Whether in the market for a rice-cooker, a winter jacket or an automobile, many Chinese shoppers will invariably buy foreign-branded goods over domestic equivalents if they can afford it.
Two Dutchmen have made a different decision though. Last year, Rogier Bikker, a marketer, and Maren Striker, an urban designer, took a three-month 20,000-kilometer journey from Shanghai to Rotterdam using only made-in-China products along the way.
The two men have each spent over five years in China. During their time here, they say they’ve witnessed the country transforming from being the world’s factory floor into a place with creative people and innovative companies.
“If you read a lot of foreign media, it’s often negative about China — except the economy. We wanted to show a positive side of the country and tell the world that not just foreign brands can make it to the other side of the world,” Bikker, who speaks some basic Chinese, tells Shanghai Daily.
Bikker and Striker, both in their late 20s, left Shanghai on July 26 on an overland journey spanning 12 countries. For their trip they dressed in Chinese clothes down to their underwear, drove a BYD car, slept in an Ozark tent, used a Huawei smartphone and an AEE digital camera.
These and other items were all provided by sponsors. They marketed their trip as an opportunity to demonstrate the quality and reliability of Chinese-branded goods.
In 2010, Bikker spent two weeks driving through China on a road trip. He says that it was on the dusty roads of rural Shaanxi Province that the idea of driving to Holland was first conceived.
“My friends and family regarded the idea as too crazy to happen, so the dream remained just that — a dream,” he says.
It was not forgotten, however. It merely lay dormant for two years, until Bikker met Striker at a bar in Shanghai. The two fellow countrymen hit it off and after a few drinks, Bikker was sharing his travel fantasy.
This time, he found a more receptive audience.
It wasn’t long before the pair decided to quit their jobs, pool their savings and start planning.
“You don’t need to have a Landrover or Jeep. You can drive in a BYD and still make it,” says Bikker at a café in downtown Shanghai.
As far as he is concerned, some Chinese brands can match foreign brands in terms of quality. The difference, as he sees it, is that most international brands have a higher profile. “They probably come from the same factory though,” he adds.
Bikker jests that before the trip his friends suggested he sell the BYD and buy a Volkswagen as soon as they reached Wuhan, a city known for its auto industry in central China’s Hubei Province.
But despite popular perceptions about Chinese craftsmanship and product quality, the pair say none of their items broke during the trip.
“Now (Chinese manufacturers) are starting to build their own brands. What I think Chinese brand should do is stop hiding that they are Chinese,” he adds.
Bikker’s remarks elude to the fact that many Chinese companies attempt to pass off their products as foreign-made or otherwise obscure their origins for marketing reasons.
“It’s now 2015 and it’s about time that Chinese brands start being proud of being Chinese,” he says.
While Bikker is certainly not shy about his admiration for local companies, the BYD driven by him and Striker succeeded in giving their sponsors plenty of exposure as well. Their logos and paint scheme attracted much attention from passersby. Many people came to talk to the two foreigners, who were always glad to introduce their journey.
In some ways, foreigners are maybe easier for Chinese brands to win over than Chinese people, according to Bikker.
In China, he says, many people have already built up negative perceptions over long periods of time, while overseas consumers may have more neutral views. Outside of China, many of the country’s most well-known brands are virtually unknown.
The Dutch duo divided their journey into three parts, allowing one month of travel time in China, the rest of Asia and Europe respectively.
Along the way, they had many adventures and met a lot of interesting people. In the high altitudes of west China’s Sichuan Province, they rode horses and stayed with local herders. In Tehran, Iran, they were invited into the homes of local families, where they talked to women without veils.
“Three months passed too fast,” Bikker recalls.
As the first foreigners to drive out of China in a car with a Chinese license plate, their biggest worry was dealing with border guards going into Kazakhstan.
“When we reached the border, we had to talk to a lot of people and nobody understood why we were there. And then we met a decision maker. It was a woman. We told her our story, she got super excited about it. She really wanted to support us and of course we got to continue our trip,” he says.
The day they arrived in Holland, Bikker got a message on WeChat from the woman. She remembered it was the last day of their itinerary and wanted to know if they had arrived safe and sound.
“It was quite special for a government border inspector in China to do that. So I think that is a symbol again of China changing. (Before) they would probably have a ‘no way’ attitude, but now they say ‘sure, that’s a cool project, let’s do it’!”