A recent court battle between Chinese fast-fashion retailer Shein and rival upstart Temu might not have made headlines in the West had it happened in China. Instead, the two companies faced off in the U.S. as they both attempt to conquer the American market, signaling the rise of an era in which Chinese commerce vies to go global again.
By battling it out in the U.S., these companies aim to write their own marketing playbook for global expansion, one that several industry experts say is focused on product-led narratives rather than brand pedigree stories, and anchored by a reverence for data-backed consumer insights.
This matters for marketers of incumbent brands in Western countries, in industries ranging from consumer tech to clothing to alcohol. Chinese brands’ approach to marketing could signal an overture that appeals to cash-strapped consumers, who have been following the siren call of retailers’ own label lines, sacrificing branded — but often more expensive — goods.
“[Chinese brands] are more likely to go product-led, brand second,” says Tim Durgan, APAC VP of strategy and insights at Assembly, an advertising agency that has worked with Lenovo.
Philip Crampton, director of digital and partner at Tomoro, an advertising agency that has worked with Haier, concurs, pointing out that Chinese brands are very adept at identifying and addressing customer pain points.
“What people really need is a brand that understands their problem, and what the feature fixes and how it solves it. And I think Chinese brands do that very, very well,” he adds.
Finding sustainable profit abroad
Many Chinese brands’ recent ascent has meant that they mostly lack the historical pedigree that their European and American counterparts often rely on for marketing.
Some of China’s most recognizable brands, like Huawei and Haier, began in 1987 and 1984, respectively. “Time-honored” brands, an official designation bestowed upon brands that are “embodiments of China's traditional culture,” such as liquor maker Kweichow Moutai and traditional Chinese medicine firm Tong Ren Tang, largely appeal to the Chinese diaspora rather than a global audience.
So brands like Lenovo prefer to double down on key product features they know will resonate with customers, says Gunilla Huddleston, VP of marketing for Europe at Assembly, pointing to the agency’s work with the tech giant as an example. The company is now the top PC vendor in the world, starting from a relatively unknown Chinese upstart that acquired IBM’s personal computer business in 2005.
“Lenovo is very focused on the excellence of the product. They're confident enough in the product to market the product, and not spend their marketing dollars on image,” Huddleston says.
This approach might stem from the need to address Western consumers’ preconceptions around the quality of Chinese-made products, which Huddleston says is still persistent. But amid a shifting and uncertain global landscape, it could pay off in the long term.
“If you have to do some digging to find that it’s a Chinese brand, that's probably part of the strategy of the brand,” Durgan says. “Sustainable profit and growth are probably safer if you're talking about your product and the product features, rather than being beholden to something external to yourself.”
Lessons from taking Chinese brands global
This pragmatic focus filters all the way down to how Chinese brands like to work with local agencies, says Tomoro’s Crampton.
“They take time to really consider plans and results and when I compare them to working with U.S. companies, they’re less aggressive to get those initial results, which from a marketing agency’s point of view, is gold. Western companies will just switch channels off if they don't get paid back in the first couple of days.”
Crampton sees Chinese brands’ humility when coming into new markets as a key asset, which pushes them to rely heavily on hard proof to back up their campaigns. “They have an insatiable appetite for data and insights. That can lead on to a really granular kind of marketing plan.”
Nonetheless, they don’t always get it right. “I worked with a Chinese brand a few years ago now, but they insisted on taking all the keywords from Baidu Search [China’s Google Search] and translating them. It just didn't work,” Crampton says.
Indeed, navigating new markets requires understanding the nuances needed to properly translate a brand into a new language and culture, says Benoit Thorp, joint managing director of UMM, an advertising agency that worked on a global campaign for Chinese beer brand Tsingtao.
“It is important to find commonalities and the bridges to connect cultures. Food is a great connector for humans, so this was a key consideration in the art direction and styling of the campaign photography. Featuring a multinational group of friends was another ‘bridge’,” he says.
“Wording, as well as cultural differences and norms, need to be considered when expanding into Western territories, and vice versa. It’s also important that the creative is ‘Westernised’. If not, this has the potential to limit success in resonating with the local market and being accepted as a quality export brand,” Thorp adds.
Catering to new generations
As they navigate cultural hiccups and fierce competition from incumbent Western firms, Chinese brands might be only at the start of their long march abroad – especially as younger generations gain buying power.
“I would say there’s probably less of the anti-globalization view in the younger generations,” says Assembly’s Durgan. “If you are a sustainable luxury car from China, to a 20-year-old [in Europe], they probably go, ‘Great!’, versus you being a hybrid car from the U.K.”
Indeed, the real growth for Chinese brands abroad might be in the hands of Gen Alpha, who are “entirely digital, with no borders,” says Assembly’s Huddleston. “The media they consume is inherently global. It’ll be very exciting to see how they shop when they start having some real money.”