A glimpse of the future

Stuart Watson went to China to promote British design for the Olympic handover. He came back impressed by what he saw – and worried for the UK

When we were first invited by UK Trade and Investment to represent British design in China, our first thought was, ‘Yeah baby!’.

We then realised that the cost of the trip would require some real business justification – that is to say, clients. No problemo, right? Loads of cash. Or yuan as they call it in China. Bring it on.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. Budgets in China for marketing, advertising and branding tend to be around a third of what they are in Europe and America. Add to that the cultural differences, a nation then preoccupied with the Olympics and the small issue of language.

Clearly, the likes of China Mobile won’t be showing us the yuan just yet.

However, having a foothold in China would be a wise long-term move for our group. Sooner or later, the ability to make things happen there would give us an advantage. And it’s the future – who doesn’t want to be part of it?

The Olympics opening ceremony was awe-inspiring, a signal of what’s to come. It was as though someone had opened Pandora’s box and this advanced civilisation emerged. We were going. So we made the decision that the trip would be about building relationships with like-minded people: architects, product designers, designers, artists and art schools – people and organisations we might be able to work with in the future.

We met some great people and practices doing world-class work. Architects, designers and artists showed us that, contrary to popular belief, China is a hotbed of creativity. The idea that groups like ours can rock up and start preaching to them about good design is naive. They’re doing it already.

But primarily we were there to help UKTI to represent British design. First we went to Shanghai, where we presented alongside Tangerine and Manchester group Love to 200 marketers. Afterwards, one-to-one meetings were set up to talk further. It was a bit like speed dating, mixed with musical chairs, talking about branding – an unknown quantity in China – through an interpreter was a bit weird; it was all a bit lost in translation.

I did notice that the product designers were getting a lot of attention. The Chinese make products, they can make products better, which will sell more units. Simple.

Branding is a little bit more intangible. They make products and sell them to a retailer. In many ways they don’t need to communicate their ‘brand’ because their prices and products do all the talking.

If we could show them that by getting consumers to love their brands, they will buy more products. Retailers sell more units and they no longer deal on price per unit. Bingo. We didn’t manage to crack this in a week, but it will happen.

Back to our diplomatic duties. Next stop Beijing. What really shocked us was the lack of clarity of Britain’s message to China. London Mayor Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Gordon Brown both gave passionate speeches about Brand Britain, Team GB, Think London and 2012. Yet, all the graphics, banners and publicity material were branded UK. Confusing, no?

To add insult to injury, the pictures chosen to represent modern Britain could have come straight off a tin of Quality Street. I was waiting for Austin Powers to drive up in a Jaguar E-Type and offer me a gin and tonic. Or a Beefeater to drop in for a cup of tea.

So here we are representing the best of Britain in China, talking about design to a backdrop of Big Ben and a Routemaster bus. While in the distance, the glow of the spectacular Bird’s Nest Stadium reminds us that we might not know it all.

We can do better than this.I worry for our Olympics. Think Wembley Stadium versus Millennium Stadium and think Millennium Dome versus The O2. The latter two are both loved and profitable enterprises, the former, both debacles in their own right. What the Government must do is engage the best British talent and not interfere with the process of creating Brand Britain for 2012.

So, is it worth investing time and money on Government initiatives and what are the chances of winning new work?

Well, the trip was run with military precision, we got in front of more than 400 Chinese business people, met Johnson and Brown, got to hob nob at London House and met some very interesting potential partners.

As for winning new work, it may take a few trips, but it will happen.


• Network with like-minded creatives and develop relationships

• Try to find ways around cultural and language differences

• China is a hotbed of creativity – respect the Chinese approach to good design rather than impose your own views

• Be aware that marketing, advertising and branding budgets tend to be small by Western standards

• Product design is a promising market in the country

Stuart Watson is a partner at Venturethree

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