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Why Chinese brands have nothing to fear in India

Shivaji Dasgupta, Managing Director, Inexgro Brand Advisory, writes how Hindi, Chini may not be bhai bhai anymore but neither will we say bye bye

Have you ever wondered why brands from China rarely have Chinese names? The answer, truthfully, is that they are busy trying to conceal and not reveal their Chinese identities. Which is exactly why they select pidgin English or concocted words and hope wishfully that the products are judged for performance and not lineage. This indeed is one of the many reasons why Indian customers do not have an emotional connection with Chinese brands.

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If you wish further evidence do observe the popular brands from the current border foe, especially in the telecom sector. Oppo, Vivo, Itel and their many peers sound painstakingly universal and compete sincerely on their genuine merits, a rather inevitable strategy given that the origin is rather suspect. Even the moderately discerning Indian customer is aware that China is the factory of the world and a haven for the white label fanatic and not the Blue Label aficionado. In street markets, we see enough evidence at endearing price points but when the MG Hector surfaces as Chinese engineering, that tale must be suitably subdued. Even for Diwali, the lights are lovable for their safety, pricing and efficiency with no further differentiated qualities.

Now compare this scenario with the relationship enjoyed by Indians with other countries of origin from Nehruvian times to now. Brands from the UK represented longevity and craftsmanship and these were qualities suitably reflected in the everlasting St Michael’s sweaters, the elegant Wedgewood and even the precise WHSmith stationery. Brands from the USA monopolised the cutting edge in stylish aspiration, including Wrigley’s, Levi’s Strauss and high performance vehicles. Brands from Japan elevated us to the highest form of technology presented in a miniaturised, innovative and accessible fashion. Brands from Korea modified this tradition of tech attraction while the confectionery credentials of Switzerland, the fashionista culture of Italy and the cosmetic calibre of France are firmly entrenched.

In every such case, there is a strong emotional association that draws both from a protracted period of denial and finally near-free-market access. We have fond memories of secretive grey market forays, sporadic visits by generous uncles and finally, the coveted foreign trip armed modestly with the meagre FTS. So, in the highly unlikely event of any such nation declaring war with India, the disengagement with such brands will be a serious act of solidarity. It would entail a certain meaningful form of sacrifice as would have been the case during the pre-independence Swadeshi movement when full-blown brown sahibs gave up their Savile Row suits and a carefully-crafted sense of identity.

On origins though, yet another emerging pattern must be noted and this has been highlighted by the technology and the fashion sectors. The home country is increasingly becoming irrelevant as customers are buying into a universal value system, which comfortably merges purpose, performance and imagery. Exactly why H&M and Zara thrived from the lesser known Dutch and Spanish antecedents and the social networking world is obsessed only about culture and not nationality. In India, as well brands like Pepsi, Samsung and Nestle are considered to be unerringly local and this dual identity has been thoughtfully nurtured over the decades. So customers buy Chinese brands from a price-value-imagery conjunction and the associations with origin are proving to be gradually less relevant.

Our addiction to Chinese food and its seamless integration with local flavours is another amusing but realistic fodder for indifference. We consider it to be a value-added domesticated staple and if it is not foreign in the first place the rationale for banning is null and void. Also, to further the premium association point, other Oriental cuisines like Japanese and Korean have captured the imagination of discerning globetrotters, the sushi and bibimbap integrating with aspirational lifestyles. While the Chinese restaurant is caught in a bit of a time warp, an elderly institution that is as Bombay as Peking.

The summary of my thinking is that stakeholders of Chinese brands in India have nothing much to worry about in terms of business. Including the media and sponsorship fraternity constantly fearing an abrupt snapping of affiliations and thus revenues. As these brands sound universal, have been positioned on delivery not origin and the love for effective cheap solutions is a timeless Indian craving. Most importantly, we are emotionally indifferent to Chinese antecedents and thus boycotting is not something we will sincerely value. Hindi Chini may not be bhai bhai anymore but neither will we say bye bye.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of and we do not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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