The arresting new Sunrise Kempinski Hotel sits at the heart of the 14-square-kilometre resort grounds composed as the setting for the world's Pacific region leaders. Perched next to a pretty lake that is a 90-minute drive from downtown Beijing, the area has been built with golf courses, hiking paths, presidential villas, a convention centre and boats to cruise the nearby lake. There's even something for the delegate with an adventurous palate – or an Instagram account: the nearby "Donkey Meat Restaurant."The hotel itself is a 21-storey glass scallop whose rising-sun design shimmers at night in the glow of hydro-powered LED lights.
When presidents and prime ministers gather here for next week's Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit, this will likely form the backdrop to their "family photo" sessions. The image will be as symbolic as it will be architectural. As the Kempinski marketing materials put it, "It can now be said that the sun rises in the east in more ways than one."
The main APEC agenda will see leaders discuss infrastructure, graft and international supply-chain "connectivity." But its real value to nations like China is visible on the massive posters that already adorn Beijing and line the new elevated freeway that was built to the resort grounds, a careful and deliberate distillation of a soft-hands marketing pitch China is making to the world. "Co-operation win-win prosperity development," reads one. "Enhance people's friendship, further international co-operation, safeguard world peace and promote common development," reads another.
Six years after the spectacle of its summer Olympics, the APEC meetings are for China another chance to burnish a brand that, more than ever, is in need of a boost. Recent years have seen Beijing wage aggressive campaigns against Western businesses, eliciting charges that it is engaged in rank protectionism. It has used oil rigs and ground troops to push out its borders on land and sea, angering neighbours. Even in African countries, where its companies have built lengthy new networks of road and rail, a majority holds negative views on Chinese business people, products, social responsibility and employment practices.
"In many respects, they're going the wrong direction," said David Aaker, the vice-chairman of Prophet Brand Strategy. "With their territorial ambitions, which are a bit puzzling, they're putting a lot of their brand equity into really minor islands here and there." And, he added, "they're building submarines and sounding war-like. I don't think that helps."
APEC in some ways offers the perfect antidote to that, by giving China a chance to place President Xi Jinping at the centre of a collection of widely disparate nations, looking the part of a global consensus maker. It's in a similar vein to China's establishment of the recently launched Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which will see Beijing co-ordinate with other nations to direct funds it might otherwise have spent on its own.
China is "trying to reset the message a little bit in terms of how they're perceived by the world," said Benjamin Cavender, a principal with market strategy firm China Market Research Group.
"It is absolutely in their best interests to say we want to be part of a team, we want everyone to rise up …." APEC is good for that, the infrastructure investment bank is good for that. Because it shows them trying to be co-operative and create dialogue There is, he said, an element of stagecraft to the strategy. Convince others that you're on their side, and it becomes easier to do deals and win trust. "They understand that PR is a major tool in helping China to get the benefits they want from other countries," he said.
China faces a new economic imperative to do so as well. Growth inside its own borders is slowing, forcing companies to look outside for sales. Imports are falling, as is the producer price index, a measure of factory sales health. As domestic buyers dry up, entire steel plants are exporting their output. China finds itself suddenly in greater need of the outside world.
At the same time, it is a country in change. It is possessed of an increasingly skilled talent base, more discerning consumers, hefty investments in clean technology and ever-bigger urban populations. These are "presenting a totally different picture of what Brand China really is today," said Kathy Bloomgarden, co-chief executive officer of Ruder Finn, a powerful private public relations agency that was an early entrant to China. Even its manufacturing industries are seeking new ways to pursue innovation, chasing a "designed in China" stamp over merely "made in China." (The lead designers on the Sunrise Kempinski hotel are Chinese.)
APEC presents a gift-wrapped chance to sell that story. "It is an opportunity, with so many people that are coming together that are critical to making a difference in the economy," she said.
The summit is, at the same time, as likely to highlight the inverse: How poorly China tends to promote itself. Virtually none of its domestic corporate brands have achieved repute outside China – the exceptions, like Lenovo and Volvo, were foreign companies first. That branding underachievement is visible on the national level, too. Others, like India and Thailand – even the U.S. – pour money into advertising abroad. China does very little.
The Communist Party is a top-down structure with little interest in consumer persuasion. "There's no real unified point of view of what the China brand is. What China feels very powerfully about is projecting its power, so that nobody takes advantage of it," said Tom Doctoroff, Asia CEO for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. He recently authored Twitter is Not a Strategy, which examines how to build brands.
For a domestic audience, APEC serves that goal particularly well: As Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin arrive, state media will be filled with images of world leaders coming to China, creating an image of Chinese authority.
But Mr. Doctoroff holds little hope that China will successfully use APEC to alter many outside opinions. The country's leadership simply isn't wired to seize these sorts of opportunities, he said. "Every country should control the image that it has abroad," he said. "And there's a lot to work with in China. But it's never going to happen."