Ask the average American to name a single Chinese brand and you will be lucky to get an answer, this despite the mainland exporting US$33 billion of goods to the United States last year. It was to create Chinese brands that might one day be as familiar as Sony and McDonald's that representatives from 100 domestic firms gathered at a Beijing hotel last week for a three-day seminar on 'China International Brand Strategy'. 'It is just a matter of time,' one US participant said. 'Chinese companies have the capital and the ability to create such brands. Look at what has happened in China. Ten years ago, there were no brands and now there are hundreds. They are fast learners. 'What China is doing is leveraging its own market to get the access and finance to create global brands. Everyone wants to come and sell here. China is playing this very well.' That forecast was too optimistic for most mainlanders at the seminar, who said they still had a long way to go, after four decades in a planned economy in which everything that went out of the factory was sold and there was no need for marketing, advertising or brands. Within China, firms have had to learn quickly, with the transformation from a deficit to a surplus economy and the arrival of large foreign companies, which have marketed their brands so aggressively that many are more famous in the mainland than the local companies with which they compete. Sales and advertising have become essential. Advertising revenue has been growing by 20 per cent a year and reached $6.48 billion in 1997. Brand leaders have emerged in most product lines, especially consumer goods like electrical appliances, food, liquor, soft drinks, cosmetics, sports goods and garments. But, while all this has been happening at home, Chinese goods in the export market are, for the most part, considered cheap, low quality and anonymous. Many multinationals make goods in the mainland but sell them overseas under their own brand. The same product sold under the name of the Chinese manufacturer fetches a fraction of the price. In any big city department store in the US, you find many Chinese goods sold under someone else's name, so the profit goes to that company, not the manufacturer, said Edward Morrison, president of the US-China Association for the Promotion of Economy and Trade, which helps mainland firms market their products in the US and vice versa. China is the world's largest manufacturer of generic drugs, and the US is the largest consumer of them, but China could not sell in the US because its factories do not have approval of the US Food and Drug Administration, he said. So there are Japanese joint ventures in China which produce a drug, ship it to Japan, repackage it and export it to the US, with almost all the profit going to the Japanese company, while the Chinese firm breaks even. If there is one mainland company that has taken the challenge head-on, it is the Haier Group, based in the eastern port city of Qingdao. It is one of the nation's biggest producers of refrigerators and air-conditioners. When it started exporting in 1991, it was making goods for foreign companies and lost money. Since 1997, all its exports carry the Haier name. It has set up plants in the Philippines, India, Malaysia and Yugoslavia and is negotiating for others in Poland, Mexico and Saudi Arabia. Wang Yingmin, a director of the group, told the seminar the biggest challenge was not capital, but quality and winning recognition of customers. 'Our strategy is to sell first in developed countries and then developing ones,' he said. 'If we can make it in mature markets against such well-known companies as GE, Philips and Matsushita, then we can certainly make it in developing countries. 'We do not hide [that] we are a Chinese product, we stress it. Foreigners think Chinese goods are low-quality and low-price, but we want to stress we are making high-priced, high-quality goods,' he said. 'We did not consider another name, although some could not pronounce it initially.' In 1997, the group posted sales of 10.8 billion yuan (about HK$10.04 billion), one-third of it abroad, and spent 100 million yuan on domestic advertising. The company's success attracted the attention of Harvard University, which last week invited chairman Zhang Ruimin to give a lecture, the first Chinese entrepreneur to receive such an honour. His subject was the Haier company management style and how it had brought back to life the 18 state firms that it had acquired during the past 13 years. The 18 had assets of 1.55 billion yuan, losses of 550 million yuan and 15,000 workers. The group has turned them round through new management and through changing the mentality of the workers. Mr Zhang said the company aimed to adapt western and Japanese management techniques to conditions in China. Haier officials say they had much to learn from Matsushita, Toshiba and other giants in the global consumer electrical market. While Mr Wang was being interviewed by a Chinese television crew at the seminar, one of his staff said simply: 'Our aim is to overtake all our Japanese competitors.'