Foong Li Mei
Oct 29, 2019

Making lemonade: how the ‘lemon capital’ of China built a billion-dollar brand

Overseas, it has to grapple with scepticism on Chinese produce. Within its home country, it has to contend with a small market. Foong Li Mei explores how Anyue played the cards it was dealt.

Dozens of workers pick and pack lemons. Source: Anyue Publicity Department
Dozens of workers pick and pack lemons. Source: Anyue Publicity Department

In Anyue, gold grows on trees. Well, kind of. The county, perched on the southeastern side of the Sichuan province in China, is the Middle Kingdom’s largest lemon producer. The Anyue Lemon brand is estimated to worth about 17.3 billion yuan (US$2.4 billion), according to the China Brand Value Evaluation List in 2016.

Anyue’s reputation as the ‘lemon capital’ of China began with a bit of a fluke, says Tian Zaize, director of the Anyue county department for the lemon industry, with a chuckle.

The story goes that, in 1926, a visiting Canadian professor had planted a lemon seedling in a Sichuan university, and a student of the university brought the plant back to his hometown in Anyue. Cue a bout of gardening work that would end up changing the fate of the entire county.

It so happens that Anyue has the optimal soil pH value, temperature, rainfall volume and annual sunshine hours to grow high-quality lemons, Tian tells Campaign Asia-Pacific.

Anyue county department for the lemon industry

Jason Wen, marketing manager of Chengdu Handles Trade Co. Ltd, which exports Anyue Lemons, grew up in the county. He remembers that the fruit was mostly cultivated in small-scale family farms when he was a boy. It was only in the past decade or so, he recalls, that lemons firmly took root as Anyue’s top produce.

Now, the fruit trees flourish in industrialised planting bases that total about 9,555 acres. In autumn, the villages are a vista of yellow gold, ripe for harvest.

“If I compare [the current scale of lemon plantation] to when I was growing up, it is as different as the sky and the earth,” says Wen.

The billion-dollar brand juices up the Anyue economy. According to county officials, lemon output in 2018 reached 580,000 tonnes at a value of 11 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion). There are 980 plantation owners, on top of 110,000 fruit-farming households. The county is also home to 539 various lemon associations, 27 processing enterprises, over 3,000 lemon marketing enterprises, and over 1,500 lemon e-commerce businesses.

Outside the Great Wall

Part of the zeal is driven by the lemon exports to over 30 countries and regions, including Singapore, Thailand, Russia and the US. But taking a homegrown produce from a little-known county to foreign markets had been a challenge, according to Wen.

In the early days, Anyue Lemon did not inspire trust among overseas importers, who were more familiar with lemon brands from Spain or Italy.

Tian concurs that Chinese produce gets a bad rep in the global arena due to the widely reported food-safety scares in the country. He notes that Anyue Lemon used to be seen through this narrowed gaze as well.

To break into the international market, the county had to demonstrate obedience to international food safety standards. This means strict enforcement of regulations and constant innovation for high-quality yield.

Source: Chengdu Handles Trade Co. Ltd

“Whether it is the 755 import regulation tests in France, or the 963 tests in Japan, Anyue Lemon passed them all in one go,” he states, adding that Anyue’s concentrated lemon juice products have also obtained US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certification in 2015.

Wen finds that any prejudice against the Anyue Lemon has pretty much dissipated.

“Our lemons’ shapes and sizes are mostly homogenous, the general appearance is attractive. The beauty of a fruit is almost like a ‘brand packaging’ in itself. Unlike other products which benefits may have to be more extensively explained, consumers still mostly judge agricultural products by its appearance,” he says.

In September, the county held its first World Lemon Industry Development Conference. It was attended by experts from 10 countries to discuss cooperation opportunities in the lemon trade. Tian says that such platforms facilitate the exchange of ideas, allowing international players to learn about Anyue Lemon, and vice versa.

“We do not want to state that our lemons are better… We just want to market our brand slowly through time and effort, by strengthening our guarantee on food safety, improve the quality of our fruit, and expand the market in production and sales volume. That’s all. We have no intention to compare our brand with others,” says Tian.

Not emphasising the superiority of an agricultural produce may be a missed opportunity, according to Emily Sheen, senior strategist of Landor in Singapore.

Positioning Anyue Lemons as similar to its more popular counterparts, she says, may not convince the international markets to switch from established lemon brands to a Chinese one. The tight enforcement of production standards can only assuage doubts if the message is filtered down to consumers.

Anyue lemon train. Source: Anyue county department for the lemon industry

“You are competing against other lemon brands that have stronger and more positive place image, like Sicily, which is important for raw ingredients,” she says.

The international appetite for Anyue Lemon is still rather small, according to Wen. But it is difficult to say if this matters much for now. Tian points out that most of the lemons of Anyue are actually sold within China itself—a population not known to be big on the sour citrus fruit.

The demand is growing, according to Jiang Xiong, general manager of Sichuan Xinningle Fruit Industry Co Ltd, which sells 70% of its lemon produce to local markets. Since starting his business in 2008, sales has increased by 15-fold, he estimates.

How does Anyue find a footing in a niche market? It threw a party. 

Selling the 'culture' in 'agriculture'

Just a few weeks ago, the ‘Anyue Lemon Youth Party’ kicked off in a swanky book café in Chengdu. Desserts and drinks in lemon flavour were served, and there were lemon wine and lemon face masks to lend zest to the event.

Anyue lemons have been integrated in more than 50 dishes in the county, like this crystal lemon dish. Source: Anyue county department for the lemon industry.

But the party is, most importantly, a platform for discussion about current youth issues by riding on a slang word—‘lemon genie’.

Chinese used the term ‘lemon genie’ to describe someone who is prone to extreme jealousy. These days, young people are claiming the term for themselves—usually in online memes—for humorous, self-deprecating effect.

“For the Generation Z, when a feeling of sour jealousy arises, it also means that one’s dissatisfaction towards an aspect in one’s own life is evoked. If you can be envious of others, then work towards achieving what you are envious about. Optimistically changing your current condition and closing the distance [with what you want] is what a new generation of healthy ‘lemon genies’ would do, and this is in line with the ‘new generation of youth values’ that Anyue Lemon is promoting,” says an organising spokesperson.

Rachel Catanach, president and senior partner of Greater China at FleishmanHillard, gives props to Anyue Lemon’s creativity in driving conversations about the fruit.

“Lemons are not a typical inclusion in the Chinese diet,” she explains. “Anyue identified that [limitation] and set about building a new generation of lemon lovers with an interesting device—a youth slang,” says Catanach.

Besides targeting young people, Anyue is milking almost every medium available for brand communication. The phrase ‘lemon capital’ is worked into street names, hotel names and trains. Several romantic television series were set in Anyue’s lemon farms. There are lemon-themed poetry writing activities, art exhibitions, as well as song-writing and dance choreography competitions.

Anyue lemon art exhibition. Source: Anyue county department for the lemon industry

The annual Anyue Lemon Festival is in its 11th year. The county’s ‘Baosen Lemon Culture Tourism Town’ has recorded visitor headcount exceeding one million and raked in over 40 million yuan (US$6 million).

For Catanach, Anyue has crafted a compelling story around its zesty industry—from the agricultural innovation to job creation for the locals to cultural activities. “It’s not just a business story, but has a real human dimension and strong emotional lens for people to connect to.”

Landor’s Sheen agrees that Anyue is going in the right direction with more experiential attractions thrown in the lemon-themed mix—such as creating signature delicacies using the fruit.

Branding Anyue Lemon goes hand-in-hand with branding Anyue, after all. Establishing the county as a lemon mecca requires an intricate dance in leveraging the connection between food and origins in consumer minds.

However, the challenge is that lemons do not have as much experiential appeal as, say, wine country in California or coffee and tea plantation in Indonesia. Most people do not know enough about the different kinds of lemons, which are seen as ingredients, not experiences, explains Sheen.
She recommends that Anyue—recently picked as ‘The Most Beautiful County in China’ by the International Tourism Federation—also pump up marketing on its other attractions, such as the historical artifacts and rock carvings.

“An agricultural brand alone is not enough; you really need a differentiating culture surrounding the industry,” says Sheen. “It’s like Sicilian lemons remind people about Sicily. But no one really flies to Sicily for the lemons—they go for the scenery, history, or volcanoes.”

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