Design for China: Western Brands | PDD

Design for China: Western Brands


on July 3 2013

‘What is Design for China?‘ is a series of three blogs where we will be taking a look at design targeted at the mainland Chinese market. In our first instalment in the series we focus on how some Western brands are creating designs specifically for this increasingly discerning market.

An interesting story occurred when the PDD Hong Kong team, a mixture of German, American and Chinese designers, created a series of water bottle concepts for the China market. PDD designers were invited to create new packaging that incorporated elements of ‘Western style’ into a new bottle design. The drawings created by Western teammates focused on the more ‘outward’ view of Chinese culture, such as dragon and ethnic patterns, derived from historical references. During validation studies of these patterns almost none of the mainland Chinese participants selected the designs by our Western designers. But why

The dragon image has become an overused expression in Chinese design over the years. Very few products can carry a contemporary appearance featuring a dragon image. Chinese users often associate ‘cheap’ quality when traditional elements, such as a dragon, are used without another layer of depth. Even the most traditional type of products we use these days, such as moon cake packaging and New Year cakes, required careful consideration of colour and material design in order to stand out in the crowded market place.

Above image credit: Lamborghini veneno. Featured image: PDD

Let’s take Ferrari as an example, with the 458 Italia China Limited Edition launched on April 2012. While the application of the new ‘Marco Polo Red’ colour complimented the curves and overall form of the body, the black and gold dragon stripe running down the centre of the bonnet missed some of the subtle nuances that come with a deeper rooted understanding of the Chinese culture. Subsequently, the aesthetic of this limited edition was criticised in the media as “Ferrari Dresses up 458 Italia in a Chinese Costume”.

Business success requires comprehensive understanding of culture and behavior. Some Western brands trying to share a ‘piece-of-the-pie’ in the Chinese market, seem to have better success by adopting the local culture as best as they can. For example, the fast food chain, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), has done a miraculous job compare to some other Western fast food chains in mainland China. The figures below indicate the profit growth for KFC from ’08-’12 (despite the bird flu incident in 2012 which led to a drop in sales).

Image credit: The Wall Street Journal

KFC wisely didn’t try to take the exact look and feel of its U.S. restaurants and menu to China; instead they serve squid, fish sticks, rice and even congee during breakfast hours. In 2011, 50% of operating profit came from China, compared with 32% from the U.S. (Source: Slow Cooking China’s Still Good for Yum, Tom Orlik, The Wall Street Journal, June 2012). We believe that KFC’s success in China was based on attention to cultural insights.

Squid on a skewer from KFC in Shenzhen. Image credit: M.I.C Gadget

Chinese Congee (basic Chinese breakfast) served in KFC China. Image credit: Wandering China

Design and business are closely connected. Adapting to local preferences is the key to business success; in the case of KFC, their success was the ability to adapt to the local food tastes of their customers. We understand the importance of immersing ourselves in Chinese culture past and present when designing for the China market; combining our global skills with in depth regional knowledge and the nuances of client, culture and consumer.