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Great Branding: Made in Chinatown


Did you know that there’s a Chinatown in almost every major city across the globe, with the earliest having emerged from as early as the 1500s?

It all started when a mass emigration known as the Chinese Diaspora took place, where thousands of Chinese fled mainland China due to wars, starvation and invasion from foreign countries. When they arrived to their newfound homes, the Chinese populated certain districts, especially a seaport, and as time passed these districts turned into the Chinatowns of today. Historically, Chinatowns were ethnic enclaves of the Chinese expatriates who were well-known entrepreneurs and businessmen. But in more recent times, Chinatowns have turned into tourist attractions and commercial districts. Most of these districts grew organically, as the expatriates began to settle down where they were to build a home and a career.

It’s no doubt that Chinatown is more than mere town and neighbourhood as far as the name goes; Chinatown has turned into a brand of its own. From the sight of red lanterns and Chinese signage to the infamous dragon arch gates at the entrance of every one of them, we instantaneously know when we have stepped into a Chinatown. One would not go as far as to say that they look the same everywhere around the world, but there are definitely familiar sights and signature displays that can be seen no matter which Chinatown we’re talking about.

So the question is, how is it a brand? Is there a strategy behind their successful establishment worldwide? Here are several key points to why it is what it is today, and what can our brands learn from Chinatown:

1. They stand out instead of adapting the culture of their surroundings.

One noticeable trait of Chinatown is that it stands out on its own no matter where it is. The Chinese are infamous for not just being able to live and adapt anywhere, but also for introducing their culture and preferences into their new environments (more on this below). This is important for your brand because you need to be distinct and recognizable in an industry saturated with hundreds of rival brands selling the same thing. If you can stand out, your brand won’t lose its identity no matter where you go.

2. They introduce their cultural elements into products of their new surroundings.

As mentioned above, you can find Chinese-influenced products in countries with a Chinatown in it. From Chinese-fusion dishes to the distinct Straits Eclectic architectural style prevalent since the early 20th century in Malaysia, these items have strong Chinese influences. When you amalgamate your brand culture into different elements of your surroundings, you create something new that is still familiar to your local audience.

3. They possess traits that are consistent, no matter where they are.

Often, the lion and dragon dance, acrobatic performances, and rows of hanging red lanterns are the first touch point for tourists. Hence, they represent Chinatown as a brand, giving Chinatowns across the world a homogenous “look.” This is why your brand should have a corporate identity that is evident in every touch point with your consumers, because a pleasant, recognisable consistency in brand presentation is essential for a long-lasting brand recognition.

4. They cater to a niche market.

In your opinion, do you think you can find a 120 year old Chinese ginseng in a local pharmacy at San Francisco? Or perhaps a good Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner who specialises in acupuncture and Gua Sha? Chances are, these things can only be found in Chinatown. Instead of competing with brands, it is important for your brand to offer something that can’t be found elsewhere in the city you are in, occupying a space within a niche market to grow and gain name recognition. This is especially helpful in countries such as Malaysia, the United States and India where customer loyalty towards recognised brands takes the driver’s seat.

If we could distil Chinatown’s branding strategy into one sentence, it would simply be this; “just be who you are wherever you are, and people will learn to embrace you for it.” A brand that tells a true story about itself is a brand that has something interesting to say. No matter what a brand sells, there will always be a possibility of finding an audience who would appreciate and demand for what it sells. In the case of Chinatown, it’s the China experience without actually going to China. Wanna head down to Chinatown for dim sum with us?

Is Your Brand Occupying A Niche Market That No One Else Does?

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