For many years, China has sought to wield the sort of “soft power” that comes naturally to many other developed nations: power not from military or economic might, but from having ideas and cultural exports that are popular in other countries. China has no shortage of ideas or culture, but few people outside China are interested in either, with the notable exception of Chinese food.
Most people outside China can’t name a single Chinese brand. Not one Chinese brand! It’s sad, but perhaps not that surprising. I’ve seen a range of explanations, usually some variation on the following: China doesn’t understand foreign markets; China doesn’t care about foreign markets; China can only copy products, not create them; and China’s authoritarian government stifles creativity. All of these explanations have some element of truth, but aren’t the whole truth. And though China hasn’t broken through on the world stage yet, to many observers it’s only a matter of time.
In fact, it may have already happened. The hottest thing in popular music is the app musical.ly, which allows users to create and share a 15-second video of them lip-syncing to a popular song. As a recent Rolling Stone headline put it, musical.ly has become “too big for pop to ignore,” and it is not only a way for existing pop stars to connect with their fans but also a platform for new stars to emerge. The app has more than 133 million users worldwide, is massively popular in the US (the company claims half of all US teens are users), and is a serious rival to Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram. And it is 100% Chinese, developed in Shanghai by two Chinese programmers who returned to China after working in California.
Did the founders of musical.ly crack the code, or just get lucky? It’s too early to tell, but thus far the one place where musical.ly has launched and failed to catch on is … wait for it … China. Meanwhile, do the millions of American teens using musical.ly know it’s a Chinese app? Do they even care? My guess is that very few know, and even fewer care. And that’s just the way China should want it. Only when Chinese products are accepted on their own merits can they form the basis for soft power.
Meanwhile, musical.ly waited until September of last year to file for trademark protection in China, which is about two years too late considering that the app was launched in 2014. Luckily for them, no trademark squatters filed in the interim; a bit shocking to me, but perhaps that’s the upside of not being successful in China. I’m not sure if it’s gratifying or discouraging to see Chinese firms make the same mistakes as foreign firms when it comes to trademarks in China, but I’m leaning toward the latter. Especially when the Chinese firms are backed by VC money and represented by multinational law firms. What are they thinking?