Local companies face a bleak winter, but they can benefit by developing their brands The worldwide economic downturn means companies globally are facing challenges in developing successful and sustainable businesses and brands in Greater China and internationally. Freeman Lau, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Design Centre, said the mainlands government's recent 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.54 trillion) stimulus package to counter the economic slowdown amid the global financial crisis may help if it promoted automation and innovation. Mr Lau said that for design-centric industries, innovation was about product research and design, though he added that with 'the financial tsunami, the export performance of Hong Kong brands will inevitably be affected'. But branding is a costly and cumbersome endeavour - and one that should be regarded as a long-term investment. As such it requires time, patience and resources to nurture a brand. Mr Lau said enterprises faced 'an extremely cold winter. They must learn to swim in such severe weather. Accordingly, local enterprises must review their competitive edge during trying times'. A decade ago 'the government warned enterprises that they should create their own brands instead of relying on the processing trade alone'. Mr Lau said enterprises should heed that advice and build good brands to win customer confidence and establish comprehensive sales channels to overseas markets such as Russia and the Middle East, 'with the help of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council [HKTDC]'. Competition is tough in Hong Kong and the mainland, but Mr Lau said Hong Kong brands could make an impact on the mainland by 'creating brand value for customers'. He said customers wanted functional products and also 'core values and added value'. Although being Hong Kong-based could be a hindrance because of high costs and a relatively small market which forced local companies to be global in their aspirations and business strategy rather than being able to rely on a large domestic economy, 'Hong Kong has unique advantages'. He said internationalisation - where east meets west - quality products, sophisticated research, advanced IT applications, world-class tastes, first-rate strategy and packaging were required, citing the jewellery industry and Hong Kong brands that were known internationally. But Hong Kong firms are compelled to start their businesses from an exporter's perspective and that is risky because other countries may have recessions, import restrictions and duties. To that end, Mr Lau said local firms should 'enhance their edge' and couple that with the promotional activities of the HKTDC, the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office and Hong Kong Tourism Board to push Hong Kong brands. Governmental support aside, local firms must still take the initiative to innovate and make themselves relevant to the global marketplace. Hong Kong could play a larger role in promoting good brand management practices on a wider stage. For example, homegrown brands such as HSBC, Cathay Pacific and The Peninsula are renowned worldwide for setting benchmarks for quality, and their brand recognition reflects that in the fields of banking, aviation and hospitality. Mr Lau said the city could go further by playing up its quality food, fashion and shopping mall brands. 'The development of designs and brands should be multifaceted and multilayered because other countries appreciate the creativity of Hong Kong people,' he said. The Octopus cash card and the G.O.D. lifestyle brand bear out his views. The idea of a multi-use cash card has even been exported to Holland. He said the G.O.D. brand was about adding fun to life. 'A brand is all about the product. If a brand is popular locally and can instil a unique local culture, it may also perform well in global markets.' Mr Lau was confident that overseas consumers wanted to share the Hong Kong experience and that the Hong Kong brand could be promoted through its products, history and culture. 'Culture includes the past and the present. How you define culture depends on company leaders being passionate about their brands and daring to risk investing in the products they market,' Mr Lau said. He believed that businesses should have the determination, vision and commitment towards their products and promote them with vigour - which necessitates entrepreneurial risk. 'Brands are about value, in addition to their basic [identification and differentiation] function. Some brands are able to enhance customers' personal qualities to satisfy their spiritual needs.' If Hong Kong companies want to establish world-class brands to compete globally, it is imperative that they enhance consumer brand experiences. Hong Kong is fairly new to the process of branding, but world-class design and marketing companies are establishing beachheads to access Hong Kong's abundant talent pool. The city's business community can be buoyed by the fact that The Hong Kong Polytechnic University's Asian Centre for Brand Management has many scholars and researchers that are as committed to brand development as the private sector is.