Base co-founder Thierry Brunfaut on his experiences in China

Sean Zhu (Brand Union Beijing) introducing Thierry on stage

Earlier this month Thierry was invited to give his praised “Brands are like people” speech at the ADM Forum in Hangzhou, China. Together with James Bull (Moving Brands), Gabor Schreier (Saffron), Sean Zhu (Brand Union Beijing), Johnson Ghu (Future Brand North Asia) and Tkwong (Hong Kong), he offered valuable insight into the fascinating subject of Brand Design. At the same time the event provided the Brussels-based branding expert with a unique opportunity to learn about the Chinese market and the country’s current branding approach. Here, Thierry speaks about the significance of cultural differences, China’s eager new generation of designers, and why it might not be the time to open up a Base office in China – yet.

Sean Zhu (Brand Union Beijing) introducing Thierry on stage

China is a very different market both politically and culturally – what is the situation of the branding industry there like at the moment?

At first glance many companies are still trying to copy the West. Brands don’t want to look Chinese apparently; they want to look Western. It’s very strange how the Chinese, although they have a very big and powerful market, don’t seem very confident yet in the branding area and seem afraid to embrace their heritage. We had a debate at one point where I said: Why don’t you try to look Chinese? They need to find their own identity and do their own thing, just like French or Italian brands, which are genuinely French or Italian. It does not keep them from being appreciated around the world, does it? They should stop copying. But the big Western players over there also contribute to preventing that. These companies go there and do their way of branding, how they do it everywhere, the Western way. And while that works on a business level, I don’t think it’s the way to go. I guess they’ll have to find a middle ground.

What do you think are the reasons for the fact that the branding market is not that developed yet?

It seems like what is or looks Western is more popular. I think it’s a cultural thing. Copying a product while at the same time improving it is really a thing over there. Sometimes they copy something so many times until they master it even better! When it comes to branding, they try to understand what the Westerners are doing, copy it, customize it, … but that’s not the point of branding. Branding is cultural and about who you are and where you come from. Plus, the big brands in China don’t see branding as an important investment for the future apparently. They’re not there yet and still need to learn that branding is a long-term investment; that you need to build a philosophy, and manage how people feel about a brand. The Chinese designers were also complaining about how difficult it is to work with Chinese clients. The clients are very tough on them: “I pay you, so you do what I want.” That’s also a cultural aspect. Clients expect that you change their logo, and then you improve the profit by 10%. I guess they expect immediate return on investment. But it doesn’t work like that. All this is incredibly interesting to observe.

“Everyone stand up” (or how to get the audience participate in a talk)

Are there actually some examples for internationally known Chinese brands?

Can you think of one?

No, I really can’t…

That’s interesting, isn’t it? Take Japan for example: everyone can name a lot of Japanese brands such as Uniqlo, Toyota or Muji for example, and we love that they’re Japanese. It’s not a problem at all. But China hasn’t understood that yet. It’s exciting to see what an amazing potential there is in China in the area of branding, and how these young designers and great creative directors are so eager to bring about change. There’s still so much to be done.

Would you ever consider opening up a Base office there?

I actually thought about if that would be interesting, but today this would not be possible. It’s too early. If we had to work in China as Base, I would probably try to do it in collaboration with young students and the schools, the new generation, start-ups, and not with the big guys. I feel they’re not open to that yet. Our way of working is very participative and we expect a constant dialogue. We want to work together with our client, not just for a client. That would be very difficult in China right now. Plus, we would build on the fact that they are Chinese and try to figure out who they really are, not just impose a Western model on a Chinese brand. If Base went there, the first step would certainly be to find Chinese partners who share this point of view.

Gabor Schreier (Saffron) talking about tablecloth (among other things)

What are your expectations for the future of Chinese branding?

It’s hard to say because I was only there for three days, but I do believe that the industry will change and develop quickly. I spoke with many young Chinese designers and they really want to bring about change. The ones who are still in school are proud to be Chinese while at the same time being open to the world and are eager to translate this into their work. I really see this as an extraordinary potential.

How were the reactions to your speech? Do you feel like you made an impact?

I really felt like the Base philosophy came across. The audience showed a lot of interest and participation, and some students said that it was extremely inspiring, which is a very rewarding feeling. The other speakers and I all brought across a passion for branding and how much fun it can be, which was rather new to them. Maybe this is also due to cultural differences. For me taking pleasure in my work is crucial. It was very interesting to be immersed in this very different environment. Everyone was so welcoming and showed genuine interest. They tried to get as much information out of us as possible.

What did you learn? Did you get any new impulses for your work here at home?

It became extremely clear to me how much the branding industry is defined by the culture of a country and the way people think. It’s really amazing. Everyone says: “Branding is global”, but actually this is not completely true. The more local you are, the truer you are, and the more universal you are. And being so far away from home really makes you look at your own work and your own company in a new perspective. The differences to other studios become clearer, and that’s interesting to see. We are all doing the same work, but in a different way. And that gives you a lot of food for discussions and exchanging practices. An intriguing experience was how people reacted to the many changes we’ve recently made here at Base, for instance the fact that we don’t have Account Managers anymore. They were surprised and found it very ballsy. In the end all the conversations I had confirmed that we took the right steps, which felt good.

Great line-up of speakers, great encounters.

Could you make out some trends? What were the hot topics?

The common thread was really that brands are not solely defined by their logos or visual codes anymore. Everyone pretty much agrees on how important the personality of a brand has become, the interaction with it, and the whole brand experience. Branding today is about dialogue and empathy. In China this thought is still rather new though; it’s still more of an imposing monologue.

Did you get to see something of the city of Hangzhou?

I had a few hours to walk around. It was misty, rainy and gloomy, and I was the only Western guy in the streets. I loved it. I really felt immersed into the culture and felt like I got to see the real China. And where I stayed there was a beautiful lake, right next to the city. I really enjoyed it.

Thierry’s 5 minute poster was his last slide at ADM Hangzhou