Local brands didn't exist in China before the late 90s. Of course, trademarks - often of laughably inferior quality - have long littered supermarkets and corner stalls. But brands as we know them were unheard of.
A decade on, and the TV manufacturer TCL is digesting its Thompson acquisition, while the Chinese PC maker Lenovo has, in one bold stroke, purchased IBM's PC division. No-one is snickering now.
The likes of Haier (electrical appliances), Tsingtao (beer) and Bird (mobile phones) have exploited the blind spot of the multinational brands.
While the multinationals have targeted the middle class, they have left the base uncovered. This has allowed the local players to build enviable momentum in some categories (such as mobiles phones and personal care) and total dominance in others (electrical appliances and apparel).
Reported rises in market share are often flights of fancy in China. Yet these distortions are not gross enough to mask an uncomfortable truth: Chinese brands are getting stronger, fast. If the international players are lucky, local brands will become an irritating background buzz targeting the fringes. If not, they will coalesce into juggernauts and crush their foreign rivals.
At the moment, though, Chinese consumers still prefer Western brands.
True, local players boast ubiquity and universal awareness. After all, they hold sway over ancient distribution channels and have enormous (often state-funded) media budgets. These brands are often on a par with Western brands in terms of reliability and functionality too, and are far cheaper.
But, like the Tin Man, there's no heart.
Their communications are largely to blame. Brand awareness is often confused with brand equity in China. Indeed, Chinese marketers are hooked on screaming their brand names loudly and frequently across the airwaves.
Even after adjusting for the 60 to 70 per cent discounts offered by local brokers, it is not unusual for a large local brand to spend between $75 million and $100 million. (Local brands far outspend multinationals, with the exception of Procter & Gamble.)
Incredibly, though, an aggressive national media schedule can be bought for around $10 million. This has allowed commercial breaks to become interminable affairs, made even more painful by looped TV ads, the same ones playing repeatedly in eight- to ten-minute "pods".
Worse still, creative is often poor. Take Kuanpai soy sauce. Its message is conveyed in eardrum-stabbing shrieks: "Kuanpai! Kuanpai! Kuanpai! A great respected soy sauce and leading Chinese trademark! Kuanpai!"
To grab attention, appliance outlets morph into carnival grounds. Promotional announcements blare over loudspeakers, scantily clad girls offer sample sachets and banners wave over the parking lot. And it's all a blur.
Using celebrities is a common way of quickly establishing awareness (and often nothing else). The Chinese have been conditioned to respect status; they assume the people at the top are there by dint of individual destiny or heavenly mandate. Furthermore, celebrities signal perceptions of reliability, a valuable commodity.
Unfortunately, celebrities are rarely well used. China Unicom, for example, invested $5 million in a deal with Yao Ming, the most revered Chinese sportsman of all time, as a spokesman. (Yao, idolised for his "invasion" of the NBA, represents the victory of Chinese subtlety and understatement - xuan - over American brashness and bravado.) The feisty upstart China Unicom is engaged in a David and Goliath battle with China Telecom. The parallel between Yao's struggle and Unicom's ambition is striking. But the advertising is a total let-down. The ads, amateurishly shot, depict a child handing a basketball to Yao who dunks it and grunts: "I love basketball. I love China Unicom." The print and outdoor material is even worse.
The advertising of local brands is usually only one step above an annual report. This is because many of them are and will remain state-owned enterprises and their leaders have been schooled to treat customers as controllable subjects, not persuadable targets. As a result, their advertising is laden with statistics, bar-charted demo sequences and hi-tec mumbo jumbo.
Take Konka, a large TV maker. It announced the launch of its new DSP plasma screen-TV with the following: "All things in the world start with particles. Konka's special DSP digital super-fine matrix practically leaps analogue lines to digital particles, creating a two-million pixel display. The world has never been so clear." Oh, the irony.
Inconsistency is another problem. TCL has purged its marketing department three times in four years and fired as many ad agencies. Accordingly, the TV maker's consumer position has veered from "vivid excitement" to "digital window" to "eye stimulation" and, finally, "the future of 3C communications". Raise your hand if you know what 3C means.
But Rome was not built in a day. China's liberation from the shackles of Communist dogma is moving at warp speed. Progress is being made in the way these companies are communicating too. More and more, they weave insight into communication, and they're more skilful at coming up with taglines and mnemonic devices.
On a personal note, how could I have invested more than ten years in China had I not had faith in the sheer talent of the Chinese? China will rise and so will its brands.
- Tom Doctoroff is the chief executive of JWT Greater China.
CHINA'S MOST VALUABLE BRANDS
BRAND PRODUCT CATEGORY Brand value
Haier Household electrical appliances 7.44
Hongtashan Cigarettes 5.67
Lenovo Computers 3.71
Wuliangye Alcohol 3.71
FAW Automobiles 3.71
TCL Televisions and mobile phones 3.69
Changhong Televisions 3.26
Midea Air conditioners and microwaves 2.43
Konka Televisions and mobile phones 1.37
Tsingtao Beer 1.36
Source: Beijing Famous-Brand Evaluation Co, December 2004.