Cross Culture Branding – long live opposition and missunderstanding
At the Cross Culture Branding conference, which focused on design and brand communication for international markets, and was organized by the Design Center Stuttgart, Markus Wild told a very personal story about his “Chinese story”, which now we have translated and would like to share it here.
It all started 20 years ago in Hong Kong – the fascination with Asia, with China, with the Chinese, and with the exotic.
As a newly qualified designer I got the chance to accompany my first customer on a journey to the other side of the globe. I managed to dissuade this customer, a plastic molding technical part manufacturer, from benchmarking a Philips flashlight as his own first product. Instead I recommended that he develop an innovative product: a stopwatch for managers. Remember back in the early 90s, time controlling systems were quite common! Without having any knowledge of that specific market, I assumed that a countdown timer (basically an egg timer) would be just the right thing for the design conscious among us.
I designed the countdown timer and called it the “Time Tool“. So we had an enthusiastic client, a built but expensive tool, molded samples, as well as a particularly complex material called “Heavy Valox“, a mineral-filled thermoplastic that feels cool and natural to the touch but is prone to streaking. The “Masterbadge“(color blending into the transparent base material) for the translucent color of the buttons was trimmed exactly to “opal.”
Now, where do we get the electronic components? Not in Germany, at that time, and not for a reasonable budget. Therefore, the idea to get the electronics from the Far East was born. Since the customer did not speak English, I joined the queue as an interpreter (and designer).
I hopped on a plane and jetted to Hong Kong on a whim. Hong Kong at 32 degrees in late November, very impressive! After an hour we arrived at the border in Shenzhen, which resembled a BDR border, particularly in the border crossing procedure. Then we stood there on a dirt road surrounded by bustling life complete with food stalls, cockroaches and cats. We got into a rickety taxi that we could have commandeered all day for the equivalent of US$6.50.
At first we were surrounded by bicycles piled five meters high with plastic bottles and straw bales, but just two minutes later we arrived an eight-lane highway, driving past brand new banking skyscrapers – truly impressive! You may not believe it now, but a week was enough time for us to find, out of the thousands of watch manufacturers in Hong Kong, one who was interested in our “mini quantity” of 10,000 pieces that did not want to overcharge us. Customized LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) and PCBs (Printed Circuit Board) were mounted (so that we wouldn’t have to pay in Germany) and eight weeks later, (the cart was on the ship.) the goods were on the move. “There we go!” we thought.
Time Tool, the first product produced in China by WILDDESIGN, in 1990.
It still had to be assembled. Okay, homeworkers were also available in Germany.
And then they were finally finished, after only 6 months of development, “24/7” – “around the clock”: 10 pallets! Amazing, perfectly packed “Time Tools”, ready to bring joy to the exclusive target group.
The next problem to be tackled: Good design does not sell on its own! At some point you have to experience that for yourself. I learned this with my very first job. After two more months, and after around 20 people in my own circle of friends had boughta“Time Tool”, I had the great idea, to send an invoice for the agreed commission of the planned sales volume to my clients. This turned out to not be the best idea, even though it seemed that way. After all, the “Time Tool” had, in the meantime, won an IF design award (International Forum Design), which was essentially a license to print money … right?
Something had to be done soon, otherwise my client and I would both be broke. And here, again, is the proof: As a designer, you have to be a generalist – it succeeded within a few weeks, selling more than 6,000 pieces. 1,500 units to the IF giveaway, the rest in large batches to advertising buyers. Project saved, memories stored in the credit column. This story just had to be told once.
Does the story have anything to do with our subject? With cross-cultural branding or cross-cultural design? For me, the story is about for cross-cultural thinking. Without the other culture the project would have failed immediately after the design and development, and my career would have started off with a negative experience. The “foreignness,” coupled with the love of adventure, to let oneself get involved with new ideas and influences, and even to rely on strangers, made the project a success.
And with the success, the character of cross-cultural thinking is revealed: It is short, extremely dynamic and more or less the opposite of old fashioned German down-to-earthness (of which I have a good share in my genes).
Cross-cultural thinking – opposites attract
How can I convey this best, what it means to cross cultures and what it brings forth? One should not only be devoted to it academically, but absolutely dedicated, with body and soul. You have to experience it yourself. Cross-cultural thinking takes its value from the fascination with being different, from the polarity of life environments. While we’re talking about polarities: 15 years later the “Cross-Cultural Virus” had its second impact, after 15 years of good German design with a considerable number of design awards, moderate growth and great prestige in the German design community. For the second and actual wild China experience I have to thank another “opposite” – my partner at WILDDESIGN, Gerhard Seizer.
By 2005 our China plans were already flourishing (that would be an even longer story to tell), but there was man it was missing, someone capable ofeffectively keeping up the WILDDESIGN spirit on-the-scene. At the Gelsenkirchen Train Station Gerhard walked towards me. Ankle-length Matrix-leather coat, black clothes of an unknown fashion label (tailored after his designs in Shanghai), and black pointy alligator-shoes. From the first moment, I knew that he was THE guy that would make it happen. So much for uniquenessand confidence. Just for fun, we created the labels “crazy and wild“; today we could still argue over who is the wild one and who is the crazy one.
For me, cross-cultural branding is the classic story of opposites attracting. There exists an emotional appeal to it, something that goes far beyond what professionals in design and marketing can channel professionally, in terms of emotions. Let’s take a people, the Chinese. They are small, very small, but also very friendly and warm-hearted. It is amazing that in such an environment, where you think, everyone is trying to rook you, one can have so much fun and develop genuine friendships within business.
Even that is cross-cultural thinking: Having fun with and through eachother. The inspiration comes along with it, “free of charge,” if you will. In China, one believes, everything is possible.
Take the colors for example. China is red and gold. Red is the epitome of color in China, as it stands for China like no other color can.
That alone does not only explain the affinity of the Chinese for the red dot, but also red is just everywhere and it directly affects the limbic system.That is why we have picked “GRASSGREEN” as a corporate color for our company. Illogical? Green means “cheap” in China. So what? Everyone uses red and gold – is it supposed to be special? Believe it or not: the juicy grass in our corporate picture is from a photo taken in the middle of Shanghai by Roland, our first German intern in our China office. Today, he works with us in Gelsenkirchen. This grass is beloved by our Chinese and European customers, eventhough no one really understands it 100% – understanding it fully, after all, is not necessary.
More opposing stories
A few stories about our customers, without being indiscreet. German premium/luxury brands in China are hip, as is the cookware brand Fissler. But anyone who thinks that the Chinese like Fissler in a traditional Black Forest idyll (the oft-quoted stereotype of German customs in China) is wrong, except for the “black” part. Look at the already crazy “Diamond Pot”, a cooking pot set with diamonds available for a few hundred thousand Euros, is presented in China with the support of our team in Shanghai: pure glamour, exaggerated gesture and luxury? Here in China,it fits!
Or, take BeWell. The start-up company, located in Hong Kong, was spun off from a medium-sized toy manufacturer. Their previous product? A Transformers Technotoy. Since there is a lot of know-how, the visionary CEO Raymond Lo wants to utilize it for a very different area: life science products. He gets them designed, developed and even assembled with the help of our company in Germany, to earn a “Made in Germany” label. He is importing the body parts from Southern China to Darmstadt for assembly. The design comes from Gelsenkirchen. Sounds a little crazy right?
Long live the misunderstanding
Nowadays, the UNDERSTANDING is generally on the rise, a lot of talking about blind (mutual) understanding and shared values. Supposedly these are the basic requirements for business, life and love to work out. I personally don’t believe in that. I’ve experienced a dozen pleasant misunderstandings in China, all of which ended up well. This did not happen because I was lucky, but because not everyone expected there to be a thorough understanding of the situation, of the “Most High” variety. One is tolerant of misunderstandings, as when they are actually taken into account and one is amused by them, one derives personal inspiration and connections out of them. Error tolerance par excellence. Could such a thing happen in Germany?
Our stiff, exact and aesthetic design benefits from the confrontation with the East. Let’s take Gerhard Seizer, who took a sabbatical year together with his partner Klara Sibeck. Far from the world’s established design strongholds, the two were looking for diversity of culture in everyday life. After his first three years as a General Manager of the office in Shanghai, he went on a sort of quest, breaking camp and becoming a nomad –an “idea nomad” to be specific. You can follow his experiences from the years 2009 to 2010 on: www.ideanomads.com.
On their one-year journey through China, Inner Mongolia, the former Soviet Republics over Russia, Scandinavia, Turkey, Iran to India, they found design everywhere, and everywhere there was a completely different understanding of what design means. His conclusion: Our high cultural view of design is irrelevant in most countries. But if you go to those countries and delve more into the surroundings, there begins an exchange that couldn’t be more exciting.
Curiosity on both sides
Or take the various employees of our two offices. We call them “Team Members”. We call the Chinese on the team in Gelsenkirchen and the Europeans on the team in Shanghai “Shangkirchen” and “Gelsenhai”. This arrangement brings some very “pleasant” misunderstandings and first-class creativity. It’s a very individualistic perspective, but we are glad to have it. Here in the offices, everything must be looked at in a global and cultural context. Before the first live video conference, there was great curiosity on both sides. Both offices have a very similar character. From the fully furnished but still empty office on Chang Ping Lu they created a cozy loft, loved by clients as well as by the employees. In Gelsenkirchen, it looks exactly the same – a large room, same tables and the same green chairs.
Corporate identity en passant
We also had another interesting experience. As exciting as a metropolis like Shanghai may be, you still need a home, a place to retreat. In the beginning we realized that interns and those employees who just had entered the country had great difficulty starting up. Since we have our WILDDESIGN residential community for interns (and sometimes for the owner), this apartment has become a special place, a meeting place for the entire team. Every now and then international cooking evenings take place in the apartment, and everyone learns more about the team’s different home countries. These vary from “Kalakukko” (a traditional bread baked fish from Finland) prepared by a Finnish graphic artist to “Nasi Lemak” (a rice dish eaten for breakfast, as well as at any other time) prepared by an interior designer from Malaysia. Just now, there is a counterpart being created in Gelsenkirchen – the WILDDESIGN residential community located in the middle of the Turkish area of the city, and with that, spreading the cultural qualities of the Ruhr all over the world. We look forward to further opposites and misunderstandings in the service of a high quality design and great joy at work.
Written by Markus Wild
Original article in German
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