010. Could we take our existing content on the Toyota recall and build a site with page 1 performance for organic search? The answer was a thought-provoking “Yes.” We figured that if we could cut through the noise of such a high-profile event with a rudimentary understanding of SEO, imagine what we could do with real expertise.

It’s been a journey with the requisite twists, turns and naysayers — “If you haven’t descended from Mt. Sinai, you know nada about SEO” – to reach this point.

Today, I no longer have to imagine what we could do with real expertise.

We’re doing it.

BTW, even now if you plug [toyota pr crisis] into Google, our humble experiment shows up on page 1, typically above Mashable, The Wall Street Journal and  Business Insider.


China Inc. Wants to Build Global Brands. What Stands in the Way?

Brand China 08-14

Teaming with the BBC and Campaign Asia, we’re participating in a roundtable in Beijing on August 18 that takes on the topic of Chinese companies pursuing global brands.

Because of our strength in Asia, we’ve had a fair amount of experience over the years in helping Asian companies — including many from China – establish a footprint in the U.S. market. With the roundtable less than two weeks away, I’ve been reflecting on our campaigns for Chinese companies, what worked, what triggered pain and the life-is-better-than-fiction moments.

Yet — like a bungee cord — my mind keeps snapping back to a Businessweek cover from 10 years ago.

Businessweek China Cover A 08-14

I view this as the No. 1 obstacle that Chinese companies must overcome in their quest to build global brands.

Even though this Businessweek cover feature appeared in 2004, I would argue the issue is even more pronounced — and more complex — today.

With that said, the issue by itself is not a “deal killer.”

From my own experiences, what hurts Chinese companies is their failure to acknowledge the perception. As a result, they often charge forward with no plan of action on how to diffuse it.

I wrote a post called “The Top 10 Reasons Why Americans Companies Fail at International PR.” At the top of the list was what I termed “Americanitis,” a failure to recognize that success on your home field means little when venturing overseas. All companies, not just American companies, seem to have the same blind spot.

Ironically, the stronger a company is in its home market, the tougher the transition can be in expanding overseas. When a company “owns” the local market, it can breed a false sense of security. When it hits a pothole on the global stage, the reflex can be defensive when it should be introspective.

Turning back to Chinese companies, it’s easy to conclude that they’re stuck forever with the value proposition that spooks American industry: “Buy us. We’re cheaper.” Such a conclusion would be a mistake.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, Americans associated cheap and low-quality goods with the “made in Japan” stamp. Today it’s just the opposite. Americans view Japanese products as high in quality and worthy of a price premium. Sure, it takes time, but there’s no reason that Chinese companies can’t climb up the food chain.

Of course, discussing how Americans in general perceive Chinese companies is incomplete without touching on the Chinese telecom juggernaut, Huawei. In 2012 when the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee released a report that essentially said, “Don’t trust Huawei (and ZTE),”and “60 Minutes” used the same information to pile on, the image of all Chinese companies suffered.

Since the report, we’ve witnessed the NSA debacle and more recently the U.S. federal government indicting five Chinese military officials for allegedly stealing U.S. corporate trade secrets, the Chinese government pushing state-owned enterprises to sever ties with U.S. consultancies, and just last week a raid on Microsoft’s China offices as a prelude to an anti-monopoly probe.

The point is, the geopolitics and the inevitable tit for tat between China and the United States aren’t going away. To rise above this fray, Chinese companies with global aspirations need to recognize that people fear the unknown.

That’s why they should take matters into their own hands and tell their stories.

This dialog on Chinese companies going global will continue next week when I interview Jason Wincuinas, managing editor of Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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12 Tips on How to Do Your Homework Before the Big Job Interview

how to prepare for a job interview

After growing roughly 30 percent in 2013 and being on track for 20+ percent growth this year, we’re interviewing job candidates on a weekly basis.

I don’t know if this is a Silicon Valley phenomenon — demand outstrips supply causing candidates to get lackadaisical — or if this trend holds across the country, but I’m often surprised by the lack of preparation on the part of job candidates.

Even if the demand-supply equation works in your favor, it still seems like common sense to put your best foot forward.

Which means doing your homework before the interviewing process commences.

It’s not enough to review the basic information on the company website. The candidates who impress us with their knowledge of the Agency have researched us before they walk through the door. While the following tips come from our world — the PR and communications industry — they could be applied to any profession.

  • Online Search: More than plug the name of the company into Google, conduct a second and third search based on the time periods of the past week and the past year. This can uncover useful information that otherwise pushes to the back of the “any time” search. For the mechanics, click “Search tools,” which gives you a drop-down menu to click the desired time period.

Hoffman Drop Down Menu 07-14

  • Company Facebook Feed: Typically a blend of information that gives you a “feel” for the culture and personality of the company as well as background.
  • Company Twitter Account: Suggest reviewing the feed over the past eight weeks. Plus, follow the account, which tells the company you’re going above and beyond.
  • Google Alerts (or another tool for monitoring the Web): If anything new on the company appears online before your interview, you’ll know about it.
  • Company Blog(s): Another excellent resource for digging below the surface of a company. Just looking at the topics covered in the blog(s) can tell you how the company prioritizes its advocacy.
  • Company YouTube Channel: With a little bit of luck, you discover the company has a sense of humor.
  • Company LinkedIn Page: Can be a repeat of the content on Twitter and Facebook, but still worth the look.
  • Social Search: There are free tools out there like Social Mention that rake social channels by keywords.
  • Other Company Social Channels: Between a social search, Google search and reviewing the company website, you should be able to capture a comprehensive list of the company’s social channels. Take a few minutes to check them out. For example, our SlideShare platform — and especially the deck “How Clients Get the Most Out of Us — reveals our philosophy and even psychology in supporting clients.

Client Agency Relationships from The Hoffman Agency
  • The Interview Team: Request the names of the people who will interview you. Few candidates take this step. Yet, it can be as valuable as the company-centric information. With this breadcrumb in hand, you can build a mini dossier on each person. I appreciate that repeating the tips above for multiple individuals can become time-intensive, but at the very least you can check out each person’s LinkedIn profile. Under the contact section on each LinkedIn profile, you’ll find the person’s individual social channels including Twitter. If he or she pens a personal blog, it will likely be here — another great window into an individual and one that quasi sits off the grid.
  • Media Coverage: Journalists can help with your due diligence. Most companies will post substantial media stories on their websites’ press room. You should also use Google News, again searching “any time,” “past year” and “past week” which increase the probability you’ve captured the meaningful hits.
  • Quarterly Earnings: If the company is public, tap into its quarterly earnings. Seeking Alpha offers free access to the transcripts from quarterly earnings calls. You’ll often find nuggets of gold in what the CEO shares and the Q&A at the end.

I recognize that you could literally spend an entire work week, 40+ hours, conducting the research outlined above.

That’s not realistic.

Still, devoting four hours to this due diligence will paint a picture of the company that allows you to be at your best during the interview.

Equally important, it helps you to intelligently start exploring the question: Do I want to work for this company?

After all, the evaluation goes both ways.



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