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Imitation & Innovation in China

xiaomi-phone-products-1-anniversary-testimonial-edition-MAX-1-plush-toy-limited-quantity

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If true, it should follow then that China are huge fans of most consumer electronics brands. We’ve written before about threats to intellectual property. The impact of such imitators is most keenly felt by the end user, and can be mixed. In India, back in 2011, counterfeit DVDs of The Dark Knight sold for over $600 a pop. In China, where a limited embargo on foreign films exists, scarcity has spurred innovation, leading to grey-market DVDs with more special features for viewers to enjoy.

Such innovation still flouts the law, however, and is nothing new. In his book A History of Future Cities, Daniel Brook writes in detail of the Westernisation of Shanghai at the end of the 19th century:

“As early as 1863, the British food company, Lea & Perrins, was taking out ads in the North China Herald to warn Shanghai consumers of ‘spurious imitations of their celebrated Worcestershire sauce [with] labels closely resembling those of the genuine Sauce’ and threatening lawsuits against anyone who dared to manufacture or sell the knockoff product”

Today, China still struggles to build powerful brands that work outside the country as well as they perform domestically. An editorial earlier this week in the Financial Times confirmed this status, with a focus on handset manufacturer Xiaomi. The editorial rightly points out Xiaomi have made good attempts at brand cultivation, including a strong social media following that cultivates a sense of belonging that results in people attending new product releases in the same uniform and plush toys (see header photo). More could be done though. Ultimately the brand can be as glitzy as you want, but without an exciting business beneath, generating excitement will be hard: “It is a sound business, but not an innovative one”. Its product specs borrow from Samsung, its product design and launch motif from Apple, albeit with some mildly diverting software additions of there own, such as a way to navigate automated phone systems.

The risk of failure in markets outside of China has potentially been heightened by the centrally planned market environment present there, which rewards and protects national incumbents while doing its best to hinder new, foreign entrants. A domestic market with over a billion people is not a bad starting place, but as the FT concludes, “If Chinese brands are going to take on their rivals around the world, they need to dazzle us with something we have never seen before, much like Sony did with its life-altering Walkman“. Sony though will feel keenly that such dazzlers do not a sustainable competitive advantage make.

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