There’s genius in simplicity

Ben Walker discovers the signs of life

Few things divide East and West more than the disparity in the recognition of our business heroes. 

Twice now I’ve been humbled by the sheer scale of Chinese people’s patriotic enthusiasm for their business leaders – first at the British Museum in London, when I found myself holding back the crowds determined to get a glimpse of my publisher’s one-time client Wang Jianlin, the Wanda boss; latterly at University College London (UCL), where scores of ultra-bright young things of Chinese origin eagerly packed a lecture theatre for Sam Hua to share his wisdom. 

Neither Wang nor Hua are household names in the West: both are huge out East. Hua and his younger brother Nan combine to make Hua&Hua, the marketing and branding agency that has transformed the fortunes of some of the biggest brands in China.

On that warm autumn night at UCL, Hua talked – in English, practised over 20 hours of private rehearsal – about his ethos, as outlined superbly in his latest book Super Signs

There was some of the customary marketing credo, of course: repetition is good, maintain message discipline, keep it simple. Yet in this last mantra the Hua brothers have something quite special: the concept of a super sign.

Super signs say something profound and convene a multitude of ideas in a single icon. Britishness is boiled down into a red bus or post box. Francophilia is awakened by wooden shutters. Super signs can be remarkably mundane: pedestrian crossings saying ‘Walk/Don’t Walk’ channel the dynamic essence of urban America. 

In a particularly brilliant campaign, the two Messrs Hua reinvigorated the soy sauce brand Chubang by plastering all its labelling and merchandise with the green chequered pattern found on restaurant tablecloths across China. 

The imagery provided an instant, visceral recall of good times, good food, and good company. “It even caused some consumers to salivate,” Hua told the UCL audience. 

Certainly, it whetted the appetite: the book left me wondering how many more super signs are lurking about our lives, just waiting for clever marketers to sniff them out. 

The keys to commercial success are often right under your nose. 

––– Ben Walker is editor-at-large of Dialogue