When I was back in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago, I saw a new Victoria Bitter beer ad on TV. Only that it wasn't. It was the exact same idea, music, storyline and voice-over that ran for decades until the 1990s, when new management thought they could do better and messed with the recipe. Despite 20 years of trying with a dozen different directions, they couldn't improve on the magic of the original blue collar anthem and have literally rerun the idea from 40 years ago. Seeing this, I was reminded how much 'consistency' used to matter and how it seems to matter less now. Or is it, as some say, an 'advertising idea' that is no longer relevant?
Asia has always struggled with consistency. Li-Ning, the only Chinese sports brand that owes its origins to an actual sportsperson, has dithered terribly over the years. It has had eight different taglines in ten years since it 'got serious about branding' in 2002. Tsingtao is another very conspicuous missed opportunity. Revolving doors in marketing management have not had an enduring, anchoring idea to channel each leader's new vision. As a result, Tsingtao is not much more than a bland, but familiar, face in China, and outside of China, is little more than a cliché for sale in Chinese restaurants. Thinking about Asia's own biggest brands – Panasonic, Canon, LG, Samsung – with the exception of Sony, you're really pressed to attach any idea or sense of self to any of them.
The explanation is paradoxical. In the region, famed for its long-term planning that transcends the bi-quarterly management cycle of the West, most Asian brand managers don't see the value in 'owning an idea'. It's simply too abstract a notion. Flexibility and pragmatism is the way that most operate, believing that consistency comes from the logo and, at best, similar tone and manner.
But in the era of new media and tech-driven companies, perhaps the notion of an organising 'brand idea' is no longer needed. Alibaba's Taobao, which on Singles' Day surpassed last year's mega sale with more than US$14 billion of sales recorded in the first day alone, seems to continually change what it wants to say. In its short history, it has said that Taobao means 'universality', a 'nice, pleasant, slow life', simply a 'grocery store' (in the sky) and then 'disruption'. For many, despite what it says it is, it's simply the most convenient way to buy counterfeit products.
But it does have one powerful idea that is ever-present. Its name. Unlike most Western brand names which are often derived from the founder's name, most Chinese brand names describe something. Taobao is no exception. 'Tao' means 'to search' and 'bao' is a treasure.
And there are others too. Technology brand Xiaomi, although very young (2010 launch), is showing remarkable maturity in hanging on to its idea of 'just for the fans'. Under the company name that romanticises the value of little things, such as a single grain of rice, their brand slogan is the idea of loyalty and purpose and does help to define its behaviour in the way it produces a series of lower-priced tech products that fans want versus the 'strive and wait for perfection' ethos of Apple.
Modernity in marketing has, more or less, become equated to experimenting with media. A major global brand has gone as far as starting its 'brand' workshops with a presentation on 'new technologies' – as if simply using new things is the best way to grow. After a first generation of Asian powerhouse brands that were 'product'-driven rather than brand-driven, perhaps we're at the beginning of another era. One where Chinese brands, in the use of Chinese language, are rooting their brands in a high level of consistency in a way that few, if any, Western brands have achieved.
A client told me yesterday that the GDP of start-up Shenzhen is now bigger than that of Singapore. I wonder if we're at the beginning of consistency on a whole new level?