Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Branding Torches China

Man, I love the free market system. It's so much more fun and exciting than, say, a centrally-planned economy, where everything is predictably boring. When the central government runs the show, everything is slower, duller, lower-quality and subject to committee-driven criteria. Sometimes I think that's why the Soviet Union collapsed. Not because of a political yearning of their citizens to be free, but more because they were increasingly bored with buying soap flakes in the same gray boxes.

One of the last, large centrally-planned economies left on the planet today is China. And despite what you may read in the papers, including political oppression and downright domination, there's an aspect to China that's profoundly fascinating. Here you have perhaps the most hard-knuckled government clamping down on its population for the better part of a century, primping and swooning at Western civilization's temptations dangling in front of their eyes. For every student of Mao's Little Red Book ("avoid wearing underwear that's too tight") there are thousands of Asian teens writhing and squirming, aching to taste one more lick of Britney Spears.

Kind of reminds me of all those devout muslim terrorists who visit strip joints and order adult videos the night before they board airplanes in their efforts to strike a blow to American decadence. Weird.

What I find most interesting, however, is the panic with which Chinese economic force is met here in America. For years, we've been hearing about forced Chinese labor driving down the price of imports far below any level possible for American manufacturers to meet or beat. Were you to believe what you hear, you'd think that it's all but over for the American economy, dislodged from its global pre-eminence by Chinese under-bidding.

But you'd be wrong. And here's why:

As I'm fond of saying, "Life is a branding problem." And even when you ignore your brand, it doesn't mean you aren't branded; it means you're letting everyone else define who and what you are, which means that there's no way on God's green earth you'd ever be able to meet or exceed every one of their expectations. The end result is that nobody, anywhere, would agree on anything about your brand, other than their common disappointment in it.

Enter China. No brand strategy, which means (like corporate and personal clients), they are hanging out there, left to be judged by media reports of their words and deeds -- most of it not really good. Go ahead: scour the internet for the good news on China, and you'll see for yourself that not a whole lot comes up, especially when compared to all the bad news on China. Recognized as the leader in lead-based children's toys, China is also gaining ground on the state of Florida as the most corrupt economy in the world. Chinese food products, for both man and beast, is delivered fresh and fully-laden with poisons that cause real injury and deaths. Chinese soldiers put down any sort of free expression regarding Tibet and have even been accused of manufacturing false evidence to frame the Dalai Lama, a guy in a robe that -- last I heard -- doesn't carry a gun.

In short, left to the rest of the world to define, China is in a heap of bad yogurt, heading for an Olympics in which the main events would seem to be protest and boycott. Not exactly the kind of "Guys-I-Want-To-Hang-With" kind of brand. In fact, this is the kind of stuff -- the qualitative, human aspect of brand -- that motivates people to bypass a cheaper fellow's goods in favor of the folks with whom they feel good about doing business.

You know, the guys who don't imprison their laborers for posting letters of disagreement on the internet.

In light of China's brand neglect and inability to articulate who and what they are, you can expect to see more Americans arrive at their own conclusions, choosing to buy American, even if the price is a bit higher.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once remarked how, "you cannot legislate the hearts and minds of men." He was right. The Chinese threat will not be undone by tariffs, tirades or trade policies. It won't be undone by us at all. It will be undone by the Chinese themselves, as their centrally-planned consciousness collides with a free-thinking society capable of making up its own mind -- and speaking it with their wallets.


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