Is This China’s Worst New Brand? Cambridge University Clothing



In a recent blog post, I discussed how and why Chinese brands are not just holding their own in China, but winning against global titans like P&G, Nike, Unilever, Coca-Cola. A big reason is that there are Chinese entrepreneurs with a great feeling for what kind of brand messaging works best in China. 

But, of course, success is not automatic. China can also produce its share of Edsel brands, clunkers that seem from the start preordained to fail.

One such case has some special resonance for me. There’s a new retail clothing brand in China called “University of Cambridge”. It was just launched a few months ago, and there are already about ten stores across China, including one in the Shenzhen shopping mall closest to where I live. The parent company is also based in Shenzhen. 

I was more than a little surprised to see the Cambridge clothing shop open. For one thing, my guess is that I’m one of probably fewer than fifty graduates of the English university living in Shenzhen (Cantab. M.Phil 1985) . So, the “captive population” is going to be very small. What’s more, from a quick look around, I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any of their clothing , best described as a slinky, polyester mélange of “Ye Olde England” and futuristic Chinese design. 

But, the bigger reason I was surprised to see the University of Cambridge store open is that I can’t believe the university would grant a license to a Chinese retailer to use the University of Cambridge name. Yet, on the walls of the store, as well as on the label of the apparel, it says that this company does, indeed, have the official license from Cambridge. Also, stuck into a lot of the clothing on display are pins emblazoned with the Cambridge emblem: cantab2If anyone can verify that this is legit, that this university did give this Chinese entrepreneur a license, I’d certainly like to know. The store is so brazen in claiming to have the license it’s hard to believe they’re making it all up. But, it could be. 

The store claims they are the first ever to get this kind of license from the university, and that it was granted in 2009, the 800th anniversary of Cambridge’s founding. They also say they have big plans for global expansion. If they don’t have a valid license to use the Cambridge name, then of course any such plan is going to fail from the outset. 

But, if they do have the license, I’d suggest someone at Cambridge should be doing a better job controlling how its name is being used. The clothing is really atrocious. If it were just t-shirts and sweatshirts with the Cambridge logo, it would be one thing. But, the store only has its own designs, both men’s and women’s, and nothing that really connects the styles to the university. 

The store is not without its sources of amusement. In describing the university, it provides a list of famous alumni, based on various categories. My favorite among these: “Politicians: Charles, Mandela, Lee Kuan Yew”.  I’m guessing they mean Prince Charles, though it’s clearly a stretch to describe him as a politician. 

I’m a particularly bad “one man focus group” to evaluate which brands are going to be successful in China. On most things, my tastes are way out of whack with those of the host population. But, I’m pretty confident the Cambridge University retail chain is going to sputter and die. Associating yourself with a famous European institution is not a bad idea by itself, and lots of successful Chinese brands look to capture a kind of European cache. But, this stuff is just too ugly, and too expensive, to catch on. 

The target market seems to be very affluent middle-aged Chinese of both sexes. They have much better, safer and more tasteful choices in the same mall: including Ralph Lauren, Zegna, Lacoste, Louis Vuitton, Canali, Gucci.

Ford marketed its Edsel brand for two years, before killing it off in what is still the biggest and fastest failure for any mainstream auto brand. My guess is that University of Cambridge retail chain won’t survive even that long.


China’s Brand New Brand Names

Ming Jiajing jar from China First Capital blog post

1837. That’s when the first and still grandest of all consumer brand companies got its start.  Procter & Gamble started off selling soap and candles, then in 1879, introduced its first major branded product, Ivory soap, which quickly became the leading soap brand in the US. P&G then gradually, over the next 130 years, added other brands that became market leaders, including Tide, Crest, Pampers, Gillette, Olay, Head & Shoulders. 

This same slow-and-steady pace characterizes most other well-known consumer brand companies, including: Unilever, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Mercedes-Benz, Gucci, Tiffany, Nike, Hershey, Crayola (http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/blog/archives/927), etc. 

The lesson: building brands takes time. Lots and lots of time. 

Except, that is, in China. Here, brands go from drawing board to market dominance in a matter of a few years, or less. The reason? Like so much else in China, economic and social change occurs so rapidly that time seems compressed. Three years of economic growth in China is faster than a generation’s economic growth elsewhere. No major economy in modern times has grown as fast, for as long, as China has over the last 30 years.


 The other reason, peculiar to China, is that there were few brands of any kind before the 1980s. Back then, a stolid proletarian China had a depressingly small number of equally stolid proletarian brands. Many have since disappeared. Those that are still around have often been overwhelmed into irrelevance by newer Chinese brands, or ones imported from abroad.

Good examples of this are Flying Pigeon bicycles and Bee & Flower soap. They were once near-monopolies in China, during Mao’s time. Today, they are bare remnants of their former, dominant selves. Neither has more than a 1% market share, if that. It’s hard to find any other examples outside China during the last 25 years of once-dominant brands losing so much market share so quickly. 

In the US and Europe, older brands often have cache. In China, they are toxic, for the most part, because they are the products of an era of scarcity and little to no consumer choice. So, the tens of thousands of Chinese consumer brands created over the last 25 years entered a market with few, if any, well-established incumbents. A few foreign brands have also done well in China’s mass market over this time: P&G has a great business here with Crest, Tide, Olay, Pantene. Other winners include junk food giants McDonalds & KFC, along with Coca-Cola, Nokia, Apple, Nike, Marlboro, Loreal.

But, in many cases, new Chinese brands have fought and won against competition from well-known imports. Protectionist trade rules have played some part in this, of course. But, a lot of the credit really belongs to smart Chinese entrepreneurs. Thanks to them, China’s consumer market has gone from brand-less to branded in less than a generation.

P&G’s kingpins, like Crest, Pantene and Tide, face a proliferation of Chinese competitors, priced both lower and higher than the global brands. In many other product markets, Chinese brands stand alone, including tissues and toilet paper (sold here in bulky ten-roll packs), bed linen, men’s and women’s underwear, and most food products.

Overall, there are few dominant brands with market shares large enough to discourage new competitors. In fact, new brands arrive all the time. In evolutionary terms, China is in the middle of a kind of Cambrian Explosion, with the rapid appearance of all kinds of new brands. Inevitably, the huge number of brands will shrink, as winners emerge, and has-beens die out. This process took decades in the US and Europe. It will almost certainly happen far more quickly in China. 

One reason for the especially rapid pace: lots of capital is now available to create and support new brands. Why? There is so much to be gained for any company that establishes a dominant brand in China. China will soon have the largest domestic market in the world. Grabbing a few points of market share in China will often equate to billions of dollars in revenue over the next five to ten years. 

In many of the most promising consumer markets, no brand has even emerged yet, with national scope and distribution. Here, smart entrepreneurs can build a brand in fertile virgin turf, rather than trying to force their way into an already crowded patch. If done right, you can turn a new brand into a billion-dollar household name in a short-time. 

I see this process very clearly with one of our clients. It’s still quite a ways from being that billion-dollar colossus, but it has a real potential to become one. The entrepreneur spotted a huge market opportunity five years ago, to create a brand to sell designer accessories to Chinese women from 20 to 35 years-old.

His key insight: the process of urbanization in China is creating an enormous group of working women in this age bracket, with the spare income to spend on not-too-expensive, but well-designed earrings, bracelets, necklaces, sunglasses. 

His business is now growing very fast, with over 100 stores in most of China’s major cities. Sales should double in 2010 to about $50mn, and keep doubling every 18 months for a long time to come. The best part: he faces no real competition, and so every day, his brand grows more and more known, and so less and less vulnerable to whatever competitors may one day come along. My guess is that this brand will be one of the quickest new consumer product companies in Chinese history to reach Rmb 1 billion in sales. 

Like many of the best entrepreneurs, this one makes it look very easy. It isn’t. He takes hands-on responsibility for the four key disciplines needed to build and sustain the brand: marketing, design, management and manufacturing.

That’s the other part about brand-building in China: it not only happens fast, it often happens inside smaller founder-run companies without the input of “specialists” or ad agencies.  I don’t know how many people in China have studied product marketing in school, but my guess is not many.