Building a brand in China

by Carmen To

The Chartered Institute of Marketing, Hong Kong 10th anniversary special

Staff attitudes and understanding of the media help to boost corporate image

Sherman Lai, Managing Directorm Centaline (China) Property Consultants Limited
Photo: Courtesy of The Chartered Institute of Marketing, Hong Kong

In today's business world, no company can expect to enjoy a significant market presence in any industry without also having a well-established brand. This offers a clear corporate identity, distinct from that of competitors, and acts as a form of guarantee for the products or services which the company provides for current and potential customers.

At the Chartered Institute of Marketing, Hong Kong's international marketing conference Marketing for Profit held on 16 November, Sherman Lai, Managing Director of Centaline (China) Property Consultants Limited shared the reasons for the company's marketing success in China.

Established in 1978, Centaline Property Agency Limited has long recognised the importance of having a well-defined brand in Hong Kong. However, according to Mr Lai, when the company decided to expand into the mainland market in 1994, they had to review their approach and, to a certain extent, start with a clean slate.

Realising that the property sector was developing fast and that there would be fierce competition for business, they set up Centaline (China) Property Consultants Limited and put in place a specific brand building plan. This involved two main aspects: recognising that the attitude and performance of employees was the best advertisement for the business, and cooperating closely with the media to create a broader understanding of the company and raise its profile.

Explaining the approach, Mr Lai noted that the ability of each employee reflects on the management. "Look at the present situation," he said. "We have a large number of employees and each of them can be a voluntary spokesperson promoting the company to friends, family and contacts."

Mutual respect

He added that the company's management philosophy is based on four key principles. These are to maintain a high degree of transparency and keep staff well informed; to advocate an open culture and encourage personal development; to expect integrity and mutual respect; and to treat staff fairly at all times, even paying outstanding commission after they have left. "These measures have helped us to build up our own brand," Mr Lai said.

Internal communication has been improved with a staff magazine, an intranet system and regular meetings. Besides that, press conferences, public comments on policy, periodic market reviews and charity events have also enhanced the brand image. In this respect, Mr Lai stressed, it is important to understand the characteristics of the Chinese media before determining how it can help with the company's business.

"The media in China has traditionally been state-owned and pro government," he said. "However, it is becoming more market-oriented and needs to make a profit to survive. Advertising is increasing as a way to generate money, but it is also necessary to maintain good content in order to retain readership."

Speaking from experience, Mr Lai emphasised that it is becoming costly to buy advertising space in the newspapers so, instead, Centaline has tried to make itself a content provider. In doing this, the company can make use of its strong research team and huge database. Also, staff act as guest speakers at seminars and other events jointly organised with the media. "This shows us as industry leaders and lets us use the concept of mutual benefit to promote our name in the market," he said.

Proactive communication

To strengthen cooperation with the media, the company has a designated department to deal with this. "We encourage the team to communicate proactively and to seek out opportunities to appear in the media," Mr Lai said. "We encourage an open attitude towards journalists and want to let them know more about us."

At present, Centaline has two core business streams in China — brokering sales and providing market intelligence services. Its reputation has been built on having a large sales network and being able to offer the most updated market information for decision makers.

Mr Lai said that the company is currently working to expand other aspects of the business such as finance consultancy, project management and interior design. The workforce has already grown from 1,000 in 2001 to around 10,000 at present, and the vision is to become even more competitive in the years ahead.

Important steps

  • Recognition of the need to build a brand image in mainland China
  • View that the attitude and performance of staff act as the best kind of advertisement
  • Management philosophy emphasises transparency and fairness
  • Research department able to provide useful content for media outlets
  • Company representatives willing to speak at seminars and other events
  • Special department set up to handle relations with the media

Taken from Career Times 24 November 2006
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