Nationalism and Marketing in China

Due of primacy of signs and symbols to the work of marketers, the complex intensity of Chinese nationalism is a factor that requires careful consideration. 

For local Chinese brands nationalism is a powerful tool that can be used both tactically and strategically. Local electronics brand Aigo provides a prime example.  The brand’s name for example is literally “love your country”. In one of their campaigns, Aigo uses Zhang Hanyu, the hero of Assembly, as their brand icon and ambassador.  Dressed in military attire and holding a digital camera Yuan tells consumers to “Due to the spirit of our race, you are continually stronger”. Aigo, which is also a successful exporter, adds to connection to the national pride with the brand’s high profile sponsorship of formula one circuit which is increasingly popular in China.

However for foreign brand the use of national symbols is less simplistic. Striking a patriotic chord may help you connect with customers in China, but offending national pride is a surefire way to lose them. 

Back in 2004 advertising for Toyota Prado Land Cruisers fuelled widespread anger amongst Chinese consumers. One print ad in the campaign featured stone lions, a dynastic symbol widely used in China. In recognition of Prado’s performance excellence, animated versions of stone lions were depicted as bowing to the vehicle. In another, a Prado was seen towing a Chinese-produced truck through boggy terrain. Both were widely seen as insulting to Chinese culture, with many locals accusing the Japanese brand deliberating attempting to undermine Chinese national achievement. In a similar example, Nike’s depiction of NBA player Lebron James defeating ancient Chinese character in animated “Chamber of Fear” scenario also drew an indignant response from Chinese consumers leading to the ads being removed.

In both cases marketers completely misjudged the nationalist reaction to their brand message. While nationalism offers the potential to arouse emotions and form connections with consumers, the cost of getting it wrong is potentially devastating. As national sentiment is increasingly expressed online, it becomes less predictable. For example, paralypium Jin Jing who has initially held up as a hero for protecting the Olympic torch in Paris, was later castigated online for suggestion that local shoppers should not boycott Carrefour.

In the current climate brands are quite constricted in their ability to address the groundswell in national pride. As a result campaigns of major brands such as McDonalds, Coca Cola and Pepsi are unusually simplistic. Using different campaigns, each brand aims to provide consumers with a forum to express their support and love for China rather than seeking to provide their own interpretation of what nationalism includes.The approach is safer but arguably is limited in uniqueness and marketing impact.

A surprising exemption to these recent trends has been the men’s edition of FHM. In its fourth anniversary issue the magazine ran a 32 photo spread of bikini clad models protecting the Olympic torch.The racy content could have struck the wrong chords but was well received, and widely distributed online, by both male and female consumers.

Chinese nationalism will remain a double edged sword of marketers, however the increasingly de-centered and use of online platforms for debates create more uncertainty about how nationalist sentiment can be leveraged effectively, and safely.