‘Made in China’ rebranding should walk on two legs

By Li Qiaoyi Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/30 21:03:39

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

The upgrade of "Made in China" has perhaps been weighed a little excessively toward boosting high-end manufacturing in fields like robotics, high-speed rail and nuclear power and urging traditional manufacturers to embrace automation, cloud computing, big data and other various new technologies. Yet, aspirations to be a symbol of quality and innovation, even in areas that are seldom associated with superiority, remain a rarity.

But those standards matter a lot, and those grappling with an overall downturn in low-end manufacturing should move upmarket by focusing meticulously on perceived value and brand image.

That might partly be the reason behind the prevailing popularity of Chinese snack maker Weilong. Jokingly hailed by some Chinese netizens as the new Chinese star joining the American luxurious food list thanks to its fruitful efforts in transforming the maker of latiao, or spicy gluten sticks - an insanely popular and fairly affordable snack that has long dominated China's primary school tuck shops - into China's answer to Apple, albeit in the food arena, or more broadly, non-tech products.

No doubt this is a remarkable achievement, considering that spicy sticks produced by many lesser-known manufacturers have often been thrust into the spotlight as a despicable example of unhygienic Chinese-made food that had the arrogance to try and convert Westerners.

With their smart online marketing campaigns, notably partnering with an online celebrity to film a live broadcast on Taobao of a workshop and more recently taking advantage of Apple's launch of the iPhone 7 to pitch an Apple-like product introduction, Weilong has apparently found ways to convince consumers, especially those living outside of China, of the worthiness of its spicy sticks that go for $10.99 per 340 gram packet on Amazon.

It seems that at the heart of the successful shift toward a posh "Made in China" snack is the refusal by the latiao maker to submit to public perceptions that the spicy sticks are not something worthy of acclaim. In China, Weilong's latest online marketing campaign that introduces its "Hotstrip 7.0" in a way that parodies the iPhone has surprised the public for not having raised copyright issues, but has instead proved to be a stunning feat for a Chinese snack manufacturer that has little to do with technology.

Weilong's story, certainly still unfinished, could inspire new champions out of the multitude of Chinese manufacturers eking out an existence amid a cooling economy and rising labor costs. The storytelling of China's manufacturing sector should not only be about moving toward high-end products, but also about making a genuine shift in the low-end segments that aren't high-tech.

For years, factories across China have been churning out a wide range of "Made in China" products, making the country the world's largest factory. Nevertheless, it's no longer only quantity that matters, and maximizing profits by minimizing attention to quality, health and the environment needs to be stopped. 

It should be noted that the transition of "Made in China," from what is essentially affordable yet merely okay-to-use products toward truly choice goods is of pivotal significance at convincing the global public of the quality growth of China's economy. Upgrading the lower-end spectrum should be one of the two legs that China walks on in order to rebrand its manufacturing.

In fairness, this course will not be without some struggles. In Weilong's case, upgrading will mean big investments in its workshops and tighter hygiene rules for its employees, which would add to cost concerns, as price competitiveness has long seemed to be the self-evident gateway to success in a crowded market like China.

Yet at the moment, with the economy in the middle of a rebalancing that bids farewell to growth figure addiction, there's no place for a competitive edge based purely on cheap prices surviving market competition. Industry heavyweights would be advised to take the lead in upgrading their mindset to be decent champions that can walk their way to global prominence.

Only in this way can China's manufacturing, which will remain an important pillar of the world's second largest economy, move ahead in a way that will upgrade the economy as well. 

The author is a reporter with the Global Times. bizopinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: INSIDER'S EYE

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