New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote a piece on the role culture and society play in creating a context for great brands. To wit, it requires something quite different from heavy government investment, a cheap currency strategy, or a vast labor market: rather, great brands come forth from freethinking individuals who can pursue their vision–a vision that has as much to do with the personal dreams of the individual as with tomorrow’s next big market opportunity.

A highlight:

[Branding] coats meaning around a product. It demands a quality of experience with the consumer that has to be reinforced at every touch point, at the store entrance, in the rest rooms, on the shopping bags. The process of branding itself is essentially about the expression and manipulation of daydreams. It owes as much to romanticism as to business school.

In this way, successful branding can be radically unexpected. The most anti-establishment renegades can be the best anticipators of market trends. The people who do this tend to embrace commerce even while they have a moral problem with it — former hippies in the Bay Area, luxury artistes in Italy and France or communitarian semi-socialists in Scandinavia. These people sell things while imbuing them with more attractive spiritual associations.

The short version is that great brands need both individuals who have a compelling idea–a dream–about the world, as well as a social context that allows the pursuit of that dream. And thus the argument that China, whose polity remains highly authoritarian and risk-averse, cannot provide those contexts.

Of course, that an Asian country supposedly cannot create a great consumer brand is one of the oldest tropes of post-World War II economic punditry, from 1960s Japan to 1980s South Korea, and now China of the 2000s. Great imitators, to be sure, but great innovators? Not without a healthy infusion of American-style individualism putatively at odds with Confucian authoritarianism or Buddhist self-sublimination.

While Brooks doesn’t travel down this road, it points out that branding is fundamentally a qualitative enterprise: unleashing the power of dreams, expressing that dream to the target audience, and making that dream desirable and within reach, plays out on social stages whose rules and linguistic codes can differ greatly from society to society.

The question may not be ‘Can China Create Brands?’, but can Chinese entrepreneurs innovate and share a dream about the world desirable to many global audiences? That an American or European on the street cannot name a Chinese brand does not mean no Chinese brands exist (of course they do). Rather, it suggests that China (which is, let’s remember. not that far in economic history from the beginning of the Deng reforms) has yet to share an idea about the way people can live that translates to compelling brands that reach beyond its own domestic market. If the CPC authorities recognize that individual freedom in a popularly accountable society is the logical next piece to bring China to its rightful place on the world stage, perhaps branding will have played a role in democratizing the world’s largest nation.

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