The Big Yam | The Nation


The Big Yam

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Even more radical, with the global brands saturating the top markets of Beijing and Shanghai, the local brands decamped to the countryside. For Wang, this is an example of Chinese business translating Maoist strategy into an advertising campaign. Outnumbered in the cities, Mao led his revolutionary army into rural areas to wage "spider warfare," whereby the countryside gradually surrounded the cities. Similarly, the Chinese soft-drink company Wahaha, creator of Future Cola, didn't attempt to take on the Coca-Cola and Pepsi behemoths in the cosmopolitan centers. Instead, it went deep into the interior to target peasants and citizens of smaller cities.

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John Feffer
John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, is the author of North Korea...

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The global brands have adapted their marketing strategies accordingly. Global brands are not entirely tone-deaf to local cultures. Despite the claims of many business self-help manuals, Chevy never bombed with its Nova ("No va," or "Doesn't go," in Spanish) in Latin America; Coke never launched a major ad campaign in China with its premier brand translated into Mandarin as "bite the wax tadpole." These urban myths endure because of the delight we take in seeing corporate Goliaths felled by their own weapons. While ad campaigns with insufficient cultural nuance have bombed in China, global brands have generally been quite sophisticated in their attempts to "go native."

In China, for instance, Coca-Cola tapped into Chinese nationalism with a commercial it ran on television there during the 2002 World Cup. The ad featured a Chinese boy giving a Coke bottle filled with Chinese soil to the soccer players so that they could have a "homegrown advantage" in their game. This is only one example of Coca-Cola turning its back on its earlier strategy of teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony. Having removed "global" from its advertising vocabulary, Coke has pledged itself to "think locally and act locally." In similar fashion, Kentucky Fried Chicken has adapted its menu to include mushroom chicken porridge and Peking-style chicken rolls. McDonald's not only features corn soup on its Chinese menus; its Beijing franchises also get 95 percent of their ingredients from local sources. The purveyor of the quick meal recognizes that Chinese treat the restaurant as a family outing, not as fast food, and so has used the slogan "Get together at McDonald's; enjoy the happiness of family life." Academics have coined a rather awkward neologism for this phenomenon: glocalization.

While Colonel Sanders hawks porridge, Chinese firms like Lenovo have gone global. The computer giant made headlines in 2005 when it purchased IBM's personal computer division. Tsingtao beer is available in many US stores. Several Chinese companies have tried to break into the US market, only to come up against political opposition. The US Congress blocked the attempt by CNOOC, China's largest offshore oil producer, to purchase Unocal, and a fight is brewing over Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei's bid to purchase 3Com.

Haier, meanwhile, not only sells refrigerators throughout Europe and North America; it has also made a bid to remove the cultural "odor" of its wares. Theorist Koichi Iwabuchi applies the term "odor" to products with features that betray their local, region or national origins. Japanese animators, for instance, remove all telltale Japanese traits from their characters so that they can more easily cross borders. Similarly, Haier created a cartoon featuring two cute brothers who travel the globe on various goodwill missions. The Haier Brothers, with their big, round eyes, do not look Chinese, and their trips to fifty-six countries transform them into global citizens. The cartoon, which absorbed a full 15 percent of the appliance manufacturer's advertising budget, even succeeds in eliminating the odor of production from the brand, since no appliances appear in the series. Instead, the cartoon simply associated the brand name with fun, adventure and humanitarianism, a potentially useful strategy for selling to an overseas audience that might otherwise associate China with human rights violations, prison labor and questionable relationships with Burma and Sudan. "Can we put a price tag on the tale-telling appeal of a brand?" Wang asks. "It is worth a king's ransom."

So forget about global versus local. Forget the dichotomy between the homogenizing pressures of globalization and the particularizing appeals of localization. Wang doesn't argue that the world is flat. Rather, in the world of advertising, the hierarchies are constantly shifting as deodorized national products compete against global brands that have skillfully acquired a local perfume. The latest version of the Haier Brothers cartoon, short videos featuring two Americans who travel around China in search of the spirit of the Olympics, proves that national brands can reacquire cultural odor when necessary, just as global brands can reassert their universal appeal if the market so demands.

China is different. The state maintains partial ownership of firms like Lenovo, and a cooperative relationship with Haier. The Chinese government continues to play a larger role in shaping economic development than in the increasingly neoliberal nations of the West. To do business in China, as everyone from Coke to McDonald's has discovered, requires thinking like the Chinese. The Chinese elite usually hire chauffeurs, so if you want to sell luxury cars, you should include a screen between front and back seats. Gift giving is different in China, companies need to acknowledge the impact of the one-child policy and consumers generally favor "safety" over "desire." There are still vestiges of socialist collectivism.

To attract Chinese consumers, then, advertisers must rely on Chinese content and symbols. But are the mechanisms they use peculiarly Chinese? For instance, Wahaha's celebrated spider warfare resembles Wal-Mart's strategy to avoid the major retailers and establish stores in underserved, often rural areas. Although Sam Walton would later borrow certain team-building tactics from South Korean companies, it is hard to imagine him as a teenager bent over the works of Mao and Sun Tzu in an effort to apply their wisdom to American retail. When Coca-Cola cleverly used nationalism in its World Cup ad--in what might be called "the Mean Joe Green commercial with Chinese characteristics"--the appropriation of nationalism was by no means unique to the Chinese context. Just think of all the foreign brands that try to obscure their origins with US advertising campaigns that rely heavily on American flags or references to baseball.

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