China’s indigenous brand policy backfires

The Financial Times, May 5, 2014

Even the most ardent car lovers would struggle to identify some of the vehicles built by major multinational auto companies in China.

BMW Brilliance Zinoro, an SGMW Baojun and a Dongfeng Nissan Venucia are among the “indigenous” brands that the Chinese government requires foreign-invested joint ventures to develop in return for approvals to expand production capacity in the world’s largest auto market.

SGMW – GM’s joint venture with SAIC Motor and Liuzhou Wuling Motors – embraced the dictat by developing popular Baojun sedans and mini-cars. SGMW sold more than 100,000 Baojuns in 2013, up almost 20 per cent.

Priced at just Rmb50,000 ($8,000) to Rmb70,000, Baojun’s success has come primarily at the expense of China’s struggling domestic automakers, suggesting that the policy has had at least one unintended consequence.

“After several decades in China, the earliest models introduced by the foreign joint ventures are now priced as cheaply as Chinese brands,” Liu Bo, vice-president of Chang’an Auto, said at a seminar held in conjunction with April’s Beijing car show. “Their ability to focus global R&D resources on the China market is putting a lot of pressure on us.”

March sales of Chinese brand sedans fell 12 per cent year-on-year, as local automakers lost their market lead in the segment to their German rivals led by VW. “The indigenous brand policy is really dumb because all it does is cannibalise the local Chinese brands,” said Janet Lewis, head of Macquarie Securities industrials research team in Hong Kong.

The damage that Baojun and other joint ventures’ indigenous brands, such as Nissan and Dongfeng Motors’ Venucia, are inflicting on Chinese car companies could explain why the government does not appear to be putting much pressure on multinationals who have only done the bare minimum.

BMW’s joint venture with Brilliance Auto “rebadged” the German company’s X1 and electrified it for China’s anaemic new energy vehicle market – thus avoiding confusion with its better selling conventional cars – while Ford has yet to reveal its local contribution to the market.

“Zinoro is a brand of our joint venture here in China,” Karsten Engel, BMW’s country head, said at the Beijing car show. “It’s a brand only for China. It’s based a little bit on the BMW X1.”

BMW chose not to display the Zinoro at the show, instead highlighting its premium i3 electric car. “BMW’s i3 could generate interest in China,” said Bill Russo, founder of industry consultancy Synergistics. “Zinoro doesn’t have the brand panache. Even if it’s an X1 [customers] want to be able to call it what it is.”

The Chinese government’s indigenous brand requirement is particularly challenging for Ford as it runs counter to outgoing chief executive Alan Mulally’s “one Ford” strategy, under which the company jettisoned brands such as Jaguar Land Rover and Volvo Cars to focus on a narrower portfolio.

“We were trying to be world class at so many things,” said Mr Mulally, adding that the strategy was in keeping with the vision of the company’s eponymous founder. “Henry [Ford] wanted to be part of the fabric of economic development in every country in which he operated but he didn’t know that Ford would have a different Ford in every country.”

John Lawler, the head of Ford’s China operations, insisted that the US automaker is in compliance with Chinese government policy mandates, even though it still has not rolled out an indigenous brand.

“We’re satisfying all the requirements from the government but at this point there really isn’t anything for us to announce relative to an indigenous brand or anything along those lines,” said Mr Lawler.

Additional reporting by Wan Li

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