American consumers seem to see "Made in China" wherever they go. The United States imported $141.8 billion worth of goods from China in the year to August, almost twice as much as five years earlier. From toys to T-shirts and industrial components most Americans never see, Chinese imports seem to be flooding U.S. markets.
Despite the boom in sales, at home as well as abroad, Chinese manufacturers aren't necessarily seeing a commensurate rise in profit.They make many low-end goods in fiercely competitive markets. Take apparel, a leading export industry. Profit growth was flat in 2002, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, even though output increased by 15% and export sales rose 16%.
This is why smart Chinese manufacturers are turning their attention to building their brands as a way to raise margins--and getting a hefty shove from their government to do so. The companies know they have to gun for the extra profits that a distinctive name brings. The government knows that is the way to drive the companies up the product quality ladder.
Only a handful of Chinese companies now have much in the way of international brand equity. Top of the list is Haier Group, China's most valuable brand overall, according to our list, compiled with the assistance of Beijing Famous Brand Evaluation, a Chinese marketing company; Access Asia, a London-based market research firm; and Chen Gang, an independent brand evaluator in China.
Since 1984, Haier has turned itself from a near bankrupt refrigerator factory into China's largest--and the world's fifth largest--household appliances maker on the back of China's booming economy and an acquisitions binge. In the United States, it already sells 250 models of home appliances, from dishwashers to microwaves, in big retailers like Wal-Mart (nyse: WMT - news - people ) and Costco (nasdaq: COST - news - people ) and more than 1,000 appliance dealers. It has been manufacturing in the United States since 2000 and builds models specifically for the U.S. market.
We divide our list into three. Part one is the top five consumer brands. The second past is the top five industrial brands. The third is five brands to watch. The companies in this last set don't have much of a global presence yet, but don't bet against them getting it.
"I believe Chinese brands can follow the steps of Samsung or Sony. Many Chinese brands have the potential [to go global] but it is all up to how they manage the branding process," says Jan Lindemann, director of brand valuation at Interbrand, a marketing company. China's largest PC maker, Legend, for example, changed its brand name to Lenovo, as its original name turned out to be already registered in many foreign markets.
Building global brands is more competitive and demands more rigorous management than when Japanese and then South Korean companies undertook the challenge at comparative levels of their country's economic development. But the 2008 Olympic Games, which will be held in Beijing, will offer those Chinese companies that are ready tremendous global media exposure for their brands. We suspect by then that most if not all the 15 companies on our list will be household names to consumers in the United States and around the world.