03 June 2013

The Selfdestructive Chinese Wine Market

One aspect of modern China that is overlooked to the detriment of anybody who wants to understand where the PRC is headed is shanzhai culture. One can describe shanzhai culture as a counterfeit industry that makes replicas of branded products with varying degrees of credibility. While counterfeiting is a fact of life in any industrialized marketplace, it's the extent that it has captured the Chinese business model and the range of brand name products that are considered worthwhile for replicating.
The presence of Shanzhai wines in the PRC gets a regular amount of press coverage because so much of the market is international and international wines sellers with well established businesses don't enjoy having their reputation expropriated by shanzhai wine merchants simply for trying to sell their products to Chinese mainlanders, who are by the by learning how to drink other than baijiu, sorghum based brews, or watery beers .  The economic damage done to domestic wineries has not even slowed down this trend. When the Chinese media publishes about criminal activity, it becomes clear just how undeniable and destructive this has become domestically.
So shanzhai culture is here to stay and only getting more daring.
I came across this mural in the Nanjing subway system. It and similar advertisements have been on display for a few weeks, to the best of my recollection, and are featured in more than one station.I had passed by them several times as I do with most advertising, but this one caught my eye because it almost seemed like a parody. The brand name, Wine, is featured one the label in a decorative script. How better to call a foreign product than with a foreign name, right? Looking closer, (which might be hard to do with this photo. It was illuminated from behind.) I saw that this was a "Day Red Wine".  This kind of spelling mistake appears everywhere in China (spellchecker rules!) and for all the average Chinese consumer knows, some foreign wines are for day drinking and others, for night drinking.
It must have dawned on some fast thinking member of the marketing team that labelling a wine with the name, Wine, was not an effective branding strategy, and after all shanzhai culture is all about brand awareness. You can ask any young office lady about why she owns a shanzhai YSL or LV handbag for confirmation. This explains why some bottles were updated with Penfolds Grange on the label. Penfolds has become quite successful on the mainland so by spelling the name correctly, the shanzhai salesman were paying a very sincere form of flattery. For those Chinese winedrinkers who might not have heard about this Australian brand yet, the marketing team decided to include something that all Chinese know to be true about wines: the very best and most expensive are from French and "Produce of France" is, therefore, also printed on the labels.
Based on the dates from the above linked article about the crackdown of the shanzhai wine operations in Guangzhou, I think it is safe to conclude that those same operations were simply relocated farther from the coast. The 2010 date of that article also helps to explains why these labels still have 2009 printed on them. The advertisements might even be the same as seen in the tradeshows mentioned in the piece.
I've not seen this wine on sale yet in Nanjing. I avoid buying any wines from the many wineshops around the city which usually put their bottles behind the plate glass windows. The faded labels indicate how long they have been on sale in the bright Nanjing sunshine.  Given the considerable sum spent on this marketing campaign, I think that this wine, Wine, will be on sale in Nanjing until local authorities are compelled to shut it down, which says all one needs to know as to how little a priority enforcing copyright is and how entrenched Shanzhai culture is in China, WTO or not.

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