In 2012 in the city of Wuhu, Anhui, a former street vendor and motorcycle taxi operator named Liaoyuan Zhang, left his job selling nuts to start his own nut company. In just 65 days, the company – Three Squirrels – became the top selling nuts brand on Tmall and within a couple of years, was said to be the top-selling food brand online. On Singles’ Day last year, it took less than 10 minutes to sell ¥100 million ($14.2 million) worth of snacks. The recently-listed company now has a market cap of close to $3 billion.
Many brands can learn from Zhang’s success and his trio of squirrels. For a start, its DNA is imbedded with three super-cute mascots, tapping into Chinese consumers’ adoration of Japanese-inspired Meng culture, and its cute cartoons such as Pokemon. Their appeal stretches beyond just kids with many urban professionals hooked on all that is cute. This can be observed in some of China’s most aspirational mainstream brands such as Tmall’s cat and JD’s dog.
Yet while many Chinese brands plaster cute mascots over their packaging and promotions, Three Squirrels has always gone deeper incorporating the personalities into everything they do. Videos, stories, games and prizes showcase each squirrel’s personality, providing consumers the experience they so-often seek, and weaving them into a longer narrative. Thoughtful extras that add to the experience include a wet wipe, a bag for shells and often nut crackers with purchases. On its customer service line, consumers are addressed as pet ‘owners’ and purchases are called ‘adoptions. Everything Zhang does keeps his customers at the heart of his business, so much so, that he considers “fans” to be as much a part of Three Squirrels as his employees.
Three Squirrels’ D2C (Direct to Consumer) model bypasses retailers but still manages a notable premium over the sea of competitors that make up China’s massive snacking category. It also taps in to other digital channels such as asking and listening to its social media fanbase about the type of products they want, which has shortened its new product development cycles to a few months.
While the Three Squirrels brand was built on the back of Tmall sales, like many online retailers, lowering ecommerce margins and high customer acquisition costs have led it to focus on channel diversification. Whereas Tmall once accounted for 80% of its sales, now just half of its billion dollar-plus revenue comes from the platform. A nice chunk of this growth has come from the drive for offline ‘experience’ stores, where gross margins exceed 40%, versus sub-30% online.
Unlike it was in 2012, selling online is no longer novel in China. Whilst it remains a vitally important sales and marketing channel, one of the advantages of brick and mortar stores is that it is harder to compare products than simple searches online. In online stores, brands tend to use their best-selling products for promotional purposes and so must discount, resulting in even lower margins. Customers can see how many ratings, and often the number of purchases, which is likely to further distort sales as consumers regularly just go for the bestselling or most reviewed items. In an offline store, hero products are not nearly as obvious and so the distribution of sales is less likely to be skewed towards just a few popular items. This plays better to Three Squirrel’s strategy of product diversification which has seen cakes account for over 20% of its sales, and nuts just over half.
Brick and mortar stores also allow consumers to buy very little at a time, at a much higher frequency, and without added delivery costs. The fixed delivery costs online means each order needs to reach a certain dollar amount in order for it to be financially viable. Offline purchases have no such threshold.
Whereas no one should underestimate the importance of ecommerce in China, China Skinny is increasingly seeing brands focus more on traditional retail as the golden years of high growth and high margin sales through platforms like Tmall and JD appear to be over. Experience-focused physical stores such as New Retail has also given the channel a second wind. Brands are becoming increasingly concerned about being over-reliant on platforms such as Tmall for sales and are also cognisant of ecommerce platforms launching more private label brands, which are somewhat of a conflict of interest. Like many things in China, it is important to understand and assess sales and marketing channels beyond the hype and develop strategies that balance risk with opportunity, such as China Skinny does. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.