Not so long ago, the words “brand” and “China” would have looked odd together. No longer.

WEB_bicester-village-7L3A8159
Celebrating China pop-up at Bicester Village

Dozens of Chinese brands, having honed their chops at home, are starting to garner fans abroad for their technology, innovation, quality (often at lower prices) and in a few breakout cases—dare we say it—their cool factor.

The latest report from The Innovation Group, Cool China: From Superpower to Global Superbrand, examines global consumers’ shifting perceptions, from derision to desire, of Chinese brands—as these brands expand rapidly abroad, even while growth slows back home.

WEB_Vivo-Nex
Vivo Next smartphone

The shift is being driven by, but is not limited to, the tech sector.

Half of those in JWT Intelligence’s five-country survey say they want to see more Chinese brands in the stores where they shop. Interest is highest in Indonesia (76%), followed by India (64%) and the United Kingdom (48%). Even in the United States, currently locked in a trade war with China, 35% of those surveyed are interested, though interest falls to 29% in Japan.

Consumers are particularly interested in trying Chinese smartphones, laptops, home appliances and clothing. Notably, younger generations are more interested than older generations.

This is all happening against a background of roiling geopolitics, and despite lingering perceptions of Chinese products as low quality, fake or mass-produced.

WEB_JD-X-Mart-unmanned-convenience-store3
JD X-mart unmanned convenience store

Led by tech

Huawei’s smartphones now rival those of Apple and Samsung. China’s e-commerce giants Alibaba, Tencent and JD.com are exporting their online-offline retail models abroad, investing in, among others, Singapore-based e-commerce site Lazada, and in India’s BigBasket and Flipkart.

Last year, a Chinese smartphone brand called OnePlus gained cachet from Silicon Valley to Mumbai to Paris, where it is sold in Nous, the streetwear and gadget store frequented by the fashion set.

WEB_Xuzhi-Show1
WEB_Xuzhi-Show2
JD.com x London Fashion Week
WEB_Xuzhi-Show3

China is also making its mark in fashion, and not just as a low-cost, mass manufacturer for other brands. A new generation of Chinese designers, graduates from Central Saint Martins in London and Parsons in New York, are showing in major fashion capitals while growing a fanbase back in China.

“I would say the audience for Chinese-authored fashion is now global,” London-based fashion blogger Susie Lau, known as Susie Bubble, tells the Innovation Group. “I truly believe in the axis of fashion moving outwards from the four traditional fashion capitals.”

Lau curated the Celebrating China pop-up earlier this year at designer outlet Bicester Village in the UK, showcasing 10 Chinese designers who represent a new Chinese aesthetic.

China also has ambitions to export movies with global appeal, and Chinese money is already funding a host of Hollywood movies, including Green Book, the winner of the 2019 Best Picture Oscar.

WEB_Susie-Bubble0E5A3780
Susie Bubble
WEB_Susie-Bubble0E5A4947

Interest in Chinese brands

Cool China tracks this tipping point in Chinese brands, with its accompanying surprises and its conflicts.

In a survey of 2,500 consumers in Indonesia, India, the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan conducted from March 13-20, 2019, we found that a high proportion of global consumers see Chinese people as progressive and innovative. However, some perceptions of low quality and fake goods still surround Chinese products, and consumers overall still prefer to buy Western or Japanese.

But awareness of Chinese brands is growing. From a list of more than 60 Chinese brands, Lenovo has the highest awareness (61% having heard of it), followed by Huawei (60%), Alibaba (43%) and Xiaomi (41%). Awareness is highest in India and Indonesia.

WEB_library_events_photo109_large
Jack Ma presenting at Alibaba Group's Computing Conference 2018

And while US tech leaders have become household names globally, name recognition for Chinese tech leaders remains low. Most consumers don’t recognize tech leaders’ names, with the exception of Alibaba founder Jack Ma. Concerns also remain, particularly among UK and US consumers, over issues such as human rights and workers’ rights in China.

Interestingly, the United States-China trade war seems to have had minimal impact on overall perceptions of China, with US and UK consumers’ perceptions mostly unchanged from a year earlier.

More analysis and data, including an examination of the evolving Chinese global brand playbook, are available in Cool China. Download the full report here.