Guest Column

Marketing Michigan to China

October 11, 2013
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As Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan business and trade delegation reflect on their recent trip to China, the strategy for how to get results is evolving.

Snyder is smart to put China on his list of priorities for the state. With rapidly increasing disposable income, Chinese have resources and an appetite for travel as well as dreams of investing in America. This capital flow has to go somewhere and Michigan is well positioned to attract it.

Detroit is well known to many Chinese as the Qiche Cheng or “Car City,” and the Detroit Pistons, Ford, GM, Amway and the Great Lakes all enjoy high levels of recognition in China. However, Michigan could, and should, improve its branding to the Chinese consumer.

How do we bridge the gap between Michigan and the Chinese consumer? We offer the following ideas:

The value of a clean environment has come into sharp focus for hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens who live in a country where serious concerns over polluted air and water have dominated the public discourse for years. Enter, Pure Michigan brand. This is what Chinese long for and it meets a critical branding requirement: honesty. From the lakes and rivers to the hills and forests, Michigan is pure, plain and simple. How can we make this message resonate more deeply with a foreign audience 6,000 miles away? The answer lies with the Great Lakes. By and large, Chinese people know the Great Lakes well; as the world’s biggest group of freshwater lakes, they’re one of the world’s geographical features almost universally taught in Chinese textbooks. Combining the Chinese obsession with superlatives and the importance of freshwater sources provides a perfect match for expanding Michigan’s brand in China.

Michigan’s top universities are pushing our state into the far reaches of the world. Both Michigan State University and University of Michigan are top 20 schools in America by number of international students. With over 3,000 Chinese students, MSU boasts more than any other university in the United States. These student ambassadors are a key to developing a positive narrative for the state of Michigan. They should be encouraged to tour the state, contribute to its commerce and experience its pureness. They will send pictures to their jealous friends. Friends will visit. Parents will visit. The Michigan-China relationship will flourish. The returned alumni (“sea turtles” in Chinese) gather in Shanghai and Beijing bars to watch football games. Their collective voice, if strategically harnessed and deployed, can further amplify Michigan’s brand.

Michigan needs to get more local in China. Specifically, we need to penetrate China’s inland cities. While Shanghai and Beijing should not be neglected, Michigan should turn to the next frontier. Powered by Beijing’s “Go West” Development Plan, some second- and third-tier inland cities are growing at 15 percent annually while the coastal powerhouses slow to 7 or 8 percent annual growth. If Michigan focused solely on Chengdu, the capital city of its sister province Sichuan, and neighboring city Chongqing, home of Ford’s biggest auto plant outside of Michigan, we’d have an audience of more than 45 million people. That’s more than four times Michigan’s entire population.

Genuine engagement, listening and responding would go a long way to strengthening the Michigan-China relationship. Michigan must engage the Chinese via social media. What if the state employed just one person to be the voice of Michigan on Sina Weibo? The Twitter-like equivalent is the central conversation repository for more than 500 million people. An interesting personality that engaged users in a fun and interactive way with videos and pictures of Michigan’s pureness could go a long way to creating a buzz and expanding the Pure Michigan brand. Furthermore, offline activities and messages could be easily amplified to the online community. Interaction with Chinese “netizens” would also open new channels and provide insights about how to market to them more efficiently. This certainly could have been employed to shape the dialogue in mid-July when Detroit filed for bankruptcy — the topic was one of the top trending conversations on Sina Weibo at the time.

Michigan is making the complex Chinese language even harder than needed. “Michigan” is commonly referred to with two different translations: Mi Xie Gen and Mi Xi Gen. With over 1.3 billion people, approximately 350 million of whom speak a disparate dialect, getting a unified name is a critical first step to optimizing branding efforts.

Michigan has made great inroads into its China relationship. Following these few suggestions can accelerate the journey and build the foundation for deeper engagement with the world’s largest tourism and fastest-growing consumer market.

Christopher Gragg is a location branding specialist and public affairs consultant at Ogilvy Public Relations in Beijing. Justin Knapp is the director of Ogilvy Public Relations, China Outbound Practice, in Grand Rapids.

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