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Podcast transcript #14: how to develop agile branding strategies in China

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Find here the full transcript of China paradigm episode 14. Learn more about Qin Guo’s story in China and find all the details and additional links below.

Matthieu David: Hello, everyone. Thanks for listening to this new episode of our China business podcast, China paradigm. Today I am with Qin Guo. You are the managing partner of BSUR in China, based in Shanghai. You have been working in this company in branding as a partner for six years if I am correct from your LinkedIn profile. Branding is such a topic in China. I feel that I discovered branding in China…I was not aware how branding was important when I was living in France when I was studying and actually when thinking about it, when preparing for the interview I thought yes, the business of Nike, the business of Coca-Cola doesn’t produce themselves, they work with OEM so basically their main asset is branding. It’s a brand. And that’s something which can be trained because you think that when you manage your company, your own identity, your brand you are going to manage yourself, but no. Even this part the externalize it, part of it.

There are branding agencies in China taking care of their commercials, of the visuals of their videos, and so on. You have worked for foreign companies in China like Merci, Mini, General Fisher, and so… something very interesting I would like to dig in, Chinese companies. You have worked for Shuanglin, you have worked for all the companies you will mention, because I don’t know which one you would like to talk about or at least even some of the foreign companies, you have worked for their branding strategy in China. So that’s something I’d like to dig in.

Another aspect I feel very interested in what you built in China is that you approached your career as an entrepreneur in China in a slightly different way as we usually think of. Most people think of entrepreneurs as someone starting from scratch. Zero to one, like Peter was saying in his book. You had nothing; you built out of nothing, something. You had a different approach. You approached an existing company, BSUR, who was already his client, and you told them, I can open your office in Shanghai, in China. And I feel that I see more and more Chinese, or at least I see a lot of Chinese who have done that, I don’t know if it’s more and more but I know a lot of them who have contacted as an agency, their brand, as a private company to start their approached in China, so I’d like to know more about it. Thank you, Qin, for being with us in our China marketing podcast.

Qin Guo: Thank you and good morning. Yes, thanks for the introduction and then the many questions. I think yes, we can go into quite a lot of details about what you’ve started. Maybe first we start with what is branding right and also is there any difference between the branding in China and in western countries that we serve. So, Branding, I guess many people are confused about the word brand. They think that refers to a logo or a website, but actually, there is so much more about… so much more than that.

Your brand is what comes to the mind when your customers think of your business, and then this is what make you unique and different, and it gives you a competitive edge, and it allows you to make emotional connections with your customer. Well, without one you will be viewed as a commodity and functional objective and your differentiator will be just pricing, and which in the case will put you in the race for the bottom in the end. So, that is in a nutshell, what are branding or a brand about and the difference between branding in China and then in the west, I would really say… in the west, the market is more mature in terms of the consumerism and then the product development through the years of time that has been much longer. I would say China started to really develop a marketing knowledge and then brand knowledge in the past eight years or less than ten, and before that, it was more of okay what is missing in the product? And then if anyone can make a product in this market, they can sell. They don’t have so many competitors in the same category. As long as they are able to manufacture and then to be able to distribute it and put it in the market, they are able to sell because they are providing something that people have not really had before, and then they are able to provide a lot of different functional benefit to people and then that’s why the people are buying.

So as long as their message is clear, what you are offering as functional benefits and then people realize that oh, they have a demand or they already have demanded if they are searching for that particular things. What is happening now is, now it’s a bit different than the same category, similar products, use lot in the same category, and then that means there is a great and fierce competition in each of the segments and then that’s where we needed branding, to make each well… to have an individual brand or product to stand out, and then you have a competitive edge and then you are able to differentiate from your competitors and then consumers can recognize you better and therefore they are interested in your product and decide to buy your product.

So, compared to… I would say probably in the recent ten or eight years, Chinese companies really started to look at branding and then, how to develop a certain level with sophistication in this, and then I think China has been changing…developing so fast, and then growing so fast, and the marketing knowledge become its own unique way of practicing in reality, and that’s probably in what have we seen our clients that they have been doing… it’s very different from the marketing books that it’s already been… what has been described in the marketing books that have been written or provided by many of the successful western marketers?

So now it feels like China is creating its own branding and marketing book at the moment.

Matthieu David:  I see. So currently, how many clients have you worked for, and what is the size of the branding agency in China? Could you tell us a bit of an idea about your company?

Qin Guo:  Yes, sure. So, we have brand consulting in China, and we are providing services to the help companies to develop brand strategies in China and creative communication concept and help them to generate a greater brand awareness and then in China we help those international companies, to enter into Chinese market and also help companies in China to expand their market here, and also to help their company to grow in the Chinese market. At the moment, we have about 8 people, core members manning our strategy consultant and then creative consultant. We have these two-core team that helps to serve in the needs of branding strategy in China and then next will be the creative consult, how to implement? How to help the business communicate in more distinguished and more unique ways?

So that’s the basic structure of how we set up here, and we have about 8 people, core team members that’s four on the strategy consulting side and then four of the creative side. For creative data, we have a mix of graphics creation, and art director and the copywriter, and each of the team members have cost disciplinary in terms of their skill and their experience. This is very important for helping our clients, because branding it requires very integrated skills of your understanding of different businesses and then on the personal level, that also requires a mix of life experience and then high-level curiosity and great learning skills in order to understand quickly, or research quickly on one specific industry which we probably have never been exposed to.

Matthieu David: So, the thing which is striking in every creative agency, branding agency in China, it’s a people business. It’s a business which quality is going to depend on people, and I have questions about the team. So, the first thing is, when I look at branding agencies, creative agencies, I see the podium, and I see around that a lot of freelancers, a lot of part-time people working from time to time with them and so my question is, how do you select them? How do you select because I’m pretty sure you work with a lot of freelancers around you to create videos, to create visuals, to figure out something you may not have intel on, and it’s very common in the industry, but how do you work with them?

They are remote; they’re not suited to your company and secondly, how do you recruit your team? How do you spot someone with creative in the right way? Not creative like artistic and doing whatever he wants, but creative for business. Creative to make business, to sell and I feel that’s something… I sometimes have a hard time to understand, how can you make sure the creativity of the person is going to be consistent with the identity and objective as a brand. Creativity seems so personal that it seems not that easy to correlate. Is it because you’re a brand strategist who is actually helping your creatives to channelize as creativeness forces or creativity, he has inside himself? Can you tell us a bit more about how you build the team, how you manage with the freelancers around you, and how do you build the team?

Qin Guo: Yeah okay, so first this is for our internal team under our permanent staff of working members. On this we need to be very selective because a lot of times, in fact, we do our work in-house, we don’t have a lot of freelancers. And then, on the other hand, we work with partners who are very skilled and are professional in their own specific area. Like the PR companies or the production companies. And we don’t tend to take part in their work, we handed that part of the task or responsibility over to our partners, and we trust them in that. So, a freelancer as I mentioned that we don’t really hire along with freelancers, only in the case where we need copywriters or graphic designer to help with some of the workloads, but we’ve never…

Matthieu David: Okay, it’s an adjustment. It’s not structural.

Qin Guo: It’s not structural and not the ones that we will hire in our own core process. So, when we’re looking for people and in terms of experience, like how they present as a person, their personality is very important for our team. We need to have a natural expresser and that person who has been very natural and then been themselves as our companies’ goal be as you are. That’s a very important part of… the important spirit that we need to have in our team, but also when we are facing the clients. For example, when we say BSUR is also what we tell our clients about when they’re building their brands. Be yourself, not to be like other brands.

Matthieu David: Yeah to make sure that everyone’s understanding, the name of the company is four initials B-S-U-R which sounds like Be as you are yourself. Be like yourself, in your presentation you were mentioning why you say be yourself, ‘because everyone else is taken,’ was the famous quote and that’s the essence of branding. So, the name of your branding agency in China,  BSUR with four initials, and it translates to the idea of identifying your own identity.

Qin Guo: Exactly. That’s the abbreviation of Be As You Are and also that’s how exactly we would tell our clients. Every company is unique, and then every brand will be unique and be yourself, not to be like others. So that’s where we step in and are helping our clients find a true version of themselves and then therefore with the team, we require everyone to be like that. Be themselves, and then it’s a creative environment, and then we want people to have that liberty in doing all the work process. They have their own style of expressing their ideas, and they have their own approach of presenting to clients, but at the end of course, as a business that we need to sell our ideas, but how to sell it… each member of our team, they need to be a very, very good listener

Matthieu David: Exactly and how can you be creative and a good listener, because being a good listener means to be analytical, means to listen, to analyze and to come up with something, but to be creative is a lot of internal processes and is it a brand strategy, as to who is more analytical and a good listener, and to be creative would be more of his own ideas?

Qin Guo: In fact, we involved our creatives on day one, when we have our meeting with the clients about our business integration and our project, and they do interviews with the clients as well. They’re not only creative but also a business analyst, and then we potentially train all the new creatives in this process as it’s very important for them to understand the client’s business, understand their challenge from day one, and then if we give our metaphor like… our process like a train ride, and then everyone gets on the train, and no one gets off until we drive to the destination. And then also during the process, I think people can get judgmental sometimes, that we’re saying oh! Our clients they don’t know about how to do branding and clients that don’t know about how are things and what is the best way to make a decision… and then I will say to them… clients don’t know what we do. That is true, that’s why they hire us, and clients they know everything about what they do, and we don’t know everything about what they do, so we need to learn from there. And only if we learned and understood, then we’re able to listen. So that is the key to how we should get everybody to listen, is to understand that we don’t know what our clients are good at, and be humble, otherwise I think for creatives they can be so proud of their idea and their thoughts, but not relevant to what clients’ needs or helping to solve their problem or issue.

Matthieu David: In the process of getting clients, do you feel clients work with you because of the ideas you’ve initially provided to them, because there’s and ideas you have, so the creative work is actually at the very beginning as a sales process, and when they decide to work with you… .and basically they work with you compared to another one because you already feel better, their identity of their way of working or because of the references, because you have worked in the industry, because it’s a very common way of choosing agencies. Yeah, I have worked in this industry? Who have you been working with? It’s always interesting, but what do you think will be the trigger which makes them decide to work with you? It is the creative side, is it on the opposite the analytical side that your value process reorganized or is it the reference size or maybe another factor?

Qin Guo: Okay, no the key, the most important reason is that clients feel that we understand their situation when they make their decisions.

Matthieu David: A bit more analytical.

Qin Guo: Yes, understanding and listening and then be able to demonstrate our self as an expert in the issues that they’re facing, and it’s not about our creative ideas, I can be a 100% sure on this. In fact, in China, we never present creative ideas, and then we don’t go to pitches…

Matthieu David: You mean not before you work with them, right?

Qin Guo: Yeah. Yeah. Because that automatically give the wrong suggestion, you know the ideas are cheap, and it’s not really well developed. Usually, the pitch is to require a presentation in one or two or three weeks. Which is really not a structured or well-thought process to have such a short time and to develop an idea and then which clients think it may work, it may not. It’s not a value proposition for business. Yeah, and then what we would do… of course, clients still need to become friends; then you have the right partner to work with, what we often do is providing them with a brand assessment in the beginning and help them to understand their real issues or problems with their brand or even with their company. Or products… and then we discuss together and try to identify the real issues. Cause a lot of times, clients who came to us they do not necessarily know the exact problem. Sometimes they came to us asking for new packing designs and to help them… hoping that it would help their product selling better, but in fact, it’s not about their packaging design, it’s about the problem with their products or problem with their distributions. Not fancy enough, not thoughtful enough, or could also be the communication message that was not right, which did not highlight the unique benefits of this product.

So, there can be many other things and then also pretty often we get a request… people are asking us, “can you help to design a website?” and we said yeah, we could. However, you haven’t really thought out your brand story or what you’re trying to tell through your website, and that is not clear… or even sometimes they want to be more competitive in their new product creation and then the way we look at their brand, sometimes we tell them, oh! Your brand architecture is not clear; it’s not that you don’t have enough products. Now you need to create more. You just need to organize and to structure it and to make it clear for customers what you’re selling. It does not about keep creating new items and bringing them into the market.

Matthieu David: What is brand architecture?

Qin Guo: You already have a great existing product, but it’s not been well communicated. Sorry?

Matthieu David: What do you call brand architecture?

Qin Guo: Architecture means… it’s like a tree that you have a main part of the tree, and then you have branches, and it’s all clear.

Matthieu David: What’s the branch?

Qin Guo: Yeah, so it’s a structure from saying Unilever, you have mother brands and then you have many other different sub-brands and then it is a structure that indicates different level of products or different level of brands, sometimes the one company you can have one premium brand and you can have one middle segment and you can have lower. So, it’s a structure that helps people or internally to understand what your setup is with… how you segment different products and the brand and then to make that clear for internal communications and also for people, who are working on the brands to know who is the main target and who is the sub-brands. And, basically, it indicates a correlation of different entities of the company.

Matthieu David: We talked a lot in branding about semiotics. Semiotic words, semiotic analysis, about the meaning of signs, the meaning of the name and so on, could you tell us how you organize its process of creating meaning through visuals, through design and so on. How do you ensure the meaning you convey is consistent with your creation?

Qin Guo: So, basically, I think a lot of processes is very, very similar from company to company, especially the creation of companies. The process is very similar, and we all start with a briefing and then researching and having interviews and also talking to external experts and getting extra insights, this is all very, very similar and that would take research studies and scan through the markets and reports. What is really different is… again comes back to people. It’s about how you… what kind of people you hire and then what kind of talents you put in that specific process.

So, that is really a strategic planning in terms of how we do our work and planning and understanding each person’s talents and then putting that person in the right spot and then also, on a personal level, that person needs to have a very good integrated skills for understanding business first of all, and then be able to follow the process and then to dig very deep into the research. As I said, curiosity is super important in our business while doing the work. Imagine you have a researcher who is not able to dig deep enough and then you’re not able to uncover a lot of truths or facts and identify the deeper level of the issues. So that we do really asses a lot on this level of the skill for each person, and then, of course, the capable and the suitable ones that we put into the team, or we keep them in the team.

Matthieu David: You have been training clients in your portfolio. I don’t know how much you can talk specifically about some of them, but could you explain the context they came to you because you’re an international branding agency in China and they wanted to go overseas? Did they come to you for the branding in China? What’s the logic of a Chinese company coming to you and working with you?

Qin Guo: Let’s say a few years ago when we… a long time ago when we started, there was a trend about taking a Chinese company and going abroad. Well, our companies want to establish their own brand and also exploring the international markets, that was in the past a few years and that being an international company that has a lot of advantage that we understand… you know, we have a good understanding of the international culture and also background and then the people and team who are capable in delivering in that aspects and then of course in the recent year’s things have shifted a little bit.

A lot of the Chinese companies want to develop domestically; however, with the international insight, that is also important. So, now what they’re looking at is that now you have a Chinese team, who has an internationally educated or cultivated knowledge or skills and that can help the strength based on what we already understood for the Chinese market and then able to take it to the next level. To develop your vision and then more creative ways of approaching the business for the future. So, for now, at this moment, we have petitioned ourselves as a Chinese company who has a lot of international input and knowledge in the field. I give you an example of a pet food company, it’s called Nature Bridge, and when they came…

Matthieu David: Is it Chinese?

Qin Guo: Yes. It’s a packed food manufacturing company. When they first came to us, they were already a pretty strong player in the market in their category, and they have this product that is quite unique. It’s pet food made basically with Chinese medicine ingredients.

Matthieu David: Really?

Qin Guo: Yes. It’s quite unique, and they’ve been selling in the vet channel, selling to the pet hospitals and then through vets. Then they wanted to take this product into the European market because that product really has a lot of differentiating qualities is having a lot of Chinese medicine based on natural ingredients and that is quite a unique approach. So, our clients think that they would have a great opportunity, but then the packaging they had was very kind of traditional Chinese and then with a lot of ink drawings, which probably would not make so much sense to the European customers. We also did research and then realized that European customers are a bit skeptical about Chinese medicine. They would not really try that for food branding in China, for example. They are open to acupuncture and massage and things like that, more physical way but never really convinced of putting things that go into your body. So same for the pet food. Pet is like a family member for most European families. 

Matthieu David: Interesting. I am on your site actually, and I’m seeing the Nature Bridge work you did for them, and maybe I’m going faster than what you want to do, but the look of the design you built, looks like from Norway, from Sweden…with the guy with a fish in his hands… there’s a fisherman.

Qin Guo: That’s Nature Bridge, the mother brand, and the brand I was talking about is called Vigor & Sage.

Matthieu David: I see, let me go on this one. I saw it, and it was a very simple design, looks very authentic, very natural. I see…

Qin Guo: That’s the brand we reinvented from old packaging of the natural bridge that is very…

Matthieu David: Did you find the name? Vigor and Sage? Is it your name?

Qin Guo: Yeah, our team created a name, Vigor, and Sage, and it perfectly reflects the energy part of the herbal benefits and also have been wisdom… having wisdom in what the product is offering, it’s a thousand years of Chinese traditional medicine intelligence or experience and then combining with the western approach of natural food ingredients and then inspirations. And this is actually the first time we worked on pet food in China or the category, and then we won several awards on that, one is the Pentaward in 2017, we created and established the brand. We won the best packaging award in that category, and then Penta award is the… well, I would say it’s like an Oscar award in the packaging design industry, it’s the number one indicator. So ever since then, we got quite a lot of opportunities with pet food brands in China, and now when we are being approached by clients from pet food, they say… oh! Our branding agency in China is well known in the pet food industry now. So, that’s something that I did not plan to… did not expect…

Matthieu David: Basically, it’s a service business, people and references count a lot and sometimes leading you to a direction you didn’t expect. I see.

Qin Guo: And the most important because this brand really helped our clients take their business to the next level, for Vigor & Sage, in like 2 or 3 years they’re becoming number two in the supermarket. Number two seller which is…

Matthieu David: Which country?

Qin Guo: In Norway. And also, they’re available in Germany and most of the European countries and also in Russia and then China and South East Asian countries, they are everywhere.

podcast food branding in China

Matthieu David: Its produced in China, its exported to Norway, to Germany and so on… and… no? Is it not produced in China?

Qin Guo: The recipe was coming from China, the RnD team, and then it was manufactured in Germany and the Netherlands, that’s what I know from a few years ago. Two years ago, when we created the brand for them, I don’t know if things changed, but the things were made outside the country for the easiness of importing because the pet food in China importing its very complex, it’s better to be manufactured locally.

Matthieu David: Okay, but still a Chinese company, they were managing the operations in Europe, franchise. They produced themselves, managing from Europe, so the name of the company is Nature Bridge, like natural, Nature Bridge…

Qin Guo:  The mother company.

Matthieu David: The mother company and the segment you worked on, which is pet food is Vigor & Sage, and you found the name, you designed the packaging, you designed the point of sales… the display I understand, and you worked on the visual. Very interesting. You made it more premium, or it was already premium?

Qin Guo: No, it was… we were researching the market, and that’s where the opportunity is and then also exporting our brand and then building a new team, finding a new manufacturing in Europe, it’s a lot of money and cost for our clients and then the decision is they have to stay in the premium segment in order to be profitable.

Matthieu David: I have a couple of questions on another segment you have worked on. This is the food industry, food branding in China. You have worked in the chocolate industry in China, you have worked in cookies, to bring foreign companies in China, could you tell us a little bit more about the changes of food companies in branding in China? Could you tell us a bit more about the challenges that you’ve faced when marketing in the chocolate and cookie companies?

Qin Guo: I want to say the number one challenge in food branding in China is very specific for Chinese consumers and we love food, it’s a very big part of our culture, and also people are very picky about taste and food and people develop a specific taste or preference on that, so what is really important for any brands in China or brands coming into Chinese market, is that the taste, whether the taste is right for the Chinese consumers and especially for the group of target audience that’s soothed to their preference. So that has been a really important factor and also number one thing that should be considered and then our research about… or making sure that it’s the right thing you’re selling, or bringing to the Chinese market.

And then the example we had with Merci, chocolates are really, really great and then with Merci, there are many different flavors in the package, and in the early stage, clients hired a research company to do food tasting and then being very, very careful on the flavors that they are selecting, to put into the package and then making sure that each flavor is liked and preferred by the Chinese consumers, and they would take out other flavors which are not liked by Chinese consumers, even if it was selling so well everywhere else in another country.

So, on that regard, we need to be more strategically more youthful, selling the right products or even modify some of the products and bring that to China. And on the other hand, it’s about packaging and communication, and it’s quite important that we get the right message out there. Food branding in China is very, very competitive, without saying how fierce that can be for the chocolate industry in China, cause for Chinese people I think if not yet, there’s a habit of eating chocolates, like what you do in Europe, every day after the meal you take a bite and… not so much of that and people are still very conscious about… in fact, people have a negative connotation about chocolates where it has a lot of sweet insides, and sugar and fats and people are very conscious of that. So, so far, Chinese consumer has not developed an addiction to chocolates per se.

Matthieu David: So, the chocolate industry in China is still a  market to grow.

Qin Guo: Yeah, it’s definitely for now what we’ve seen before in the gifts segment, it’s working but there are so many chocolate brands wants to sell in China, the chocolate industry in China is becoming so big, they believe there’s a great market, but actually people who are consuming chocolates are a very small population.

Matthieu David: I know you have a meeting. I don’t want you to be late. Thank you very much for having participated in this China vlog, it was very interesting to see how you put branding… how branding in China can be basically supported by agencies and not done internally… I think that’s a very important fact to be aware of. Thanks, Qin, and have a very good day. Thank you, everyone, for listening to China Paradigm, the podcast where we interview entrepreneurs in China.

Qin Guo: Yeah thank you and thanks to everyone, thanks for having me and hope it was helpful.


China paradigm is a China business podcast sponsored by Daxue Consulting where we interview successful entrepreneurs about their businesses in China. You can access all available episodes from the China paradigm Youtube page.

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