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JY&A Consulting

JY&A Consulting

Avoiding SARS through branding

It isn’t as preposterous an idea as it might sound: if China had been sincere about its desire to rebrand last November, SARS could have been dealt with in a far more responsible way. But as things stand, the Chinese reputation has been harmed

Jack Yan
Jack Yan is founder and CEO of Jack Yan & Associates and president of JY&A Consulting.

ONE OF THE PERKS to being a citoyen du monde with national and ethnic claims to different parts of the globe is that you can criticize more without people saying you’re being envious. Seriously, the real perk is being able to judge nations and people on the things that matter: not finance but human relationships; and living in the first world, seeing what is possible not just for the well-off, but for everyone.
   It’s disheartening when you notice how some have issues with freedom and honour that prevent them from being first-world players.
   Last month, we featured my book review of Simon Anholt’s Brand New Justice: the Upside of Global Branding, which seeks to remedy the imbalance in our global society. In short, poorer countries can fast-track their growth by adopting branding practices. It is early 2003’s most powerful answer to Naomi Klein’s No Logo challenge, written objectively with no bias toward the branding profession.
   I believe in Simon’s aim, which is why I’ve allowed others to republish that article for free. And in Brand New Justice, he touches upon place branding, an issue that is quite close to my own interests.
   Recently, I was asked, for a Ph.D. thesis, what the elements of nation branding are. I replied:

Attitudinal, expressive, idealistic and social. … Attitudinal expresses the underlying approach which the other brand elements should take (e.g. boundless …). This is the "why" of the nation brand. Expressive encompasses the means by which the nation brand is communicated (e.g. graphic elements, types of media, which may include museum exhibits or philately, as mentioned, that are compatible with the approach)—the "what". It is important because arts’ movements, including film and the like, should be considered at the nation brand level. Idealistic is the targets which the nation brand should head towards (e.g. shifting stereotypes to a "new reality" that the country should achieve internally and then externally). The social dimension, finally, are the social programmes that need to come into play if the brand is to be a success—such as the freedom I mentioned earlier and the respect of cultures.

   That last one, the social dimension, is probably the most important. There’s evidence to say that the more limited the freedom, the less affluent the people can become. And since the connotations of a nation brand are founded upon the reality of the social fabric, then the other three elements feed off this social aspect.
   Since all nation branding messages are positive, how much can you do when the reality is negative—without lying and creating a brand that has as much desire as Enron and Edsel?
   This was a significant reason I wrote two years ago how Chinese WTO entry was unlikely to change branding. The Chinese Politburo’s handling of the SARS incident is a good example that despite the cosmetic changes of leadership at the top level, the mechanisms have remained largely the same.
   As most now know, China knew about SARS as early as November 2002 but kept a lid on it. And their diplomats were more than happy to carry on the charade.
   In New Zealand in early April, before the admission of SARS infections in Beijing, a delegation from the capital was sent home, which prompted the usual, expected Communist outburst from the Chinese Ambassador, HE Chen Ming Ming, with whom his host government sided.
   I found Mr Chen a very undiplomatic diplomat when I met him in 2001 and was unsurprised that he was willing to tow the party line. His public rebuke of the Hoover Institution and me was done in line with the foreign affairs’ equivalent of aggressive football hooliganism. It was a dramatic failing of his task to foster a positive image of his nation.
   Now we know differently about SARS: Beijing was affected. His Excellency and the left-leaning New Zealand government should have egg on their faces.
   WTO entry seems excessively academic in light of how the same old cover-ups still carry on and the Chinese people do not have the freedom that they deserve.
   In late 2002, JY&A Consulting was approached by a Chinese consultancy. I pointed out the problems I have with the state. The consultancy’s response was that my impressions were dated and that they were shocked I held them.
   China, I was told, was a vastly changed country and that everything was running smoothly. It was not the repressed régime that Mr Chen’s manner had led me to believe.
   The Ambassador’s fellow nationals could have benefited from a potential western alliance but for the consequence of his earlier impertinence and my refusal to look through rose-coloured glasses. We, in the outside world, need to be convinced of China’s authenticity.
   This was, in one case, the problem for MG Rover’s alliance with automaker China Brilliance that we covered earlier. Good on paper, but with state influence in companies strong, how real was China Brilliance’s commitment?
   I should even point out how the Communist régime even has human rights’ declarations and property ownership provisions in its laws.
   Simon mentions Haier in his book. It has a German-sounding name, but is in fact a Chinese whitegoods’ manufacturer. While I mightn’t have questioned Haier before I learned of its origins, I do now. It’s not because I am concerned about Chinese workmanship or technology. I am concerned about Haier’s workers, how well they are treated, the freedom they have, and whether the company might one day disappear if an unelected Communist Party official in Beijing decides to have a bad day.
   Being an optimist, I hope that the lesson the Politburo has learned from SARS this will lead to some real change. There have been some concessions, such as the sackings of the mayor of Beijing and the national health policy committee head—showing that at a high level, it’s willing to make some moves, or find scapegoats. The foreign news services have shown that the hospitals are taking things seriously. Schools have been closed and a million kids have been told to stay home, at the time of writing.
   With a partial change of leadership, China talked about ‘rebranding the Communist Party’ in November 2002 on the BBC. Apart from sounding initially laughable, this would be one of the greatest exercises yet. It would mean researching Chinese opinion leaders—and by that I include people who may have been repressed to date—and get them to speak freely on their views without fear of punishment. The Politburo needs to hear their views and decide upon how to shift from its current position to a desired one that makes the nation brand idealistic. It needs to understand the exchange of duties advocated by Confucius: if this could build China into the most advanced economy in the world one millennium ago, when it was ruled by emperors whose positions were seen as being granted by a mandate of Heaven, then it is an inherently Chinese solution that could give power and freedom to the Chinese people. The Communist Party needs to understand it has nothing to fear from this freedom to create a new brand for China. For One China.
   The ingenuity and great heritage of the Chinese people could then resurface. The Chinese biotech sector, for a start, could really grow. Then, I might admit that WTO entry is going to move China into the 21st century as a powerhouse economy.
   With all that, we can avoid another SARS. Therefore, the business world won’t be the only ones benefiting. One billion Chinese won’t be the only ones benefiting. This could be a good thing, globally. •


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CAP Online: ‘Social justice through branding’ (March 17, 2003)
CAP Online Anholt: Brand New Justice: the Upside of Global Branding. Woburn, Mass.: Butterworth-Heinemann 2003, 179 pp., $34·99
CAP Online De Bary: Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective. Cambridge, Mass: Cambridge University Press 2000, 208 pp. $16·50
CAP Online Buruma: Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing. New York: Random House 2001, 432 pp. $19·57 (save $8·38)
CAP Online Bedbury: A Brand New World: Eight Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the 21st Century. New York: Viking Press 2002, 288 pp. $17·47 (save $7·48)

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