Brand positioning - an experiential perspective

Updated: 2012-08-17 08:45

By Yao Shujie and Mike Bastin (China Daily)

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Chinese consumers display differences from their Western counterparts

Brand positioning, the image of the brand within the consumer's mind, is no longer a fixed, static concept. Instead, it is becoming increasingly dynamic and often varies across countries and cultures and according to specific consumer experiences.

Many brands enjoy a quite different image across cultures, even when the branded product and other marketing-mix elements are largely similar. China and the Chinese consumer provide a good example of this phenomenon, where many "medium quality" Western brands are perceived as "premium", "glamorous" or even "exclusive" and "luxury".

One obvious reason for this rush to purchase and visibly consume such "exclusive" brands lies behind the rapid economic and social development of certain parts of China. Chinese consumers in these areas, largely the first-tier cities and southeastern coastal provinces, suddenly find themselves for the first time in a position to enjoy such expensive luxuries. In consequence, Chinese consumers with lower purchasing power are also attracted to the relatively new, glamorous brands, such as clothes and cars, in order to combat any feelings of inferiority.

But why is the Chinese consumer's perception of Western brands so often associated with prestige and exclusivity when the very same branded product or service in the West is merely a value-for-money means to an end? To understand this further, it is necessary to move away from the traditional view of brand positioning, in which consumer brand perception starts with the branded product itself and remains fixed regardless of the experiences during which the brand is consumed.

For the Chinese consumer, brand image starts with the experience that the consumer envisages during brand consumption. Chinese consumer culture, despite economic development, remains rooted in group orientation and the acceptance of societal hierarchy.

Economic development has simply led to the immediate and extended family being replaced as the most influential groups by close friends, colleagues and peer groups. Achievement of societal position or ranking has also been replaced by conspicuous brand consumption rather than occupational prestige where "elite" occupations usually included senior Party positions or elevated positions in education.

"Face" or "gaining face" often drives brand consumption among the Chinese, where conspicuous consumption of an expensive brand acts as a powerful status symbol.

Chinese consumers are more likely to form a deeper emotional attachment to their favored brands, partly due to the need to aspire to higher societal status but also because modern consumer culture remains relatively new across China. Chinese consumers, especially the younger generations, are therefore bursting with enthusiasm for "new", "cool" and "fun" branded products and, at the moment, associate such brand values very firmly with the West.

But it is only a matter of time before the typical urban Chinese consumer reaches a level of maturity and feels a desire for change, at which point their brand choice will switch from an emotional, status-driven decision to a far more rational and analytical selection.

Therefore, the message to all brand producers targeting the Chinese market is, in the short term, continue with a more emotional position and focus more on the consumer's brand experience and not just brand image. But be aware of a possible, imminent backlash against well-known products, where conspicuous consumption and societal status will not be facilitated by the purchase and display of expensive brands but by a more innovative, non-conformist choice of consumption and lifestyle.

Yao Shujie is head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at Nottingham University and Mike Bastin is a researcher at the school.

(China Daily 08/17/2012 page7)