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Tracking the ‘Minnesota’ brand in China

Kevin Garnett visiting the Mu Tian Yu section of the Great Wall
REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV
Kevin Garnett visiting the Mu Tian Yu section of the Great Wall of China in 2006.

SHANGHAI — As Howe Yun and I stroll through Minnesota Rubber & Plastics’ modern manufacturing plant in Suzhou, I ask whether he thinks “Minnesota” is a brand with much recognition in China. Yun, a native of Shanxi Province, brightens. “For me, before I ever knew this company, when I hear ‘Minnesota’ I think of the Timberwolves and KG!”

The NBA, in fact, has been wildly popular in China for a decade. Back when Kevin Garnett was playing for the team, the words “Minny-so-da” and “KG” were typically uttered together. I heard it all of the time.

Today, unfortunately, the Minnesota brand has fallen off a bit. On Sina Weibo, China’s 200-million member answer to Twitter (sort of), a search for Minnesota (明尼苏达州) brings up some daily results (Minnetonka Moccasin has an account) but nothing that indicates a brand or fixed identity.

Paul Swenson, the Minnesota trade representative in Shanghai, acknowledges that branding Minnesota is both difficult and essential among government officials and other economic decision-makers in China. In his opinion, that process began in earnest during Gov. Jesse Ventura’s trade mission in 2001.

“There wasn’t a very well-defined brand at that point,” he said. “But a lot of the messages – we aren’t just an ag state, we’re also a high-tech state – started to come through.”

Swenson said the Minnesota “brand” among decision makers in China really didn’t mature, however, until Gov. Tim Pawlenty launched his Minnesota-China Partnership in 2005. Though it certainly isn’t known by the average Chinese with no interest in international trade, it has become well-known among policymakers who attend trade fairs and other opportunities for Minnesota and its businesses to make an impression.

Meanwhile, Howe Yun remains fixed in his opinion that professional sports are an essential means of marketing a city and region. “For me, many of the U.S. cities I knew before I went there were from watching the NBA,” he tells me.

“Did you know there was a big stadium debate in Minnesota recently?”

“It’s essential to have,” he answered. “Essential marketing for Minnesota.”

Gov. Mark Dayton, no doubt, agrees.

Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for Bloomberg World View.

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