Opinion

‘Country of origin’ becoming a touchstone for Asian brands

As high-end design and top quality become the norm for global brands, the ‘made-in’ label – and the cultural and heritage stories attached to certain countries – are fast-becoming marketing gold, argues brand strategist John Corleto

The Asian Century is one of infinite options. Asian brands are finding inroads into the rest of the world, meaning we simply have more choice at our fingertips. As the region’s brands like Oppo, Muji, Uniqlo and Moutai find themselves far from home with global followings, sectors will involve Asian representation from more than one country.

A trip to buy a mobile phone is largely a choice between Silicon Valley, South Korea and Finland. However, more and more of the shelf is taken up by Chinese brands Oppo, ZTE and Huawei. Add another dominant Korean brand, LG – and the enduring participation of Japanese giant Sony – and you have a comparison dilemma in your hands.

In the car market, the search for quality has often led buyers to Europe or Japan. But as Hyundai ramps up its styling and Chinese brands Chery, Great Wall Motors and MG (now owned by SAIC motor) vie for garage space – it becomes harder to choose where you want that new car smell from.

Many consumers know that these products share similar platforms, specifications and components. What you’re left with is a choice of country. Increasingly, an Asian country. This begs the question, how do Asian brands begin to differentiate themselves, especially in Western markets where they’re sometimes seen as a homogenous mass of ‘emerging’ nations?

What perceptions inherent in their country of origin can they capitalise on to create a point of difference? The FutureBrand Country Index is a global study of the top 75 countries by gross domestic product, as identified by the World Bank. The index ranks country brands based on people’s perceptions of them as places to live, work, study, play, invest in and buy from.

 

 

Thousands of people are surveyed around the globe across the six dimensions of successful country brands, ranging from fundamentals like business potential and technological advancement to natural beauty. The Index reveals that Brand Asia is more multifaceted than many assume.

The Sony Walkman, the Honda Civic and the Toyota Land Cruiser have arguably cemented the perception of Japanese products as being of superior reliability and efficiency. But couple this with robot newscasters, global appreciation for traditional Japanese culture and the enduring boom of J-Pop plus anime fandom and you have a country brand that ranks first and scores highly on all counts.

The result? Japanese brands are capitalising on the ability to go big on propositions that blend high-tech, trendy and tradition in one. For example, Uniqlo and Muji are as much vehicles for these hybrid propositions as they are ‘quality basics’. Muji evokes a modern interpretation of 13th century Japanese philosophy and commands a price premium for minimalism.

Meanwhile, Uniqlo partners with Japanese streetwear fashion designer Nigo to give high-tech clothing staples credibility. These brands sell a trifecta of authenticity, distinctiveness and quality. As Asian brands search for their place in the world, some envy this multi-directional ‘glow’ that Brand Japan brings.

Look at a brand growing rapidly like MiniSo. It is a Chinese variety brand that explicitly talks about itself as having a ‘Japan-based-designer’ aesthetic in order to expand regionally. And it’s working.

Another subset of Asian country brands is nations that continue to be pigeon-holed into perceptions of business potential they gained in the second half of the 20th century. South Korea is home to its own flag-bearing brands like Hyundai and Samsung. The former is making headway into disrupting the hot-hatch performance car market with the i30N and the latter is increasingly known for its technological experimentation with the Galaxy Fold.

However, South Korea’s ‘made-in’ associations are much weaker, showing that perceptions of advanced technology and reliability may not be warm enough to pull people in. South Korea, like Singapore, under-indexes on associations to do with heritage and culture, despite having its fair share of World Heritage Sites and centuries of tradition.

As consumers continue to search for an emotional reason to shortcut having to compare products, making a connection to already existing history and arts might just be the best way to tug at the heartstrings.

A third set of country brands, including China and Hong Kong, find it difficult to breakthrough negative perceptions of value systems and quality of life – possibly casting a shadow over their exports. Rapidly-expanding Chinese brands have become household names, whether it’s mobile phone brands like Huawei, social media platforms like WeChat or e-commerce with Alibaba.

That said, the lack of societal attributes – for example, political freedom – weaken the country brand. In China, lack of access to information and freedom of expression have a very tangible impact on everyday life. For wary global audiences, this might make it a little bit harder to buy a Chinese phone or sign-up to a Chinese chat platform.

The last set of Asian brands is the ASEAN economies of Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia. They exhibit very similar brand profiles. Corruption and human rights issues inhibit these country brands from becoming drivers of choice. However, these archipelagos and coastal countries are frankly seen as tropical paradises. Rich heritage and warm culture, these associations can be tapped into to tell stories that whisk people away. 

Daiso, a Japanese retailer, is known in Australia for being stockists of sought after ‘3D Filipino dried mangoes’ amid a proposition of being ‘a Japanese wonderland’. An interesting example of how country brands can be harnessed.

As the Asian Century progresses, brands across all industries will need to find ways into the hearts and minds of consumers. As products converge in their technological features and design excellence, it might just be ‘country of origin’ that makes the difference. For it has emerged as a touchstone now.

Sometimes it’s a case of shifting perceptions. At other times, it’s a case of telling stories that are already there to be told. Either way, it’s time for brands and countries to pay attention to what they really mean to the world.

John Corleto is a senior strategist at FutureBrand, the global brand consultancy

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