The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s branding failure: only 6% of U.S. consumers can name one Chinese brand

A customer sits in a Lenovo Group store in Beijing. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg)

Most Americans know that their iPhones, chopsticks and Olympic uniforms are “made in China," but 94 percent of Americans cannot name even one Chinese brand, according to a new survey by international marketing firm HD Trade Services.

Go ahead, try it. It might be harder than you think. The 1,500 respondents in the HDTS survey could only come up with five companies: Lenovo, Baidu, Huawei, Haier and Air China. (Respondents also offered Toyota, Sony and Honda, but those are, of course, Japanese.)

There’s a reason Americans recognize Japanese brands better than Chinese ones: Both countries sell tons of stuff here, but China often does it under other, non-Chinese names. Chinese companies looking to sell in the United States have long preferred to acquire preexisting American firms (with their established reputations, resources, infrastructure and market share), rather than risk entering the market themselves.

“For Chinese management that may not have a firm grasp of the nuances of American consumer preference ... pursuing growth through acquisition is a logical and commendable choice,” reasons HDTS. But it also means that Americans don't know how much Chinese stuff they're consuming, and therefore might not gain an appreciation for Chinese goods in the way that many have for Japanese or German products.

When you buy an IBM computer, for instance, you’re actually buying it from Beijing-based Lenovo, which acquired the company in 2005. Likewise, Chinese carmaker Geely bought Volvo from Ford in 2010 -- so your XC60 might have been made in Sweden, Belgium or Malaysia, but many of the profits go back to Beijing.

Only a handful of Chinese products -- such as Lenovo laptops and Haier appliances, both of which featured prominently at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show -- are actually marketed directly to U.S. consumers.

Chinese companies show few signs of working to reverse these trends. In 2012, Chinese buyers acquired or bought stakes in more U.S. companies than in any year since 2007, inking 46 deals worth $10 billion in total, according to the Wall Street Journal. Those deals included the $2.6 billion buy-out of the AMC movie chain in May and the acquisition of bankrupt battery-maker A123 in December. A University of Pennsylvania report called it a record “run at U.S. companies.”

“We should get used to this type of headline,” management professor Mauro Guillen concludes. “More and more Chinese firms, and firms from emerging economies in general, will engage in [mergers and acquisitions] in Europe and the U.S.”