Personal Branding in China

Last month, I was invited to travel to China to deliver guest lectures at Beijing Normal University and Qingdao Agricultural University.  Honestly, I had no idea what to expect.  I had lived in the Asia-Pacific region and worked there during my days with Discovery Channel, but I had never visited China before.  Since I teach Global Marketing every semester at Saint Vincent College, I was excited to have the chance to personally experience the world’s largest potential marketplace.

My travels to China brought me to Beijing, Qingdao and Shanghai.  Although each of these places has a greater population than any of our American cities, they felt very familiar at times.  Commercialization was evident as soon as we landed in the airport, which was filled with marketing billboards and digital signs.  Even the taxis contained video screens touting automobiles, cosmetics, and special events with American rock music playing in the background.

China IIAt Beijing Normal University (considered one of the top universities in China), I was invited to speak to an audience of MBA students on the topic of personal branding.  As we approached the classroom where I was scheduled to speak, it quickly became obvious the interest in this topic had been underestimated as every seat was taken and students spilled into the hallway. Nearly all of the students in the audience were native Chinese, and the concept of personal branding was a very new and novel approach in the market.  I had done considerable research in advance of the presentation and could find very little written on the topic.  However, a recent book by Heidi Schultz, Martin Block and Don Schultz on Understanding China’s Digital Generation shared valuable insights on the mindset of these students.

The Chinese culture tends to value a collective approach to living rather than the individualistic approach often evident in the US.  Thus, my presentation emphasized how being able to effectively express one’s personal brand would allow students to make greater contributions to their respective communities and employers.  Specifically, I addressed the importance of developing a compelling brand promise and promoting that brand promise through various media channels.  The Chinese have a definite affinity for branding and are clearly attracted to the promise of “famous” corporate brands like Apple and celebrity brands like Celine Dion.  Even though China does not offer access to popular US social media channels like Facebook, YouTube or LinkedIn, there are communication tools such as Weixin and Youku Tudou that have achieved mass-market penetration.

China II was overwhelmed with the positive reception that I received in China.  I had been cautioned that the Chinese might not ask questions as a sign of respect.  However, after I encouraged them to do so, several students shared thoughtfully prepared questions with me.  I was not expecting that before each question was asked, the student would express a compliment such as “Thank you for visiting our country” and “We appreciate you sharing your knowledge with us.”  I immediately mentioned this mannerism to my students in the US in hopes they would consider adopting such a practice!

The questions from the Chinese students were as much focused upon my perspectives as an American as they were my insights as a professor.  They wondered what I thought about their country and if I was enjoying my visit.  And they were very curious as to the American student experience.  They seem surprised that I found many more similarities than differences between the two cultures.

Visiting China was undoubtedly one of the most amazing educational experiences of my life.  I was both a welcomed teacher and inspired student there and I look forward to returning soon.

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