Unleashing China's creativity

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I was privileged to be invited to Cannes by Twitter to talk about their fastest growing market: China outbound. It was an incredible experience talking alongside some inspiring people.

While there, I bumped into good friend and inspiration Bessie Lee. Bessie, former CEO of WPP China, is the most iconic figure in Chinese advertising. A judge at Cannes, Bessie has always been a vocal advocate of Chinese work being seen for what is it: phenomenally creative.

I briefly discussed with Bessie Chinese brands at Cannes and I was informed that last year 25% of entries came from China, over 1,000. However, just 9 won. This has created the view that China has a problem with its creative work: it’s just not creative enough.

Global work is hard. But brands from China still face the perception from large numbers of consumers that Chinese products are subpar. The “made in China” stigma is beginning to wane as their technology is being heralded as the most innovative on the planet - after all they make Apple’s products.

With this bias in mind, Chinese brands operating in western markets require increased levels of creativity to breakdown perceptions and communicate messages.

Chinese brands are not lacking in financial clout so they can afford to buy up large amounts of advertising space that can buy you awareness. Without creativity, though, the brand will be forgotten in years to come.

All brands whether Chinese or not, currently face the same challenges on how to stay relevant. The young consumer in western markets cares primarily about two things: how will this make a difference to my life and to my wallet? Yet they are super receptive and care less about heritage and more about relevancy. As a result while new market entrants used to struggle with no brand story/ heritage they can launch into a new market and succeed if relevant and value for money. This is where China is succeeding.

The irony is that heritage brands now are trying to use technology, collaborations and new creatives to stay relevant and start-ups are trying to find a strong brand story to tell. So brands and agencies need to find the best messages that resonate with the audience.

For China though telling these stories is a challenge and they require a number of things:

  • More experienced client side advocates that will be brave on pushing creative.
  • Evidence of Chinese brands succeeding and being recognised for the role of great creative.
  • A commitment to building brand communications over product led messaging.
  • An understanding of the media mix and the western platforms.
  • A more collaborative agency- client relationship (less slave master).

Creativity, simply put, is the spark that helps bridge a communications gap. It must be both novel and appropriate, without the latter it comes across as weird. Creativity can also be used to describe both creativity in terms of tech and innovation and in brand communication.

For some, China has been held back through some of the cultural constraints such as keeping your head down rather than standing out.

When dealing with award entries such as Cannes, conceptual innovativeness is what judges are looking for - the ability to come up with a big idea. The focus in Cannes is very much on the power of communications, whereas Chinese creativity is world leading in terms of its technology application. It’s undeniable that China leads the way in tech innovation as a means of communication. Just look at platforms like WeChat.

I am very excited by Geely and Volvo’s new electric car brand: Lynk & co. Thirty years ago Geely was a refrigerator company, today they are launching one of the most exciting cars. Dubbed the ‘Volvo for millennials’, the brand was created completely from scratch and the team had nothing to constrain them and no legacies to adhere to. The fact that a new car brand can emerge is showing the importance of heritage and legacy is waning and that a great product with a strong offering can challenge established brands. I referred to them as a mobile phone on wheels as the level of connectivity of the car is mind blowing. I for one never thought I would say I was excited to see a Chinese car enter the European market.

China’s scale means that creative innovation will continue to happen at breakneck speed. I don’t believe that Chinese advertising will ever be like the west and I don’t believe advertising and agencies as we know it will exist in the future. Chinese brands will learn to find what aspects of their brand vision can create great stories for a western audience and they will deliver these through unrivaled technological communications. Clearly with over 1000 Cannes entries the desire is there! Chinese brands can build brand stories and combine them with some of the innovations happening in China to the west. We will see new forms of retail delivering messages to young western consumers excited by disruption and change. Legacy and heritage will be less important as long as the trust is built through great products, services and communication.

Tom Nixon, creative services director, Qumin

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