The Chinese have a complex relationship with food. During the Tang dynasty, ‘plumpness’ was regarded as a sign of beauty and wealth and subsequent hardships and famine have resulted in the perception that the ability to gorge oneself should never be neglected. Today, the ability to eat more—and to lay on indulgent amounts of food for others at impressive banquets—represents an opportunity to display increased disposable income publicly.
Throughout society’s evolving attitudes toward food, eating and drinking has always been and still is regarded as a large part of Chinese social activities. Based on statistics from the Chinese government in 2013, TNS reported that even among Chinese with a monthly household income of less than $330 (RMB2,000)—for whom eating and drinking is about survival not indulgence—half (48 per cent) still refer to it as one of their most important social activities.
Nevertheless, as what was once an annual indulgence around Chinese New Year becomes an ongoing daily feast, there is a growing concern over the perceived wave of Chinese middle-class obesity. Once their income reaches RMB12,000 a month (US$2,310), the percentage of Chinese admitting to being overweight jumps from 9 per cent to 14 per cent. Furthermore, as Chinese grow wealthier, they describe themselves as significantly more likely to eat out, with 55 per cent of those with a household income over RMB12,000 saying they do so more often than in the past.
As eating moves from a necessity to a lifestyle choice, representing a major opportunity for food brands, failing to understand the cultural nuances and challenges attached to the movement will lead to failure, TNS cautions. One clear marker of change is the consumption of beer. A decade ago, very few Chinese people drank beer on a regular basis. Today, profuse quantities of weak, watery beer are an established part of eating occasions at almost any social level. Brands need to position their products as a regular indulgence, advises the research firm.
As China grows comfortable with its own modernity, nostalgic dining experiences are, as a consequence, increasingly popular, as shown by the success of Modern Coarse Grain (xiandai culiang) restaurants. These, TNS said, are particularly appealing to members of the established Chinese middle class, who are not only concerned about their health but also want to distinguish between themselves and less sophisticated new arrivals.
As the rush for the new shiny thing dies out, multinational brands that fail to evolve western definitions of sweetness or sensory indulgence can find themselves on the wrong side of Chinese tastebuds, as recent challenges faced by the core brands for McDonalds, KFC and Coca-Cola arguably demonstrate, according to the report by TNS. The research firm finds that as Chinese citizens start to eat more, the majority of this increased consumption takes the form of traditional cuisine—rice, noodles, umami-infused flavours, green tea—rather than newer flavours.
In fact, even familiar flavours in new packaging may not perform well. The xiandai culiang trend shows the importance of nostalgia and continuity in Chinese eating habits, and suggests that comfort-food products may well be less comforting if they come with unfamiliar packaging, routines or surroundings, TNS said.
“Cultural context is increasingly important to China’s relationship to food, with evidence that consumers actively choose indigenous brands over multinational equivalents due to perceptions around heartier, healthier traditional fare," the report stated. "Brands such as Kung Fu Catering, CNHLS and Gll Wonton are nibbling away at the market share of McDonalds and KFC parent Yum by championing their Chinese cultural credentials.”
The Chinese weak spot when it comes to emotion-led indulgences however, remains their 'little emperors'. For many families that have left poverty within the last two generations, parents and grandparents still overcompensate by ‘feeding up’ today’s children.
Nevertheless, as tastes in China grow more sophisticated and health-conscious, brands would do well to focus on the sensory pleasure of food, with messages around health and lifestyle benefits used in a supporting role so as not to compromise the key drivers of food choice, TNS advised.