Mark Tanner

Be Careful How You Interpret Insights in China

2018/06/06 Mark Tanner
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Foreign brands scanning the news over the past week may have been sent on an emotional roller coaster. Although China Bears have been doom-talking about the economy for years, the World Bank’s latest update points to China’s GDP continuing to grow at a healthy 6.9% last year and 6.8% in Q1 this year. Consumption remains China’s growth driver, which is likely to continue given consumer confidence reached a 10-year high in the first quarter of 2018.

But on the flip-side, an FT article about increasingly wealthy Chinese consumers trading up referred to McKinsey research illustrating a pronounced consumer preference for local brands. Across 17 categories, infant formula and wine were the only two segments where foreign brands were preferred over domestic – and only by a whisker.

This is contrary to what China Skinny is seeing in the market. Consumers are often more familiar with domestic brands and their perceptions have become more positive – but we’re still seeing more favourable views for foreign products overall. Based on the feedback we’ve had from our extensive industry networks in China, we’re sure many foreign brands on the ground are seeing similar sentiment.

China Skinny has done deep, intimate and personal research and analysis with thousands of consumers across China. The numerous projects spanning many categories has found Chinese consumers virtually always still believe foreign brands are better – higher quality, more stylish, safer, healthier, etc.

In reality there is a disconnect. Whilst Chinese consumers usually favour foreign products, those brands aren’t servicing their needs well enough and aren’t where they want them to be. As Bain pointed out in the FMCG category, domestic brands grew 8% versus 1.5% for foreign brands in 2016. This result is not so much that they are seeking local products over foreign, but more reflective of nimbler Chinese brands who are reading the market better and acting more swiftly, coupled with stronger distribution networks and more resonant marketing.

As we highlighted in this infographic 18 months ago, dairy is a classic example of foreign brands not meeting needs. While the wounds of the 2008 melamine scandal may still cast a cloud over Chinese milk, domestic dairy commands a 38% premium per litre over imported. This is due to more appropriate format sizes, better-suited value-added products, more specific segmentation and more targeted marketing. China Skinny analysis has found similar results across many other categories.

Research by China’s Ministry of Commerce found 31% of surveyed consumers expect to spend more on imported products in the next six months and over 20% claim imported products account for at least 30% of their total consumption. Similarly, Chinese retailers plan to increase imports of over a third of 92 products surveyed. Although the results could be somewhat glossy due to current US-China trade negotiations and November’s massive China International Import Expo, they do reflect the general sentiment that Chinese consumers still relish imported products. It’s why Alibaba and JD with all of their data are busy opening up offices globally to source foreign products.

So with the good news from GDP growth to positive consumer sentiment, foreign brands are still well placed to tap into it if they ensure they interpret the market well and act quickly from it. Agencies like China Skinny can assist with the market interpretation stage, and help guide the resulting actions. Please contact us to find out more. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.

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