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Going Global with a Chinese Brand

Volume 2, 2019

By Michael Thede

 

When vivo Senior Director for Brand Strategy and CEIBS alumnus Seon Hwang moved to Shanghai from his native Korea to do an MBA in 2010, he did so with his mid-to-long term sights set on developing his career in China by helping a Chinese company go global. Two years later, however, as he and the rest of his class were graduating, the types of roles Seon had envisioned himself filling in China still didn’t really exist in any great number.

“At the time, there weren’t many opportunities for foreigners to work for a globalising Chinese company. Instead, I got several offers, all from non-Chinese companies, including three from Korea,” Seon recalls. “They were good positions, but I rejected most of them because there was no reason for me to go back to Korea or work for a Korean company. In the end, I chose to take a position with BMW Group China.”

During his time at BMW, Seon developed his real-world knowledge of the Chinese market and established a proven track record in sales and marketing. But, he also continued to hold onto his aspiration of going global with a Chinese company. Looking back now, he says he realises that he was really just ahead of the curve – if only just.

The period that followed proved to be a major watershed for Chinese brands going global, with names such as Alibaba, Huawei, Lenovo, and DJI all staking out spots on the world map. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 2017 that Seon finally received his first serious recruiting call from a Chinese company, in the form of Guangdong-based smartphone manufacturer vivo. “vivo’s ambition to become an even bigger smartphone player in China and the world is growing and they were looking for someone with sufficient experience and understanding of branding and strategy who was also equipped with knowledge of both Chinese and global business and culture,” he explains. “Their HR department contacted me directly and asked me if I’d consider working for them. I'm quite a big fan of smartphones and other gadgets. So, in the end, they were able to convince me to join them.”

Since joining vivo, Seon says he has found a good fit with the organization’s culture and he now leads a team responsible for, among other things, the company’s overall brand strategy, product positioning, and corporate identity. As such, he plays a pivotal role for a brand which has established itself as China’s number two smartphone company by appealing primarily to younger customers. Despite vivo’s success, he says the company’s leadership still looks to him to continue upgrading and improving the way things are done.

“As a foreigner working at a Chinese company, what the company needs from me is systematic thinking, logic, and processes,” he states. “So, I contribute a lot with product positioning, brand strategy, and setting the rules we apply when we promote our products, in order to ensure we grow our influence. These are things they want to learn.”

To put things into perspective, when Seon arrived at CEIBS, vivo was only one year old. And, while its parent company, BuBuGao Electronics, was established in 1995, by Western standards its history spans a comparatively short period of time. On the upside, Seon says that being on the leading edge of a young organisation’s global aspirations has put him in a position where he is closer to many of the company’s biggest decision-makers.

“The distance to top management is really small and I often report directly to the CEO and the company’s board members,” Seon says. “At the same time, relative to other industries, the Chinese tech and communications industries are quite new. So companies like vivo are very open-minded, very straightforward, and very fast-moving.”
Seon’s time at vivo has taken him into some pretty exciting territory, including helping the company tap into more overseas markets and negotiating major sponsorship deals with organisations such as FIFA and the NBA. And, while it is clear he made the right decision in joining vivo, he admits that when he was first approached by the company, he still had to overcome certain apprehensions about finally going to work for a Chinese employer.

“A lot of foreigners, when they get a job offer from a Chinese company, worry about the corporate culture, that the company may be very conservative, or that only Chinese employees can survive there,” he says. “But, it's really case-by-case and every company has a different culture and different values. Also, for non-Chinese students, it’s really important that they learn the language here, as it’s the best way to understand Chinese history, culture, and ideas.”

Whether intentionally or not, Seon and his team are now playing an important role in educating others about what it is like working with Chinese companies by creating opportunities to welcome students into their workplace to see first-hand how the company operates — something nearly 50 CEIBS MBA students did as part of their China module in Shenzhen earlier this year. 

“We invite them to our vivo Innovation Lab concept store, for example, and introduce them to our brand, the products, the experience, and the brand culture,” Seon explains. “They might want to come and work with us in the future, but they don't have any connections here or they didn't really have an understanding of vivo — so this is kind of the first step.”

In 2018, Seon led a vivo campus recruitment event at CEIBS aimed at hiring global talent and, to date, he has already hired five CEIBS graduates for his team. He also recently represented vivo at INNOVATEChina 2019, serving as a judge for the CEIBS MBA student-organised business proposal competition. And while he agrees that initiatives like these do a lot to close the gap between potential employers and up-and-coming talent, he strongly suggests that MBAs who truly want to work with Chinese companies do everything they can to leverage the school’s alumni network.

“When I was a student, I was always looking for alumni. I’d send them emails and say, ‘I would like to have a chat, let’s have coffee’, because I really wanted to work in China,” he says. “If you're looking for an opportunity with a Chinese company, contact alumni and do research. If students want to come to vivo, they can call me and have a brief chat and ask me about the culture and life here.”

Ultimately, Seon says he sees some important parallels between CEIBS and vivo and that he hopes to see more opportunities for both brands to grow together in the future.

“CEIBS is a global top-tier school and it’s doing very well, but the school's brand recognition is still somewhat limited in many countries, so the situation is quite similar to vivo’s,” he concludes. “The school is also trying to go global, and I hope that in the future more people will learn about CEIBS. This is something that I really want to see.”