Expert Panel: Building Brand Relevance in China in the Era of Restlessness

How Colgate, COLMO, Alibaba and Vogue Business are navigating changing regional consumer sentiment.

Brand relevance is the most important element in determining the long-term success of a brand.

In his book, Brand Relevance: Making Competitors Irrelevant, David Aaker, the “Father of Modern Branding,” describes his strategic theory on brand relevance for the first time. Aaker emphasizes: “Instead of promoting the superiority of the brand, consider framing a subcategory such that competitors are excluded or placed at a disadvantage. Ensuring that the subcategory wins is a route to brand growth.”

But as a brand marketer, are you sure of how to build and grow brand relevance in today’s rapidly changing business landscape?

In recent years, the China market, in particular, has proven to be especially “restless.” Growing capital sources coupled with hypergrowth e-commerce platforms have lowered the barriers to entry to an increasingly sophisticated and demanding consumer market. Brands must compete to capture consumers’ screentime and customer data through constant innovation, in terms of both products and marketing & sales tactics. But to win in the long-term under these conditions, brands must also focus on relevance now more than ever.

“Instead of promoting the superiority of the brand, consider framing a subcategory such that competitors are excluded or placed at a disadvantage. Ensuring that the subcategory wins is a route to brand growth.”

David Aaker

With the launch of the 2021 Prophet Brand Relevance Index®, we invited four senior experts in consumer brands, e-commerce, and media to sit down with Tom Zhang, senior engagement manager at Prophet. Together they discussed how to effectively establish brand relevance in China, along with key trends, opportunities, and challenges they anticipate.

Expert Panel

These four experts shared thoughtful perspectives on brand building in the China market. Despite the diversity in their thinking and experience, we found some common themes.

Three Core Principles for Brand Marketers Seeking to Drive Relevance

1. A Customer-Centric Approach to Meet Multi-Layered Needs

There’s no question that a brand must be clear about its target consumers as well as their needs and preferences. However, the new generation of consumers is increasingly complex. Information channels are highly fragmented leading to content that is more diverse. The result is a multitude of consumer preferences and values that translates into more nuanced and multi-layered needs. Cenran Hu, Strategy Director at Tmall Fashion, who has been closely tracking the evolution of consumer trends from the platform side, pointed out:

“Chinese consumers are very open to new things, but they can also be quite uncompromising. They have wants, needs and interests. Therefore, brands must take into account these many layers and continually find ways to surprise and delight them.”

— Cenran Hu, Strategy Director of Tmall Fashion (Alibaba Group)

Cenran also added that the high expectations of Chinese consumers mean that brands cannot become “one-trick ponies” and need to constantly create surprises. In this regard, Starbucks is a strong example, as it continues to boldly explore opportunities for product innovation and new digital experiences in the China market. Cenran gave the example of beverage brand Yuanqi Forest (元气森林). In less than 5 years, Yuanqi Forest has grown to become a sought-after 6 billion USD company. The success of Yuanqi Forest is undeniably linked to its ability to redefine its subcategory – sparkling water – from multiple dimensions, including a healthy lifestyle (0 sugar, 0 fat, 0 calories), unique taste and trendy design. Compared to traditional brands such as Perrier, Yuanqi Forest is more in line with Chinese consumers’ demand for differentiated products that meet multi-layered needs.

Yuanqi Forest

Colgate’s Core Brands Marketing Director, Vicky, shares these same views. Colgate believes that increasingly sophisticated young Chinese consumers will force brands to dig deep into pain points to create relevance. A prototypical example is the launch of Colgate’s Miracle Repair toothpaste, which is made with concentrated amino acids. The product was specifically designed to meet the deeper oral care needs of young consumers (anti-premature-aging) as well as their expectations for new offerings.

“Brands must provide tangible benefits to solve practical problems and pain points in consumers’ lives. At the same time, they must inspire when it comes to appearance, design, and experience so that consumers are willing to share and recommend.”

— Vicky Hu, Marketing Director, China Brand Marketing, Core Brands of Colgate China

Click to read how Prophet helped Colgate to refresh its positioning in China

2. Balancing Functional & Emotional to Capture the Minds & Hearts

Functional benefits can help brands quickly seize subcategories, and emotional resonance can help them further secure their place in the hearts of consumers.

In 2018, Midea Group launched its AI-powered home appliance premium sub-brand COLMO, with a clearly defined brand essence – “Simply Extraordinary.” Based on this positioning, the name, visual identity and experience all highlight the concept of “keep climbing,” allowing the brand to have an emotional connection with the target consumer. Arlen, Director of Brand Marketing at COLMO, noted:

“When a brand enters a subcategory, it must achieve a balance between functional and emotional values. Even if the brand defines a new functional subcategory, it must lay the groundwork for emotional resonance in order to establish a higher degree of brand relevance.”

— Arlen Huang, Brand Marketing Director, COLMO (Midea Group)

Click to read how Prophet created COLMO

Denni, Senior Editor at Vogue Business, shared her observations on the fashion industry. Denni believes that in addition to distinctive styles, fashion brands also need to amplify the story behind the design (e.g., designer crossovers, sustainability). Moreover, offline retail and brand experiences play a crucial role in creating emotional connections.

“Brands need to ‘iconize’ their own styles and ideas to lead the market, creating communities like missionaries, thus inspiring consumers and creating deep resonance.”

— Denni Hu, Senior Editor, Vogue Business

3. Playing Offense & Defense in a Restless Era

To take advantage of growing e-commerce platforms and new sources of capital, countless new brands continue to emerge in the China market. For both emerging brands and mature brands, it is increasingly difficult to gain traction in a market that is fiercely competitive and constantly changing.

Today’s restless era and high-stakes environment require brand marketers to maintain both “courage” and “consistency.” While disrupting the status quo through trending hashtags, creative products and maximized traffic, it is also critical not to lose sight of the “core” of brand building. A clear and compelling positioning should serve as the North Star of marketing and innovation; only then can the brand maintain long-term relevance and build brand equity.

“Emerging brands need to be repeatedly refined in order to establish a positioning that is both clear and malleable. Consumers need constant surprises. However, if the core of the brand is not strong, the initial surprises will eventually be short-lived.”

— Cenran Hu, Strategy Director of Tmall Fashion (Alibaba Group)

“In today’s world, to build a strong brand, you must balance ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ tactics – not only leveraging traffic and hot-selling products, but also continuously strengthening the brand ‘moat.’ Companies with multiple brands should proactively find ways to adjust their brand and product mix according to market segments and industry trends, define the role of each brand, and balance sales maximization and brand development.”

— Vicky Hu, Marketing Director, China Brand Marketing, Core Brands of Colgate China


We are delighted to see emerging brands in the China market leveraging e-commerce and social media are creating many new spaces for brands to play in. But as mentioned above, despite the gains from the “speeding up” of traffic and capital, it is particularly important for brands to “slow down.” Brands must be guided by consumer needs, emotionally resonant and clearly positioned in order to ensure brand relevance.

After clarifying these core principles, how can companies effectively measure and improve brand relevance? To learn more about the application of these dimensions, download our 2021 Brand Relevance Index®.