Postcard from Beijing
Sally Anderson, group creative director at brand consultancy, MetaDesign, speaks to Transform magazine about the distinctive aspects of brand design in Beijing. Among other things, she explores how the city's history and culture inform MetaDesign's work and how MetaDesign is helping local brands connect with global audiences.
What is distinctive about brand design in Beijing? How does the city’s history and culture inform the work you do?
Beijing is such an interesting place to be when it comes to brand design in the 21st Century. Without a doubt, many of the brands that are emerging today from China will be top global brands within the next 5-10 years. They are literally being shaped and designed right now, which is part of the reason I moved here 9 years ago and what keeps me here to this day. Living here, designing here, has reshaped how I approach brand design.
Beijing has a rich and storied history, and strong-rooted culture. Look no further than Air China’s Chinese logotype, written in calligraphy by the former national leader Deng Xiaoping; or the Bank of China logo featuring the ancient coin and Chinese calligraphy by Guo Muoruo, a famous writer.
For brand design work to have meaning and relevance, you have to understand this history and work with a cross-cultural team that represents different provincial mindsets. More often than not, the brief is to establish a strong Chinese foundation with an expression that can also find its place in a modern foreign market.
Can you share an example of a campaign that’s locally inspired but regionally or globally ambitious?
Recently, we were involved in a rebranding project for craft beer brand Jing-A, a brand which is proudly Beijing and inverts traditional culture with contemporary culture in a tongue-in-cheek way. This was a great experience, because the identity is a new expression of the city’s spirit, culture and lifestyle, yet is designed to support Jing-A’s expansion across China and beyond.
How does brand design in Beijing differ from that of Hong Kong and Shanghai?
The character and style of these three cities are extremely different, in part due to their business mix. For me, Beijing has more clusters of auto, aviation and tech corporate headquarters, government institutions and state-owned enterprises – many of which require more corporate branding projects given the focus of their business.
In Shanghai, there is a greater consumer brand presence – think Nike, Apple, Coca-Cola, Disney, Starbucks, McDonalds. These clients, by their very nature, require brand design which is often more lifestyle orientated, youthful and stylish.
Hong Kong continues to create great brand design work as the market there is in many ways more mature. It has been involved in crafting brands which balance East and West sensibilities for longer than the markets in Beijing and Shanghai.
What brand design trends exist in East Asia that are not present in other parts of Asia and in the West (Europe and U.S.)?
One of the primary trends is expressions of ‘China Pride’. Many brands are incorporating elements of Chinese heritage, meaning and style into their brand design and communications to ensure there is a connection with both the country and its people. This is achieved through brand strategy, brand story, naming in English or Chinese, brand tone and manner. Visually, it may be achieved through the specific color palette, typography and tone of voice, image style and how the elements combine in the overall brand design. There are differing degrees of ‘China Pride’, but it is visible in many brands including Li Ning, Perfect Diary and Anta.
The next observation relates to a trend in the ‘West’ that isn’t fully adopted in brand design across China – sustainability and the concept of ‘circular design’. After several government initiatives announced in recent months, we expect this to be a new megatrend for brands in China.
With many China-born brands finding their way to Western markets, how is MetaDesign helping local brands connect with global audiences?
MetaDesign Beijing has many years of experience localising global brands for the China market, but today, a majority of our design time is spent building Chinese brands. We design them in a way that reflects both their roots in China and future vision to expand internationally. As branding is a long-game, I expect within the next 5-10 years we will see these new brand names start to occupy key positions in global brand polls.
Beijing is a hive of activity. With 23 million people and dozens of subcultures, there is always new stimulation on the streets – even more so online, where the means and forms of communications are evolving on what seems a daily basis. Beijing has developed clusters of globally-leading technology brands including ByteDance, Xiaomi, Didi Chuxing and Baidu. They dominate domestically and are growing globally. In many respects their development has been product and service first; the brand building work is only now really beginning in earnest.
Brands and brand teams are becoming more confident than 5 or 10 years ago. They aren’t waiting for foreign brands to create, they are creating themselves, and I think Chinese brands will become more globally appealing over the coming months and years. In the 90s, ‘Made in China’ still had associations of being ‘poor quality and low value’, but we’re seeing a shift towards ‘good design and great value’, and more recently in the EV space genuine world leading technical innovation. This has already started to happen and will only continue. I expect that we’ll see a number of established brands fall quickly to the pace of brands Made in China.
What are the most important things to consider for brands wanting to enter the China market? What role does naming play?
- Plan. Be patient. Be focused. While the China market is highly attractive due to its scale, it’s tough and many foreign brands have failed before.
- Don’t underestimate your consumers or the market or the competition. It’s a sophisticated and highly-segmented market. The details matter, and importantly price and positioning.
- Make it mobile, mobile, mobile.
- Iterate. The market is getting faster, so there is no need to be perfect. It’s better to be ‘good-enough’ and 'close-enough' than late to market.
- Spend the time to localise your brand properly – including getting the right Chinese name.