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Automotive Brand-Building In China: Opportunities And Challenges Abound

Western, Chinese Brands Vie For Customer Loyalty As Emerging Middle Class And “Nouveau Riche” Demand Continues To Grow

Buick has capitalized on its reputation for quality and luxury in the Chinese market, enjoying massive success and launching China-only models like the Excelle

Buick has capitalized on its reputation for quality and luxury in the Chinese market, enjoying massive success and launching China-only models like the Excelle

As demand for new vehicles has remained sluggish in developed markets over the past two years, major automakers have rightly looked to retool their strategies to draw customers and build their brands in new markets. As we’ve written before, selling your brand in markets like China, where customers expect different things — and derive status from very specific brand attributes —  represents both a major opportunity and a new challenge. A good example of an automaker that has benefitted from the “blank slate” allowed it by entry into the young Chinese market is Buick, which has a reputation as a car for older, or middle-aged, drivers in its native market, the USA, yet has — through aggressive branding and advertising efforts — developed a reputation as a sleek, luxurious, youthful brand in the Chinese market.

So how can car brands optimize their brand equity in China? Depending on where they come from, their strategies differ greatly. While American car makers like Ford have had great success in overseas markets like Europe by pushing their reliability and value, in the Chinese market imported cars are, generally, chosen by buyers to be a status symbol, rather than “inexpensive.” Ford, then, cannot compete on price alone, as Chinese automakers like Chery and Geely — which have sizeable lineups of entry-level models — will always be able to undercut them. As a result, it is important for foreign car makers to not just build their brand in China, but to build a strong brand in China, one that speaks to Chinese consumers in a way that domestically-produced autos cannot. To break it down further, foreign automakers need to build a strong, distinctive brand — a German car must fit Chinese conceptions of German cars, Japanese cars Japanese attributes and so on.

In practice, how are foreign automakers faring in their Chinese branding strategies? Today, Reuters looks into the “uphill road” these brands are traveling in China, and how they have refocused their branding strategies to varying degrees of success. Using the example of a “nouveau riche” car buyers who has traded his BMW in for an Audi  — since the Audi has developed a strong reputation in China as a car for bureaucrats or (comparatively) “old money” while BMW is considered a brand for the nouveau riche (a group into which the buyer in question is loath to be grouped) — the article provides valuable insight into the particularities of a market so new that even seasoned marketers and branding execs are often at a loss to develop long-term strategies.

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