Faaez Samadi
Nov 3, 2017

Traditional Chinese medicine's healthy mix of history and modernity

TCM is in good shape across Asia, and brands that look to be progressive are reaping considerable rewards.

Traditional Chinese medicine's healthy mix of history and modernity

To the uninitiated, talk of Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) conjures up images of ancient potions made from strange ingredients, more in common with spiritual practices than medical.

And they would be partially right. With a history of more than 2,000 years, TCM has an illustrious, mystical lineage. But the key issue with the above imagery is it gives the impression that TCM is somehow confined to the past, imprecise and largely irrelevant in today’s world.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In China—unsurprisingly—and across Asia, the TCM market continues to see significant growth. According to a report from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, China’s TCM market grew more than 14 per cent annually from US$76.8 billion in 2012 to US$131 billion in 2016. By 2021, it is projected to reach US$232 billion. This is in China alone.

Other countries are also looking to make the most of this huge opportunity. In September, Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong announced additional funding to support the city-state’s TCM sector.

Growth prescription

What’s driving this meteoric growth? According to David Shen, senior vice president at McCann Health in China, it is the shifting attitudes of the rising middle class towards health and wellness more broadly.

“It’s the increase in caring for one’s own health, and increased incomes leading to greater spending on health and wellness generally,” he explains. But coupled with this, he adds, is the huge leap forward that the more successful, and generally larger, TCM brands have made with their marketing and communications in recent years.

Shen says while there are literally hundreds of TCM brands across China, those seeing huge growth have moved on from simply relying on the legacy of TCM to carry it to the masses. These brands—the likes of Tong Ren Tang, Guang Yu Yuan and Eu Yan Sang—have woken up to the fact that today’s consumers take their healthcare more seriously and aren’t wholly swayed by history and old habits.

As such, TCM brands are more effectively touting the complementary health benefits of their products, rather than appearing to present TCM in opposition to modern Western medicine. This messaging has played a critical role in shifting consumer attitudes towards TCM.

“Consumers are being more proactive in health management, and TCM has become the preference due to its perceived benefits of being preventive and mild,” Shen says.

This role of TCM as a preventive health measure has gained significant traction, particular with younger consumers, who are increasingly health conscious and willing to spend their money on herbal or traditional supplements.

With rapid economic growth and urbanisation, Asian countries have seen an increase in rates of cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. As healthcare services are woefully inadequate across large swathes of Asia, consumers young and old are perfectly happy taking daily supplements to try and avoid hospital visits and hefty medical bills.

From a brand identity standpoint, the shift in consumer sentiment towards holistic, natural products has played right into TCM’s hand. Its 2,000-year history cements its authenticity—to some degree—as does its being bound to natural or herbal ingredients, which most consumers believe are gentler.

As Shefali Srinivas, vice president and APAC health lead at WE Communications, puts it: “People in this region are looking for a more holistic approach to health. They trust allopathic medicine, but also have immense faith in the power of traditional medicine. There is still plenty of room for brands that can combine both approaches and offer evidence-based TCM.”

A matter of trust

This remains arguably the biggest obstacle for TCM’s wider growth: evidence and proof of effectiveness and concerns about safety.

“When it comes to medicine of any kind, traditional or otherwise, safety and efficacy are paramount,” Srinivas states. “It’s not merely about good PR; it needs to be about having scientific research and scrutiny to back up product claims.” After all, you may take a chance on a pair of jeans, a new shampoo or a laptop, but you wouldn’t take a chance on anything that might compromise your health.

Proven scientific data within TCM remains fairly hard to come by. But today’s consumers can access information within seconds, and the TCM brands that don’t answer questions about their products will be quickly isolated and irrelevant. For example, just recently a study suggested a link between certain herbs and high rates of liver cancer in APAC markets, but China's regulatory body responded that it is keeping harmful substances out of traditional medicines. 

“Today’s consumers are worried about safety and quality,” says Srinivas. “To stay relevant is to provide credible, evidence-based information about conditions where TCM can play an important and complementary role.”

The leading TCM brands have taken big strides in this area, publishing studies regarding their products. Moreover, Shen says the Chinese authorities have strengthened regulations and manufacturing processes around TCM, which has contributed to its steadily wider acceptance.

More work still needs to be done PR-wise, with many consumers still concerned by talk of harvesting ingredients from endangered species and other malpractice in the creation of TCM. Again, practices have changed and modernised—this includes China itself, which announced the closing of its legal ivory trade in June.

Despite these ongoing issues, the indicators are that TCM brands are in demand more than ever, with some even taking their brands across the world to announce themselves on the world stage. Tong Ren Tang opened its first US stores last year and, more extravagantly, Guang Yu Yuan sponsored Chinese designer Liu Qing at Paris Fashion Week last month.

The lure of TCM is also bringing Western brands to China. For example, Switzerland’s Givaudan, the world’s largest flavour and fragrance maker, announced in October it will start using TCM in a new range of products.

China’s government is heavily promoting TCM, both locally and internationally. With brands effectively fusing its long heritage with modern, progressive branding and communications, it seems TCM will be around for many more years to come.

“With a rich history of over 2,000 years,” says Srinivas, “and all its unique insights and theories about human health, it is rightly seen to be a national treasure.”

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