For those of you involved in marketing, branding and communications of food and beverages in China, I know that you’ve been in for one wild and crazy ride. On the one hand, there’s the glittering prize to potentially reach a marketplace of billions and on the other hand, you need to deal with consumers reeling from a series of bizarre food scandals. From the national milk scandals of 2008, down to the gutter-oil con games of 2010, and rising back up to last year’s mysterious floating pigs in Shanghai, to say it’s been a challenging few years is an understatement.
Food safety issues aside, there’s also inherent complexities of marketing in China. Because China’s long food history is intertwined with highly distinct regional flavours and cultures, it can be quite a task for brands to reach broad appeal of their products with such distinct geographic preferences. Just watch one episode of CCTV’s famous 舌尖上的中国 (Taste of China) food documentary series and you’ll see how varied taste and preferences are in China. Given these complexities in regional tastes and the challenges in regaining the consumers’ trust in food safety, how can a brand effectively cut through the competition and become successful in China?
Here are the top five insights to help you better market your product in China:
Promote natural choices
The importance of living a healthier lifestyle will have a greater influence in purchase decision-making of food and beverages this year. 41 per cent of Chinese consumers say they are paying the greatest attention to additives when making a wellness choice, ranking it as their number one concern ahead of fat (30 per cent) and salt content (13 per cent). Consequently, our research reflects this sentiment with consumers stating that products in season (65 per cent) and local produce (55 per cent) are important motivators when buying groceries. Over 55 per cent of consumers surveyed stated that they buy organic foods very often or always do. This is especially pronounced for products targeted at moms, where over 62 per cent say they inspect labels for additives and ingredients prior to purchasing. The bottom line here is that if your product contains natural, organic or other beneficial ingredients it’s best to not only promote this on regular communication channels but also on the front and backside labels of the product.
Don’t forget about e-commerce
As e-commerce shopping continues to gain popularity among consumers in China, brands that might have previously relied solely on traditional retail channels should consider strategies to promote and sell their products online. The products most often bought online are non-perishable snacks, such as cookies and chips, with four in five shoppers (80 per cent) saying that they buy them online. However, the market size for perishable items is not far behind with nearly half (47 per cent) choosing to buy dairy products online. For foreign products, there are several specialty websites geared towards import foods such as tootoo.cn and yiguo.com that can be used to reach special niche audiences. Thus, selling products on e-commerce websites can be a great strategy not to just increase breadth of availability but also to further lend credibility for brands and drive more offline retail.
The star power of celebs and key opinion leaders (KOLs)
Although not every brand in China will be able to recruit an A-List celebrity to become their ambassador, the importance of influencer advocacy needs to rank high when building a marketing strategy. The popularity of advocates remains extremely strong among Chinese consumers with nearly three out of four survey respondents (73 per cent) saying they are more likely to buy a product or visit a restaurant endorsed by a celebrity, spokesperson or other advocate such as a KOL. Over half (56 per cent) of survey respondents say these endorsements influence them to purchase food products or visit restaurants two to three times or more, per month.
Bolster food safety claims through alternative methods
As food safety issues continue to be on the top of mind for Chinese consumers, shoppers are seeking multiple sources of information for their purchasing decisions. For foreign food manufacturers, the good news is that origination is at the top of the list with 84 per cent saying that origin is extremely important in choosing food products however conversations on social media reveal that there are also some suspicions about authenticity. Therefore ensuring the safety of import channels is equally as important as promoting the safety at the source. Secondly, government agency inspection approval was also considered important with more than half (56 per cent) relying on government inspections so any promotions of domestic certificates of inspection and approval can help boost confidence in a brand. Finally, since friend recommendations (34 per cent) and online reviews (26 per cent) were also notable considerations for consumers when making food safety decisions, it’s never been more crucial to have a robust online presence and build up a social community of fans and supporters.
Link to lifestyle, traditions and family
70 per cent say cooking and eating out are extremely important to social life, therefore communicating how a brand can help bring together friends and family as part of a social and lifestyle oriented campaign can be highly impactful. Furthermore, family traditions are still a driving force for consumers when making decisions on what and where to eat. Nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) of all respondents agree that passing down traditional recipes is extremely important. Thus any links to traditional Chinese recipes and food may help increase interest and purchase behaviours.
The food and beverage marketplace in China will probably continue to be a very challenging and competitive marketplace for years to come. Given the complex regional preferences and the overall distrust in the industry stemming from the numerous food safety scandals, consumers today have taken it upon themselves to develop their own ways to make their purchase decisions relying on a multiple sources of information. By following these five simple strategies, brands can focus on the issues that truly resonate with consumers, stand out from the competition, and hopefully have a much more fruitful year in China.
Download the full report here: www.webershandwick.asia/foodforward
Simon Dang is VP of inline strategy at Weber Shandwick China