Never Heard of Metersbonwe? Well, You Will Soon

The global ambitions of a Chinese retailer will test China’s ability to build brands

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You’ve probably never heard of Metersbonwe, but in China, it is impossible not to know the casualwear brand. With about 5,000 outlets in the country, most of them under the Metersbonwe name, the Shanghai-based clothing retailer is just as omnipresent in the Middle Kingdom as the Gap is in America. Now the company’s founder, former tailor Zhou Chengjian, plans to go global, pledging to open stores in New York, Tokyo and London over the next three years. Zhou’s goal, he says, is to ensure that Metersbonwe has a “leading position for a mass-market brand” around the world.

That would be an important step, not just for Zhou, but also for China. Though the Chinese manufacture a lot of stuff, only a couple of firms — PC giant Lenovo, appliance maker Haier — have internationally recognized consumer brands. Those bold enough to try have often struggled. Chinese sportswear maker Li Ning, for example, spent heavily to promote its brand to challenge behemoths Nike and Adidas, even hiring NBA superstar Dwyane Wade to market sneakers. But the Beijing firm has so far failed to woo international shoppers, and is even losing ground in its home market.

Yet China badly needs brands in order to compete. With wages rising, Chinese companies are rapidly losing their low-cost edge over their Western competition, and in order to battle it out head-to-head with the U.S. and other advanced economies, brand power will prove critical. Building brands, however, won’t be easy. The management of Chinese companies is simply not experienced in the field.

P.T. Black, a consumer strategist in Shanghai says Chinese executives are too fixated on production, and not enough on their customers, to make progress on branding. “There is a general weakness in what I call the humanities — an honest, committed interest in other people,” he says. “If you don’t consider your customer as the reason for doing things, you’re in trouble when building a brand.”

Zhou agrees. “The reason why the Chinese brand is not very visible is that we’ve focused only on the product,” he says. “It takes a lot to make sure a Chinese brand can be recognized in the international market. It means we are competing in the Olympic games and the way to play has to change. We have to prepare ourselves to make sure we are good at our game at all levels.”

Zhou hasn’t yet tackled the fact that his brand name sounds perfectly good in Chinese (mei-ti-si-bang-wei would be the phonetic rendering) but causes many to stumble in English. But he intends to learn from his compatriots’ mistakes, which means proceeding at an honest pace. He has taken stabs at introducing his company to a global audience — placing a Metersbonwe T-shirt on Shia LaBeouf’s character in the last Transformers movie, for instance — but also fears his brand isn’t yet strong enough to compete on a global scale.

“Having money and being audacious doesn’t make you ready to compete in the international market,” Zhou says. Now he is experimenting now with refashioning his brand from simply a label on basic clothes to a name that encapsulates a lifestyle steeped in Chinese tradition.

To promote the new image, Metersbonwe is launching a chain of redesigned flagship stores around the country — one, in Hangzhou, has been crafted to look like an old Chinese train station. After honing the concept in China, Zhou plans to take the idea overseas – using Chinese culture to give his brand a special place in the international market.

“We have to offer something more: The unique way of life of the Chinese people,” Zhou says. “By combining a Chinese way of life with international methods, we can be competitive.” Zhou believes such a strategy could help other Chinese firms build global brands. “If we pay more attention to culture and be more innovative, then Chinese brands will become widely chased by international consumers,” he says.

In this way, Zhou is trying to follow in the footsteps of Japan’s Uniqlo, which has made a splash in the U.S. by mixing Japanese cool with global appeal. But Zhou may have a more difficult time. While Japanese products are famous for their quality, Chinese wares suffer from a reputation (only partially deserved) for being shoddy and unreliable, tarnishing the image of China’s brands. Even at home, Metersbonwe and other Chinese retailers are being seriously tested in major cities by rapidly expanding foreign competitors like Zara and H&M.

Says Zhou: “Chinese people look up to the international brands because they think they are better than the local brands.” Until Zhou can convince his own consumers to choose his brand, expecting New Yorkers or Londoners to do so may be a hard sell.