On the Concept of Face // China Trip 12/21

Most people go to the beach or skiing during the winter holidays. Not me. Always up for an adventure, my wife and I traveled to China where we visited friends and family, saw the sites, ate, shopped and got lost. As always, my eyes were open for insights on culture, consumers, branding and marketing - you’ll find them in this set of posts - most starting with a bit of business, followed by some fun (and strange) trip stories. (5th in a series) Insights - Driving through the Chinese countryside on the way to the Shaolin Temple, I learned something about branding.

We were in a very poor part of the country, and the houses looked like sturdier versions of the favelas I saw in Brazil. Basically very small concrete boxes. But nearly every house had an opulent red door with gold trim.

Shirley (our guide) said the Chinese concept of ‘face’ is what makes these impoverished farmers decorate their hovels with a door that probably costs as much as the rest of the house. What an interesting concept — I mean the door doesn’t cover the house, it just sits right in the middle. So when you see the door, you see the whole house, in all its shittiness. But the owner has adopted a symbol that he thinks gives his brand a better image.

Many brands suffer the same illusion of face. Whenever I hear a brand representative talk about his or her company’s “image problem,” I immediately think if I owned the company’s stock, now would be a good time to sell. The implication is generally that the brand and its products are just perfect, the only problem is that we consumers are too stupid to realize it.

Why do we think we can fool people? Is it because we’ve been fooled in the past when we weren’t paying attention, so we think it can happen to anyone? Or is it something innate in human nature that relies on the shorthand of symbolism to tell us what’s really going on. So, we think if we’re smart enough to manipulate the symbols, we can control what people think about us?

Check this out: there is no such thing as an image problem. There’s only a brand problem. Perception being reality and all that, your brand is what people believe it to be. People other than yourself, that is.

One of the many things 2009 is sure to teach us is that companies who think they can fool us by putting a shiny coat of paint on their shabby brands are in for a world of hurt.

Faces image from http://grail.cs.washington.edu/projects/realface/xgen.html