Centaur or Celestial Horse? Cultural Confusion in Brand Imagery

By Timm Sweeny

President, SIL Group

Regardless of where they are from, the city or the countryside, few Chinese are indifferent to cognac. China ranked 8 out of 153 countries in cognac in 2002 and China could become the next big market for cognac houses. Cognac still reflects wealth in China. There are other Chinese alcoholic beverages that are just expensive as cognac, but Chinese consumers still prefer cognac, especially as gifts, because of its long presence in China. When they think about a refined and elegant imported product, they always think of cognac. In the most luxurious hotels, restaurants and bars in most Chinese cities, renowned cognac brands such as Rémy Martin, Martell, and Hennessy are well-represented. VSOP (very special old pale) or XO (extra old) are also letters that appear often on the wine lists of such establishments.

Emile-Rémy Martin chose a particular centaur, Chiron, as the icon and lasting emblem of Rémy Martin Fine Cognacs. Over more than 150 years, this divine influence has gradually revealed the significance of its adoption, for Chiron is a friend of man and the wisest of all centaurs. It is a measure of Chiron’s success that in the Far East, millions of people do not ask for a Rémy Martin cognac but for a glass of “man-headed horse.” In Chinese, of course!

Recent work in the spirits category among overseas Chinese living in the USA showed that not only do the Chinese have an above average consumption of fine cognac, but that Rémy Martin is the brand of choice. Fine cognac is the preferred drink for public consumption because it conveys high status. This is due to both its cost, and its reputation as a refined drink for a cultured individual.

Rémy Martin in particular has an iconic status as the brand of choice for those seeking such status. During a series of focus groups in the US, this phenomenon was explored to better understand the depth of such brand loyalty. Much to our surprise, we discovered that it was the centaur used in the Rémy Martin logo that accounted for much of the appeal of the brand. When probed on this, it came out that Chinese consumers like the fact that Rémy Martin would use a symbol “from Chinese mythology.”

It seems that these consumers, being unfamiliar with Greek mythology assumed that the centaur was in fact a reference to the Celestial Horse of Chinese mythology, and that Rémy Martin used it to attract Chinese consumers (since “everyone knows” that Rémy Martin is the brand of choice among Chinese). Such ethnocentrism was particularly revealing, in that Chinese consumers assume a French brandy company would use a Chinese mythological creature simply to appeal to them. But this confusion was not necessarily a negative. In fact, our recommendation was that, whatever changes might be indicated in labeling and packaging (the subject of the study), the centaur should be even more prominent when marketing to Chinese.

Timm Sweeney is President of SIL Group USA. The company conducts business out of their Tampa, Florida offices; however SIL Group has had an international presence in the world of marketing research since 1983. You can learn more about SIL Group USA at www.silgroup.net.

Sources:

Euro Biz

Rémy Martin

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Information Influences Perception

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