Monday, March 21, 2011

Creating 'Chinese' brands now 'part of the deal' for foreign automakers

Last December I wrote about a trend among Chinese-foreign automotive joint ventures in which the foreign partner gives technology to the JV to sell under a Chinese brand. Some of the English language China auto blogs refer to these as "sub-brands."

For example, Honda contributed the design of an outdated City vehicle it no longer makes to its JV with Guangzhou Auto. The JV now sells it under the Chinese brand Linian.

At the time I noticed this trend among several automakers (Guangzhou Honda, Dongfeng Nissan, Shanghai-GM), my assumption was that this was an attempt on the part of the Chinese automakers to wean Chinese consumers away from foreign brands. Chinese consumers still overwhelmingly prefer foreign brands (if they can afford them), because they perceive them to have higher quality.

Now several other foreign automakers including Volkswagen and PSA Peugeot-Citroen are discussing similar arrangements with their Chinese partners. PSA Peugeot-Citroen's CEO told the Financial Times that helping their partner to develop a local brand is now "part of the deal".

Last December I speculated that this may have been under central government coordination, but I had no evidence of that. Today, evidence seems to have surfaced in this report from the Financial Times.

The story quotes Mike Dunne, formerly of JD Power in China, who now has his own consulting company:
Nothing is written down, but when automakers go to apply for capacity expansion, in their application it’s clear that they should have a plan for an indigenous brand with jointly owned product rights and some provision for new energy vehicles. Foreigners want more capacity; China is saying: ‘We want more own brands’.
Back in 2001, when China joined the WTO, they gave up the right to demand technology transfer as a condition for approval of foreign investment. Of course, this new rule did nothing to change China's appetite for foreign technology.

The new demand, rather than for "technology transfer", appears to be: if you want to expand capacity, then X% needs to be devoted to Chinese-branded cars.

The foreign automakers now have a choice. They can pour precious R&D money into joint development of cars that compete directly with their own, or they can just hand over technology they already have.

The technology the foreigners are now handing over may be slightly outdated, so the foreigners aren't being forced to hand over their latest and greatest innovations. But again, it seems to me that these foreign-designed, Chinese-branded cars that the central government is now forcing the JVs to sell will fill the perceived quality gap between Chinese- and foreign-branded cars.

China's central government fully intends that its largest state-owned automakers will be global contenders, and they are patiently finding ways to make that happen. The WTO will not stand in the way. Wherever there's a rule, there's a way around it.