Empathy Meets Growth: 5 Traits China’s Most Relevant Brands Have in Common

Prophet’s China Brand Relevance Index (BRI) measures how central brands are in the lives of consumers. Our belief is simple: in order to both command a price premium and fuel future growth, brands need to be relentlessly relevant, deepening relationships with consumers over time.

The BRI ranking is based on four principles of brand relevance:

  1. Customer obsession – How in touch is a brand with how consumers live and work?
  2. Distinctive inspiration – Is a brand motivated by a clear purpose?
  3. Ruthless pragmatism – Does a brand make experiences reliable and widely available?
  4. Pervasive innovation – Does a brand push the status quo with novel solutions to life?

5 Traits China’s Most Relevant Brands Have in Common

China is a society that is becoming modern and globally connected, but not becoming Western. Therefore, these principles must be underpinned by country-specifics insight. Specifically, the brands that rank well in our Index are offering Chinese consumers the following:

1. Liberated Lifestyle

The China BRI is strewn with high-tech companies that offer new lifestyle opportunities to a population that, until recently, was starved for choice. Mobike, a dockless bike share system that ranks #14 in our Index, liberates millions from the hassles of public transportation. Tencent’s QQ (#28) has evolved from a texting app to a multidimensional entertainment platform.

Thanks to Alipay, the virtual payment system, which ranked as the No. 1 most relevant brand in our Index, China is morphing into a wallet-free society. The brand ranks first on fourteen of the sixteen principles of relentless relevance, including “makes me feel inspired,” “connects with me emotionally” and “engages with me and new and creative ways.”

2. Active Status

Status can no longer be a static badge. It must be active, the “X Factor” that transforms past achievements into new opportunities.

The messaging of BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz – power brands for the past twenty years – is now focused on the future. Mercedes has adopted a strikingly youthful, energetic tone. Its 2016 Olympic advertising copy exhorts, “Nothing ages faster than past glory…Don’t forget! Tomorrow is another training day!”

Marriott, W Hotel, Four Seasons, Shangri-La, Grand Hyatt and the Park Hyatt (all top 50 brands in the BRI) offer distinct combinations of timeless prestige and new multidimensional experiences. Shanghai’s W Hotel is a melting pot of style and luxury for China’s young and hip, complete with famous DJs, “East meets West” dance parties and eclectic art exhibits. Four Seasons offers personalized “extraordinary discoveries” that broaden the worldview of Chinese traveling abroad.

3. Connected Self-Expression

The expansion of personal networks has always been high risk. Face, the manifestation of social currency in China, can be easily won or lost by saying or doing something wrong.

Today, however, the relative anonymity of digital platforms enables Chinese millennials to make new connections without fear of causing offense.

Self-expression has become less dangerous. NetEast Cloudmusic (#10 in our Index) fuses a streaming service with social sharing to the tune of 100 million playlists and 200 million comments. Estée Lauder and Lancôme have morphed from cosmetics manufacturers to social media juggernauts, forging communities where millions share beauty and professional tips.

4. Larger-than-Life Escape

As the pressures of the modern world crescendo, brands that provide stress release are consumed as emotional sustenance. IKEA, ranked fourth in our Index, curates social media conversations on new domestic ideals (“Your home, your beautiful heaven”) and advocates transforming homes into dreamscapes for the masses. Its lyrical ad copy nods to new fulfillment: “Yes, home will always be a retreat after a busy day. But it can also be a field of joy.”

The desire for (safe) release also explains why so many gaming companies are in the top 50 –  Riot, Blizzard, NetEase Gaming and Tencent Games. They are addictive because they offer a free outlet where people can express their repressed inner glory. Riot’s League of Legends boasts more than 110 million accounts and its championship playoffs are a national sensation.

5. Cool Scale

Size both affords low price and reassures a product’s reliability. These benefits are conservative. That’s why BRI attributes “I trust” and “I know I can depend on” are more important in China than in other markets.

But scale can also be trendy, and a mark of national pride.

Huawei (#12) is now the world’s third best-selling smartphone. As China’s first genuinely global brand, it’s hip. Huawei hires foreign celebrities such as Henry Cavill, Messi and Scarlett Johannsson. It partners with edgy brands such as GoPro, Porsche and Leica, and sponsors exhibits – “From Selfie to Self-Expression” – at London’s chic Saatchi gallery. The company’s evolution from “made in China” to “created in China” is happening.

Tmall, the ecommerce behemoth that ranks #18 in our Index, projects ego-affirming coolness. Singles’ Day was originally a promotional event for the lovelorn. The event has morphed into a patriotism-fueled demonstration of national spending power. In 2016, $18 billion in sales revenue was generated in 24 hours. Singles’ Day is also an online-telethon party. Mega-celebrities such as David Beckham, Scarlett Johansson (again!), Katy Perry and Kobe Bryant drop by to sprinkle star dust across Singles’ Day transactions.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, relentlessly relevant brands must walk the talk. In a country, exploding with choice, the combination of insight and satisfying customer experience is the key to growth.

Read it in Chinese: 2017中国品牌相关性指数解读

Interested in learning more about the most relevant brands in China? Be sure to check out Prophet’s Brand Relevance Index for all the details.

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One thought on “Empathy Meets Growth: 5 Traits China’s Most Relevant Brands Have in Common

  1. Hi Tom, I like your articles on the current state of play with Brands in China. The perspective from afar
    and a bit of distance sharpens the mind and perspective! I am still ploughing the same fields with Parson
    and my continued activities as professor in Tongji and a number of other Universities in China.

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