China needs brands

OK, maybe China won’t bury us economically after all:

Quick: Think of a Chinese brand name.

Japan has Sony. Mexico has Corona. Germany has BMW. South Korea? Samsung.

And China has . . . ?

If you’re stumped, you’re not alone. And for China, that is an enormous problem.

Last year, China overtook Germany to become the world’s largest exporter, and this year it could surpass Japan as the world’s No. 2 economy. But as China gains international heft, its lack of global brands threatens its dream of becoming a superpower.

No big marquee brands means China is stuck doing the global grunt work in factory cities while designers and engineers overseas reap the profits. Much of Apple’s iPhone, for example, is made in China. But if a high-end version costs $750, China is lucky to hold on to $25. For a pair of Nikes, it’s four pennies on the dollar.

“We’ve lost a bucketload of money to foreigners because they have brands and we don’t,” complained Fan Chunyong, the secretary general of the China Industrial Overseas Development and Planning Association. “Our clothes are Italian, French, German, so the profits are all leaving China. . . . We need to create brands, and fast.”

The problem is exacerbated by China’s lack of successful innovation and its reliance on stitching and welding together products that are imagined, invented and designed by others. A failure to innovate means China is trapped paying enormous amounts in patent royalties and licensing fees to foreigners who are.

China’s government has responded in typically lavish fashion, launching a multibillion-dollar effort to create brands, encourage innovation and protect its market from foreign domination.

Through tax breaks and subsidies, China has embraced what it calls “a going-out strategy,” backing firms seeking to buy foreign businesses, snap up natural resources or expand their footprint overseas.

Domestically, it has launched the “indigenous innovation” program to encourage its companies to manufacture high-tech goods by forcing foreign firms to hand over their trade secrets and patents if they want to sell their products there.

via Beijing tries to push beyond ‘Made in China’ status to find name-brand innovation.

Just because a country takes advantage of the market doesn’t mean it has a free-enterprise economic system.   China’s government-controlled socialist economy may be good at mass industry and mobilizing labor, but innovation and consumer-capitalist tricks such as “branding” are hard to come up with under a top-down, command economy.  (So why, one might ask, are WE moving in that direction?)

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