It doesn’t have the sexiness of livestreaming, or the sizzle of Singles’ Day, but one of the most important components of China’s ecommerce and New Retail boom is the thankless task of making it all happen behind the scenes. China’s logistics infrastructure is experiencing some of the biggest, yet behind-the-scenes, changes in the country’s retail industry. Chinese logistics are evolving from fragmented and rudimentary systems, to consolidated ones driven by the internet-connected smart devices, robots and real-time end-to-end tracking and traceability.
Chinese consumer expectations around delivery have become some of the highest in the world. Many purchases are expected to be delivered in less than 30 minutes. And for other goods, if they don’t arrive within 1-2 days, most consumers will go somewhere else, with the exception of some customized products and goods coming from afar. Yet even expectations for delivery times for cross border products are increasingly short, with bonded warehouses bringing them closer to the consumer.
1.88 billion parcels were delivered just in the 10 days starting on Double-11 (Singles’ Day) last year. This gives China the scale to invest in technology and systems. The increase in New Retail and social commerce is driving both shopping and delivery to become a 24/7 business. Investment is also being propelled by lower tier cities, whose logistics infrastructure is behind high tier cities. Tier-3 cities and lower accounted for more than 70% of the growth of Alibaba’s 102 million new customers over the last 12-months, in addition to apps such as Pinduoduo and WeChat which are driving online shopping in the hinterland. The focus is also being driven by fast growth ecommerce categories like food and beverage delivery, which requires improvements in areas such as cold chain.
Logistics is big business in China. In 2017, SF Express IPOed to become the Shenzhen Stock Exchange’s most valuable company, while pushing founder Wang Wei’s net worth up to $16 billion. Alibaba’s partner logistics company Cainiao – which accounts for one in every 10 packages sold on Taobao and Tmall – was valued at ¥100 billion ($14.5 billion) a year ago, and like all of China’s logistics giants, is investing in exciting advancements.
Cainiao is evolving from just digitally managing the flow of parcels through e-shipping labels, to digitalising all components of the logistics value chain. This will see 100 million smart devices connected to its IoT (Internet of Things) technologies in three years, including partners such as warehouses, warehouse pickers, equipment, transportation vehicles, robots and management systems. It will also connect the anticipated 100,000 pick up stations such as schools and residential complexes, convenience stores and China’s ubiquitous fruit shops to cut down last-mile delivery costs. To complement this, Ciaoniao will enhance and leverage its Guoguo app which it hopes to serve consumers more than a billion times a year by 2022.
A digitalised end-to-end supply chain enables much more transparency and accountability, which is ever-important for China’s untrusting consumers. Such transparency is a key selling point allowing 17.5° oranges to sell for twice the price of similar brands of oranges that originate from the same region for example.
We expect domestic players’ investment, connections and local know-how will continue to see the Chinese logistics brands dominate the China market, and likely expand beyond its borders utilising the developing systems and technology. Foreign players won’t be helped by the recent trade war-related scandal which saw Huawei packages ‘misrouted’ in China by Fedex, whether proven to be intentional or not.
For brands selling in China, ensure you are dialled into the optimal logistics providers and their systems to guarantee customers will have the best possible experience. It will be difficult to compete otherwise. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
WeChat now boasts 1.1 billion active users, with most being in China. That’s great news for Tencent who have prodigious insights into the online, offline and commerce behaviour of a large swath of Chinese consumers. Yet its almost-100% saturation of China’s online population also presents challenges to Tencent, who is having to shift its strategy from growth by acquisition to extending the utility of WeChat and its data. To make things tougher, AI-driven competitors such as Douyin are cannibalising the screen time users spend on WeChat through services that are easier to use and more entertaining.
Tencent isn’t sitting still. It’s made some structural shifts in its strategy such as seeking to entrench itself in more industry-related applications from health services to public transport, and this month announced it joined the race for auto intelligence, aiming to provide car makers networking services, algorithms for autonomous vehicles, and location-based services.
Nevertheless, WeChat remains committed to its bread-and-butter (or rice-and-soy) consumer base, evolving with services such as authentic story telling, Official Account live streaming and new Little Red Bookesque-social commerce features – all enriching the consumer experience and presenting exciting opportunities for brands.
For many brands, finding success with WeChat isn’t just about strapping on new services as they are launched, but changing the structural approach to how they view WeChat – much like Tencent has done. The good old approach of pushing out content week in-week out on WeChat rarely works these days. More than half of WeChat Official Accounts are losing followers and the open rate of WeChat articles dropped from 17% to 6% between November 2015 and August 2018 according to social media management platform KAWO.
To increase engagement on WeChat, more brands would be wise to view the platform less as a one-to-many broadcast tool and more as a personalised and targeted interface to connect with and understand the target market. CRM capabilities on WeChat allow brands to gather information about their fanbase far beyond the standard name, avatar, gender and location that come by default. WeChat’s expanding suite of services and subsequent touch points allow brands to track individual’s preferences, behaviour and propensity to engage with different things. This data can be complementary to other insights that can be tracked such as how the user followed the WeChat account, whether through a specific article, promotion, at an offline event, store or scanning a QR code on packaging.
WeChat also lends itself to engaging initiatives such as chatbots, which offer brands a form of simple AI allowing them to connect with their customers’ personal needs and have related dialogue – over and above the usual WeChat messaging quotas – directing them to relevant content and services. Data from these interactions can feed into the CRM system to provide a view into consumer needs that can be coupled with other insights to build truly meaningful consumer-led propositions.
Richer CRM data allows brands to have more targeted, localised and personalised communications over WeChat. Interactions with consumers can be much more resonant based on whether the consumer has a family or is single, lives in Shanghai or Shenyang, if they like lace or leather or the time of the day they are most responsive. In a market as competitive and cluttered as China, particularly with more brands engaging with AI for targeted and personalised interactions, it is fast becoming a minimum requirement to continue to grow engagement. China Skinny can assist to develop your strategy for this.
For our Shanghai-based readers, China Skinny’s Andrew Atkinson will be presenting the Heath Ingredients & Food Ingredients Asia event next Wednesday 19 June discussing headline trends influencing consumer needs across China’s health food categories. More information here. Please let us know if you’ll be there. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
To many readers, video gaming may seem like pastime reserved for a small tribe of socially-awkward folk with Vitamin D deficiencies. Yet any marketer in China should be paying attention. China’s $36 billion video gaming market is four times larger than its movie industry and a driving force behind the inclusion of eSports as a medal event in the 2022 Asian Games, and even a possible demonstration sport at the 2024 Paris Olympics as the IOC wrestles between tradition and appealing to vast new audiences.
Chinese gamers have long been stereotyped as young males spending their free time in dingy internet cafes; their gaming-contorted fingers covered in a thick film of greasy food and crumbs. The People’s Liberation Army has even attributed gaming as a major reason so many young men fail its physical tests.
Nevertheless, profiles are changing. Gender fluidity is one of the big trends happening in the China market. Just look to the runaway growth of men’s makeup, a spike in males buying lacy-style and see-through fashions on Taobao, while women are buying up suits and almost half of cars from brands typically purchased by men in other markets such as Maserati and Porsches. It seems now that gaming is no longer just the realm of males, with some estimates claiming females make up almost half of China’s 530 million gamers.
Chinese consumers’ obsession with gaming should give marketers clues into how their target markets – male and female – see the world. For many, gaming is a form of escapism from boredom during long commutes and the 9am-9pm-6 days a week work schedule in many Chinese firms. But it is also a pillar in many Chinese social lives; a convenient place to meet others with shared interests, and the closest thing many have to playing team sports, brother and sisterhood, and even a place to meet love interests.
When many marketers think of utilising games in their strategies, it revolves around gamification to connect and engage with Chinese consumers. Whilst there are some success stories, most attempts simply aren’t interesting, relevant or well-integrated into other marketing initiatives, with few gamification investments attracting more than a handful of genuinely engaged participants.
The sophistication of game developers is presenting increasingly diverse opportunities to connect with the target market during an emotional moment in their day. Female-focused mobile dating game Love and Producer saw an estimated $32 million of in-app purchases after one month of being launched. High-end cosmetics brand M.A.C. released five Honour of Kings limited-edition lipsticks targeting its 100 million+ female players – 14,000 were preordered and all five lipstick styles sold out across all sales channels within 24-hours of launching.
Combined with awareness-building initiatives through placements and partnerships, gaming is also looking to become a legitimate sales channel for goods and services. The industry has even created its own sect of KOLs who are supported by millions of live streamers, all potential endorsers of products and services.
With Beijing’s new gaming approvals freeze starting to thaw, games and their players will continue to evolve into more sophisticated marketing and sales platforms to connect with the lucrative male and female millennials, and Gen-Zs. Contact China Skinny for advice on how best to do that.
With the extended May Day Holiday (in hope of stimulating spending), there’ll be no Skinny next week, but we’ll be back the following Wednesday. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
In October 2015, China announced plans that it would be abolishing its one-child policy the following year, in hope of rebalancing its top-heavy population which is expected to see 500 million folk aged over 60 by 2050. The announcement, coupled with the earlier one-child policy changes, had brands selling everything from infant formula to educational toys readjusting their sales forecasts north. Even Disney invested an additional $800 million in the construction of the Shanghai Disney Resort to add extra capacity to account for the fertility spike.
On the surface things started off well, with birth rates jumping 7.9% between 2015 and 2016. But it was always likely to be just a blip. 2016 was the Year of the Monkey, which was a much more desirable zodiac for childbearing than 2015, which happened to be a Sheep Year. Superstitious Chinese don’t want their kids to be the docile followers associated with our woolly friends.
There was also some pent up demand from parents who had always longed for more than one child. Yet for most Chinese couples, the 37-year-old One Child Policy had reengineered the national psyche making it socially acceptable to have a single child. The competitiveness of China’s education system also sees parents invest significant sums into their child’s education and development, coupled with the premium paid for safe food and beverage and other extras to ensure their child gets the best start at life. Most couples consider it too expensive to have more than one child.
Since 2016, birth rates have fallen off a cliff, dropping by 12% in 2018. In another troublesome sign for China’s fertility planners, marriage rates hit record lows in 2018. Couples need to be married in China to legally have a child. Beijing will be banking on the country’s investment in robotics and Artificial Intelligence to help make up for the falling working population.
So should those infant formula brands, Lego, Disney and other companies hoping to sell their wares to Chinese youngins be revising their revenue forecasts down? Not at all. As Chinese families’ affluence rises, a disproportionate share of the increase goes to their child. As they only have one, few cut corners. A child born today will have parents earning 130% more than those born a decade ago. There have been countless surveys with Chinese consumers over the years about how they would spend additional wealth, and a large percentage always cite they’d spend it on their child’s education and development. Even extra budget directed at travel will often be to take the kids away, with families one of the fastest growing outbound tourist segments.
To get a real taste of how important the market for children’s goods and services is, take a trip to the town of Zhili in Zhejiang Province this November. The town famous for its child garment factories has a population of 100,000, which swells to around 350,000 around peak times such as Singles’ Day. The population boost comes from families relocating there in the hope that their kid will become China’s next top child model. Kids can earn up to ¥10,000 ($1,500) a day, with the most popular models reportedly earning a million ($150K) a year. The modelling rates highlight just how lucrative the children’s fashion category is, but also its competitiveness.
Although birth rates are falling, there were still 15.23 million children born in China last year – and a greater portion with affluent parents than ever. Citi Research, in their short video about the infant formula category, summed the situation up well: “having the right route-to-market, especially in the online channel, matters more than the underlying market”. That could be said for virtually every category in China, where there remain enormous target markets still willing to spend, regardless of slowing population or economic growth. China Skinny can assist with your route to market. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Countries trading with China have seen their share of geopolitical tensions of late: the trade war with the US, Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, foreign espionage claims in Australia, threats of Huawei bans across countries from New Zealand to Poland, European talk of China being a “systemic rival” and threatening tighter rules on its investments in the region, a host of ongoing tensions with ASEAN countries over the South China Sea, and so on.
The tensions are said to have been responsible for restrictions on Australian coal shipments, suspension of Canadian canola exports, the delayed launch of the 2019 China-New Zealand Year of Tourism festivities (which finally took place on Saturday), and Wall Street bankers’ claims that an informal boycott of US goods is the root of Apple’s woes in China.
There’s no question the results of tensions can be challenging for exporters, but they aren’t a scratch on what happened to Japanese brands in 2012 over an island territorial spat in the East China Sea. It was one of the most fearful displays we have seen when it comes to how powerful China’s state media can be in swaying public opinion. Anti-Japanese sentiment soared among consumers, driving protestors to wreak an estimated $126 million worth of damage to Japanese-branded goods, buildings and related sales. In two waves of protests, hundreds of Japanese-branded cars were smashed and overturned, rocks were thrown at Japanese restaurants, Japanese factories were set ablaze, Japanese buildings were broken into and ransacked, and stores selling Japanese goods were vandalised, causing many to shutter, including the $8.8 million destruction of an AEON supermarket.
The week between 15-21 September saw the Japanese car manufacturing industry suffer losses of $250 million due to the production of about 14,000 cars being suspended, with subsequent sales in September dropping by close to 50%. Tourists to Japan plummeted by nearly half in the month that followed.
Yet if Japan is anything to go by, exporters losing sleep over their current geopolitical tensions should be heartened. Japan has good stuff, and most Chinese consumers couldn’t stay away, no matter how deep-rooted their Anti-Japanese feelings were. Chinese tourists to Japan grew more than five-fold from 1.4 million in 2012 to 7.4 million in 2017. Since then, visiting Chinese spending in Japan was so lavish that a new term — “buying explosion” — emerged to describe the way Chinese tourists descend on particular Japanese retailers, buying everything from Japanese rice, to toilet seats, to condoms. Even Japanese car sales have soared, with China expected to overtake Japan on volume last year.
However, probably the most astonishing indicator of Japanese love by Chinese consumers is restaurant data released by the Japanese External Trade Organization. The number of Japanese restaurants in China grew from about 10,600 in the beginning of 2017 to 40,800 at the end of the year. Even by Chinese standards, that is phenomenal growth!
The key takeaways from our Japanese friends is that the impact of geopolitical tensions – as undesirable as they are – are generally short term blips, if they have any impact at all. If you make quality products and services that connect with Chinese tastes and preferences and are marketed well, the shoppers are likely to stay loyal, or soon come back wanting more. Here’s to that.
On the subject of Chinese restaurant and food preferences – Japanese and the others, China Skinny’s Mark Tanner will be sharing valuable insights at the Foodomics Conference in Auckland, New Zealand on 10 April. It would be great to hear from you if you will be there. More info here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
As China’s urban millennials have become the most sought-after consumers on the planet, marketers have been seeking less contested consumer groups to target their wares. The next growth areas that we often hear about are the rural consumers and those with silver hair.
For the rural folk, many expect their latent demand to step up and fill the gap from the city dwellers – those who already have everything from cars to appliances to smartphones. 577 million Chinese lived in rural areas in 2017, and the big tech companies have been all over it. Alibaba and JD are investing in rural fulfilment centres, marketing and even drone delivery. Interestingly, the latest Internet growth data points to a rural population that may not be as enthused about spending up a storm as many had hoped.
China’s heaving Internet population stood at a whopping 829 million at the end of 2018 – 57 million or 7.3% more than the year before. The segment that has the most room for growth – Chinese living in rural areas, grew just 6.2% to 222 million, indicating a widening digital divide between China’s urban dwellers and those in the countryside. That’s not a great sign for consumption in these areas. The Internet represents the most promising channel for rural consumers to buy things – they can’t just pop down to the local IKEA to purchase a new sofa. Another barrier for sales is that rural consumers make less than a third of what urban-dwellers make and are much less likely to spend it on aspirational foreign brands.
The other well-cited growth opportunity – China’s seniors – by sheer numbers along should be one of the greatest opportunities marketers have ever seen. Last year, the number of Chinese over 60 reached 249.5 million to outnumber those under 16 for the first time in history. Since 2010, the demographic has seen an average annual growth of 2.08 million. At the same time, the under-15 brood has been dropping at 2.25 million a year.
If we look to the Baby Boomers in the West – the empty nesters riding on the back of a lifetime of savings and equity gains on their house and other investments – they have been spoiling themselves while their joints still allow it. Yet most of the seniors in China aren’t such free spenders. They have grown up in austere times, and have an inherent necessity to save for a rainy day and be frugal, even more-so than those who were around during The Great Depression in the West. The rising consumer debt in China can almost be solely attributed to the consumption-crazed youth; people between the ages of 24 and 35 account for more than 70% of consumer borrowers in China.
While there will inevitably be increasing opportunities by targeting China’s silver surfers – there will be a half a billion of them by 2050 – they will remain much less likely to pay a premium for better products and services than their younger peers. They also won’t be as easily wooed by foreign lifestyles, products and services.
In short, millennials and the younger post-95s/Gen-Zs remain the most lucrative consumer group in China. Yet the rules to reach and resonate with them are constantly changing. Companies need to dive much deeper in understanding their emotional and functional needs, what influences them, where they research and buy, and how to make advocates out of them. If a brand can understand and serve those needs, there’s still plenty of legs in the contested younger demographics in the city – particularly the lower-tier cities. China Skinny can work with you to ensure you’re there. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Chinese buyers have been the top foreign buyers of US residential property for six years straight. Similarly, no other overseas vendees buy more in Australia, New Zealand and a host of other countries. One common characteristic purchasers share is a preference for the shiny and new over the battered old character home.
In China, you won’t find locals spending their weekends combing garage sales for deals, and even the ecommerce-mad populous buy a much smaller share of second-hand goods than the eBay-Craig’s List-Gumtree-Trademe-type shoppers of the West.
Chinese consumers’ reputed love of all that is new comes down to a number of factors. We don’t need to look back far in history – during the reign of Mao – when new goods were in scant supply, creating a sense of prestige when buying something brand new. This has been passed over a generation, and its legacy has contributed to the all-important status that comes with buying new versus the stigma attached with goods that have been loved by someone else.
Another contributor is Chinese consumers’ inherent lack of trust. In China it is far more common to fake a second-hand good, and more difficult to trace, than a new product that can be bought directly from the source or a trusted vendor. There are also more reliable courses of action if something goes wrong. Couple that with the seemingly-infinite supply of cheap, new things, and all roads appear to lead to brand spanking new.
Nevertheless, the single-minded view that everything must be shiny and new is starting to waver. One of the most notable signs is the car industry. Half a decade ago, five in every six cars purchased smelt new (although not the new car smell as we know it in the West). Last year, as new car sales contracted 2.8%, there were 11.5% more secondhand cars bought. Although the ratio is still far behind America, where pre-loved outnumber new by more than double, China’s split is growing fast, from 43.0% in 2017 to 49.1% last year. The rise in the desirability for second-hand cars is followed by other segments from luxury goods to clothing swaps.
The trend is being driven by millennials who don’t have the same historic hang-ups as earlier generations and seek value. They’re familiar with consuming things used by others with the explosion of the sharing economy, covering everything from fashion to bicycles.
What does that mean for brands? In many product categories, the competitor set will increasingly span beyond the other new things for sale online and in stores to include second-hand goods. Consumers may also look to resale value, service and even sell-back options when making decisions around purchasing.
The trend spans beyond goods too, contributing to preferences in the service industry such as tourism. More Chinese travellers are finding allure in the edgy, hipster interiors for hotels, restaurants, attractions and stores, when in the past, it would have been considered dirty and rundown. It is another sign of maturing Chinese consumers, driven by the youth – one which will hopefully giving the environment a small reprieve.
On the subject of Chinese tastes and preferences, if you’re looking to learn more while taking in a few memorable spring days, China Skinny’s Mark Tanner will be speaking at China Connect in Paris on March 12-13. It is one of the most-established and thoughtful China-focused conferences outside of China – we hope to see you there! More information here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
While you may be lamenting the need to constantly evolve your marketing mix to stay ahead in China, you can rest assured that even WeChat faces a similar challenge.
Although China’s super app hit 1.083 billion monthly active users in September last year, each sending any average of around 45 messages a day, WeChat faces headwinds to stay relevant to Chinese consumers. Readership for articles referred by friends on Moments has been dropping and Tencent’s share of screen time is being cannibalised by newer, easier-to-use and more entertaining alternatives such as short video platform Douyin.
That’s why all eyes were on WeChat’s founder Allen Zhang’s four hour speech at Tencent’s conference last week, about how he plans to reinvigorate the app to mitigate the risk of it becoming obsolete. Zhang got philosophical in acknowledging that WeChat has lost the veneer of authentic discovery that endeared it to users, because people were becoming too sensitive to their online personas on Moments.
Across the board, Chinese consumers are seeking more authenticity: from the way they travel, to the brands they buy, to how they project themselves on digital platforms. Women ‘beautification’ app Meipai discovered this as user numbers plunged 55% as Chinese women sought more natural and less formulaic portrayals of themselves. WeChat is hoping to evolve from photoshopped and choreographed Moments feeds, to a more real account of what people are really experiencing. To enable this, WeChat has launched a new video-streaming feature, not unlike Instagram’s feed, so people share their lives in real time, not through carefully curated photos and messages. Even the user interface aims to keep it real, with the typical ‘send’ button, replaced with ‘this will do’ to remind people their social feed doesn’t have to be airbrushed and polished.
Another area in which WeChat is pinning its hopes to counter the app’s saturation and encourage more engagement per user is Mini Programs. The WeChat-embedded ‘light apps’ are already hugely popular, but curiously, the majority of traffic isn’t coming from the famous mini programs you may have heard of, but rather the long-tail applications used by niches such as parent-teacher groups or your neighbourhood grocery store. Given WeChat is installed on virtually every smartphone in China, app developers are not concerned with having to create separate tools for Androids and iPhones, it is one simple app, seamlessly installed and launched from the comfort of WeChat. Tencent is thinking, if ‘there’s an app for it’ wouldn’t it make sense to make it a Mini Program?
Something that hasn’t received due airtime is the impact that the new ecommerce laws will have on WeChat. Commerce is one of the areas showing great promise on WeChat, with its transactional nature providing a logical way for the platform to grow revenue. Yet many of those stores have been run by smaller vendors and daigou, attracted by WeChat’s low barriers to entry. The new laws mean that it will be a lot more trouble to set up and maintain a simple WeChat store – or any online store – with the new taxation and reporting requirements. There are already signs of changes in the way smaller vendors promote their wares on WeChat as they try and skirt the laws, but for many, the effort won’t be worth the reward.
Regardless of its challenges, WeChat remains China’s super app with no other app being better positioned to evolve and stay relevant to Chinese consumers. To Allen Zhang’s and Tencent’s credit, they have recognised that they need to do this. There are some good lessons for any brand in China – you may be ‘killing it’ in China today, but you need to constantly review your position to stay that way. China Skinny can assist you with just that. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
‘Tis the season to be jolly. Well maybe not in Langfang, in northern China’s snowy Hebei province where folk can be arrested for selling Christmas apples and Santa suits. The parishioners of the renowned 40-year old Rongguili Church in Guangzhou may not be feeling so festive either after a children’s bible class was raided in the third unregistered Protestant church to be shut down in China this winter. Last year, it was a Chinese university banning Christmas to avoid “corrosive” Western culture that made it into the annual anti-Christmas headlines fuelled by a small brood of emphatic nationalistic types in China.
On a grander scale, the raining down of Christmas tree emojis that have brightened up WeChat message feeds for many Decembers are notably absent this year. Tencent has had a tough year with its stock price almost halving between January and November, and the new cool kid ByteDance eroding its share of screen time and now talking about launching a messaging competitor to WeChat. Perhaps Tencent is trying not to rub Beijing the wrong way by celebrating western holidays, in hope of them lifting the new game ban, but come on Tencent, cheer up!
For those of us who still love the magic of the festive season, fear not. Aside from a few sensational stories and WeChat policy-makers, a stroll down the streets of China appear as Christmasy as ever. Christmas trees that match China’s skyscrapers for architectural pizazz and neon brace the public plazas and shopping malls.
Online, smartphone screens are again filled with countless brands from Starbucks to H&M peddling their Christmas jeer, KOLs sharing their Christmas list ideas, kids showing off their advent calendars, and millions of Christmas paraphernalia bought from the ecommerce platforms, hopefully some of it in sustainable packaging.
For the vast majority of Chinese, Christmas isn’t a time to acknowledge newborns in mangers millennia ago. There remains little understanding of its religious or cultural associations, with most festival-thirsty consumers viewing it as an excuse to party and shop in the void between Singles’ Day and the Year of the Pig.
One thing we’ve noticed this year is how cities outside tier 1 are embracing Christmas. The China Skinny team has been crisscrossing the country on research projects and were out in Chengdu two weeks ago where they noticed more ceremony around Christmas than even in Shanghai this year. Most of the big hotels – Hilton, Waldorf Astoria, Wanda, Kempinski – had a grandiose celebration for the ‘lighting of the tree’, complete with VIPs, children’s choirs, elaborate Santas, and a host of delicate Christmas-themed foods. In the ‘lower’ tier cities – like for many things – celebrating Christmas en scale is a more recent tradition than in Shanghai, and therefore more of a novelty.
This will be the last Skinny for 2018. Thanks for reading this year. To our clients and partners, thanks for working with us – you’re awesome! The Skinny team wishes you the Merriest of Yuletides, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Years. We’ll be back again in 2019. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Out for a lunchtime stroll in most Chinese cities, you may not get that refreshed feeling you get elsewhere in the world. China’s carbon dioxide emissions have grown almost 150% since 2000. Although growth has flattened out this decade, emissions have crept 17% higher than in 2010 when Chinese power plants emitted as much nitrogen oxide as the rest of the world’s cars combined.
Similarly, there’s a good chance that the water you showered in, washed your clothes with, cleaned the dishes and rinsed your food with was less than pristine with over 70% of the watersheds that supply water to China’s 30 largest cities severely polluted. Then there is the 19.4% of farmland that’s contaminated by organic and inorganic chemical pollutants and by metals such as lead, cadmium and arsenic.
It’s not breaking news that China’s pollution has been responsible for a sharp rise in respiratory diseases such as Asthma, caused cancer rates to soar, and contributed to host of other issues as far reaching as infertility and obesity. Pollution coupled with sedentary lifestyles from more white collar jobs and gaming, poorer diets and even rice consumption has seen 11% of Chinese suffer from diabetes and a further 36% are prediabetic. There are countless other ailments on the rise in China, but you get the point.
With the above factors an everyday reality of living in China, it is unsurprising that the H-word is on almost every Chinese consumer’s lips. Health is something that Chinese have proactively addressed long before microscopic pollution particles blanketed Chinese cities. Use of yin and yang principles have dated back since at least the 3rd century BC. Considering the changes in China just over the past generation, there are more reasons than ever to balance out the yin with the yang.
Virtually every category with a health label in China has been hot over the past five years, resulting in venture capital investments in healthcare growing from $1 billion to $12 billion in China between 2013 and 2017. This has seen some innovative world-leading companies evolve from China, such as Shenzhen-based medical devices company Mindray which invests 10% of its more than one billion dollar annual revenues in research and development – a rate unheard of with Chinese companies not long ago. Mindray is the market leader globally across several segments and is likely to be helped further by Beijing’s streamlining rules for drugs and medical device approvals last October.
One of the most exciting health companies coming out of China is Tencent-backed WeDoctor in Hangzhou. Hoping to become the ‘Amazon of Healthcare’ the $6 billion dollar company already has 160 million registered and 27 million monthly active users by focusing on unclogging bottlenecks in China’s struggling health system. The company is one of many less-traditional channels that health-related companies hoping to ride China’s burgeoning health segment use to sell their products.
Beijing’s three-year action plan on air pollution control released last week is likely to improve China’s air pollution, but many other health issues will continue to plague China for some time yet, accelerated by its ballooning elderly population. Demand for localised and well-marketed health equipment and medicines, healthy food, healthy living and even healthy holidays will continue to soar in China. Agencies such as China Skinny can assist to ensure you make the most of the opportunity. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
There are many relatively unknown cities in China with GDPs as large as countries. For example, the city of Zibo has an economy the size of Panama’s and Tangshan’s GDP ranks up there with New Zealand by some measures. These smaller cities are helping drive China’s consumer demand, and by proxy, the global economy. Morgan Stanley forecasts that lower tier cities will account for two-thirds of the increase in consumption between now and 2030.
As China’s biggest cities have become the most crowded and contested markets on the planet, more and more brands are looking to cities like the Zibos and Tangshans where growth is often faster and competition less fierce. We only need to look at FMCG which has been growing 2-3 times faster in lower tier cities than big cities over recent years. In tourism, the 10 fastest growing airports by passenger numbers are all tier 2 cities and below. A third of all Cadillacs sold in China were bought in tier 3 & 4 cities.
Yet while it’s become common to talk about China’s less-competitive lower tier cities, brands shouldn’t just be throwing darts at maps and reviewing GDP figures in determining where to focus. Consumers in many lower tier cities don’t yet have a level of sophistication to demand many products and services.
Before looking to the hinterland, brands should critically assess consumer behaviour and preferences in those cities. Lifestyles, climate and travel habits are often as much of a contributor to demand for a product than GDP per capita. Ecommerce data, although much less developed than tier 1 and 2 cities, can also provide hints into potential demand. Even local government policy can impact consumer demand – just look to Electric Vehicles, where six cities contribute to 40% of sales.
In many cases, the hyper-competitive cities like Shanghai and Beijing can still be the most lucrative markets to target. They have become incredibly wealthy with GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power now comparable to Switzerland. They have been wealthier longer, were allowed to travel abroad sooner, and as a result, have much more mature and sophisticated tastes. As a result, they are more ready for some Western products and services.
With both cities having more than 20 million people, just focusing on specific demographics or districts can itself produce material sales and a beachhead for further expansion.
A good example is American wholesaler Costco. Four years of testing the water with cross border commerce has given them confidence in demand for their products and formats. This month they announced they will launch two large Costco bricks & mortar stores in Shanghai. Unlike most of the 226 brands who opened their first stores centrally in Shanghai last year, Costco is opening in the outer districts of Minhang and Pudong New Area.
The bulk sales model like Costco hasn’t really taken off in China yet. Consumers have smaller kitchens and less storage than in the US, lower car usage for shopping, and a preference for freshness. However Costco is likely to have evaluated the last 4-years of ecommerce sales data to make informed decisions. If it will work anywhere, Minhang and far-flung Pudong are good bets. They are affluent areas with many large villa residences and a population who is more reliant on driving for daily needs. Costco’s first 33,000 square metre store opening in April 2019 will have 1,000 carparks. One would hope that they are integrating New Retail into their stores to ensure they are relevant and engaging for consumers.
Whether you are Costco, a fashion brand or selling vitamins, there is no consistent answer about which city is best to target. Brands would be wise to analyse different cities and regions before making a call. The cities a brand chooses to target should be an important factor in developing localised marketing strategies, selecting distributors and even lawyers familiar with local laws and regulations. Agencies such as China Skinny can assist with that. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
When an estimated 500 new products and services launch in China every day, separating your brand from the rest can be an endless struggle. Of course an informed and intelligent approach to the market is vital in driving success, but recent times have seen high-performing brands begin to move towards more collaborative methods to open up opportunities.
Some of China Skinny’s clients and other aspirational brands are increasingly opting not to tackle China alone. New trends, business models and changing influences and touch points are constantly emerging, giving rise to the effectiveness of partnerships. They have allowed brands to more easily build meaningful and emotional connections with their target markets by engaging and accessing new channels previously out of reach for them.
Many of the highest profile b2b partnerships include China’s big tech companies. It seems there are almost daily announcements of an FMCG brand, car brand or retailer signing a partnership deal with Alibaba or Tencent. The Ford-Alibaba car vending machine is a novel example which captured imaginations across China and the world. Similarly, Tencent recently teamed up with Lego to develop games, videos and a social network for Chinese children.
Beyond the well-publicised and more obvious partnerships, there are many lesser-known collaborations that are sure to surprise those both in and out of China. With China’s sought-after millennials constantly looking for more ways to express themselves, fashion and music are at the heart of the most popular cross-industry collaborations. Unexpected partnerships have blossomed, including Lipton Tea joining forces with designers in a streetwear-inspired fashion show to reach a completely new body of consumers, and TripAdvisor who partnered with Beijing-based handbag brand Rfactory to create handbags emblazoned with the online travel firm’s logo. Blackmores have teamed up with top-20-world-ranking Tsinghua University to develop a health communication curriculum course for natural medicine. In addition to the aspirational associations and the perceived commitment to China, the course puts Blackmores in good stead, set to reach some of the industry’s most persuasive future influencers during their formative years.
Like anywhere, partnerships in China allow plenty of scope for creativity and can produce much higher returns than mainstream marketing initiatives. Yet they should be well-considered, appropriately executed and kept relevant to both the existing consumer and those targeted to justify the investment and risks that come with such collaborations. Agencies such as China Skinny can assist in identifying and maximising such partnerships.
On another note, China Skinny’s Mark Tanner will be joining an esteemed line up of experts at The Secrets To Doing Business In China forum in Shanghai on Friday May 18. Mix and mingle with China-based businesses and a large delegation of visiting Australian businesses in town for the Aussie Rules and SIAL. For more details tap/click here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
The strategies and recommendations that China Skinny developed five years ago were quite different than those we do today. When we cited the best examples of marketing in China, we would typically look to foreign brands. Back then, most domestic companies’ marketing plans were focused on price promotions and discounts.
Things have changed in recent years. The allure of overseas origins remains attractive with many Chinese consumers and there are some great case studies of foreign brands backing that up with a smart marketing strategy, yet our recommendations are increasingly drawing on lessons from domestic brands. We only need to look to the dairy category where imported brands have a natural perceived advantage for health and safety, yet domestic players still manage a 38% premium per litre for online sales. This is due to slicker marketing and usually a better understanding of the market overall. Our recent survey of Australian businesses with Austcham confirmed that exporters are increasingly waking up to this, with domestic brands seen as more of a source of competition than foreign brands – 50.7% versus 49.1%.
Domestic brands are also much more likely to have stronger distribution networks and more of an appetite for lower tier cities, which are the fastest growing markets in China. Of the 50 million new households that are expected to enter China’s middle and upper classes between 2016-2020, half of them are likely to be located outside of China’s top-100 cities according to a BCG-Alibaba study. Although incomes in smaller cities are less than in larger cities, the lower cost of living means more cash is available for discretionary purchases. Further, rising property prices and increased indebtedness help fund consumption from consumers starved of the choice available in China’s high-tier cities.
Traditional domestic brands are not the only source of local competition for foreign brands in China. One of the newest competitors to the mix are the key opinion leaders – the same folk that foreign and local brands are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to endorse their brands. Just as George Clooney built his billion dollar tequila brand and Gwyneth Paltrow with lifestyle brand GOOP, China’s influencers are realising their value not just as endorsers of other brands, but to launch their own brands such as Zhang Dayi’s own fashion label and Mi Zijun’s snack shop.
The most potent new string of competition isn’t going to come from celebs though, it is likely to come from the platforms who are selling your brands themselves – China’s online giants who are becoming increasingly powerful in both the online and offline world. Although China have been late adopters of private-label brands, it is another area the big ecommerce platforms are likely to lead. Netease is the latest platform to launch its own private label, Yanxuan, selling clothing, furniture, and appliances from the same Chinese suppliers who manufacture for international brands like Kering’s Gucci, Burberry, and Deckers’ UGG. It follows Taobao’s Xinxuan which launched last year, and JD’s Jingzao in January.
The ecommerce platforms have the data to evaluate the attractiveness of the private label products coupled with the ability to test them with little risk. Just look at the 80,000 smelly Thai durians Alibaba sold in a minute. While Alibaba may be best known for its multi-billion-dollar acquisitions such as RT Mart and food delivery Ele.me, it is making plenty of smaller purchases that could add to its arsenal of home brands such as NZ dairy company Theland. Some would say it could be a conflict of interest, particularly given Alibaba’s ability to dial brands on and off, but it is the inevitable reality of supplying dominant retailers much like supermarket chains in the West.
New sources of competition all cement China’s position as the most competitive marketplace on the planet. Even categories that have been out of reach of domestic players such as the auto industry are now starting to see more and more threats from hungry and smart domestic brands – both Alibaba and Tencent have made notable investments in car manufacturers. Brands should be aware of who their competition is in order to carve out their unique place in the market and not become too reliant on one channel. Agencies like China Skinny can assist with such market mapping, gap analysis and differentiated branding and positioning. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
Australia and China’s relationship has become a fascinating representation of the delicate balancing act between politics, economics and sovereignty that this modern age of globalisation presents to nations. And with no Western country more dependent on trade with China than Australia, this particular balance holds great intrigue.
To date, Australia has managed to strike a fine balance with the Middle Kingdom. It negotiated the ‘most favoured nation’ clause into the China Australia Free Trade Agreement and was a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Yet it has deviated from China’s influence in several ways. Australia has remained firmly in the US camp for defence-related policies, it is yet to support President Xi’s pet Belt & Road project and is even exploring alternatives with China foes the US, Japan and India. It has been overtly distrustful of Huawei due to national security concerns, and its recent claims of Chinese espionage have prompted Chinese state media to call Australia an ‘anti-China pioneer’.
Regardless, Australia’s continued prosperity is becoming increasingly dependent on its relationship with China. Australian exports to China grew 25% last year to US$86 billion accounting for 29.6% of exports, with Japan being the next most important market at 12%. China is Australia’s highest-spending source of students and tourists. Australia has also been the world’s second largest recipient of Chinese investment since 2007, accounting for more than $90 billion of accumulated investment. In short, virtually every Australian is impacted by the flow of trade, people and investment from their Asian neighbour.
There are few better barometers to gauge the continued opportunities and threats in this relationship than the diverse range of Australian businesses on the ground in China and those with strong trade relationships. China Skinny was honoured to work with Austcham on the 2018 Westpac Australia-China Business Sentiment Survey which launched in Sydney yesterday.
161 businesses generously gave their time and information to help Australia understand the direction of its connection with China, identifying positive areas, and those that need work. The resulting report is full of fascinating insights from challenges, risks and competition to macro influences impacting Australian businesses in China.
Australian business sentiment was remarkably upbeat. 78% were positive about the next twelve months – higher than similar surveys of American, European, British and Canadian businesses – increasing to 83% for the 5-year outlook. This positive sentiment was particularly striking given the survey was conducted in November and December last year, a time when the China-Australian bilateral relationship was turning awry.
For 58% of respondents, China revenue outpaced other markets. These results have contributed to over half of businesses planning to increase their investment in China this year – with more investing than in 2017 and at a greater rate than their American cousins.
Arguably the most concerning finding from the survey was engagement of digital platforms which have become an important channel for B2C and B2B segments in China. Whilst we found the majority of respondents recognised innovation in technology, media and communications as the number 1 trend shaping businesses in China for the next 3-5 years, just 16% currently have a detailed China digital/ecommerce strategy in place. Those who did were 12% more likely to turn a profit in China and were 18% more likely to see China revenue outpace other markets.
The beautifully presented report (thanks Charlotte, Kate and Stephanie) delivers a valuable perspective into the overall health and opportunities for Australian businesses in China. It also provides a benchmark for your own performance – not just as an Australian business, but any foreign firm trading with China. Download your free copy here. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.
“Analysis by the Environmental Working Group found that 160,000 people living in the region may be harmed by pig waste … pigs are treated with antibiotics, vaccines and insecticides, all of which eventually pass into the lagoons, which have been found to contain toxic chemicals, nitrates, parasites, viruses and more than a hundred strands of antibiotic-resistant microbes, including salmonella, streptococci and giardia. People die with distressing regularity in the waste.”
Your mind will likely jump to images of pig farms in Henan or Sichuan province, yet the exert was taken straight out of a Rolling Stone article on the hog industry in North Carolina; America’s pork-producing heartland where the country’s largest pork producer Smithfield is located. In 2013, Smithfield was acquired by the Chinese conglomerate now known as WH Group for $7.1 billion. Due to lower pig-feed prices, larger farms and loose business and environmental regulation, it is 50% cheaper to produce pork in the US than China, prompting China to outsource some of its environmental and human costs abroad. The Smithfield acquisition has been so successful, WH Group has subsequently made similar purchases in Poland and Romania.
Whilst we could fill thousands of newsletters with similar examples from toxic Chinese farms, the North Carolina exert is representative of a broad trend that is happening in China as it becomes wealthier, moves up the value chain and sees its citizens demand more.
China’s outsourcing spans far beyond food production. As China’s labour costs continue to soar and environmental regulation gets tougher, many manufacturers are looking towards South and Southeast Asia – and probably Central Asia and Eastern Europe as infrastructure improves with Belt and Road initiatives. While China celebrates its reduction in coal consumption and improving environment, it is offloading surplus coal to an outdated dirty coal plant on the coast of Kenya that it recently financed, poised to become the country’s largest polluter. China recently built a $250 million fast fashion factory in Ethiopia in addition to other significant manufacturing investments and agricultural production like in many other countries in Africa.
The trend certainly isn’t a new phenomenon. Similar outsourcing happened with the British empire, and more recently with American multinationals who ironically outsourced much of their dirty industry to China. In short, it is another indicator of how the world is pivoting.
From a purely commercial perspective, the allure of selling cheap commodities to service Chinese consumers’ ever-growing appetite while polluting lagoons, rivers, land and people may appeal in the short term, there are some factors indicating that it may not be sustainable in the medium-long term. There are the obvious hideous effects of the pollution, but also the fact that through technology and increasing infrastructure investments in poorer countries across Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, the market is likely to see a rise of large scale competitors bringing down the overall price of commodities.
From a branding perspective, Chinese consumers are trading up across almost every category from smartphones to dairy. Well marketed brands from developed nations are able to charge a premium based on the exemplar reputation their country has, playing well to this premiumisation trend. But this comparative advantage shouldn’t be taken for granted. Stories such as Smithfield’s pork producers will be seen by Chinese consumers and chip away at the value of Brand USA as a whole, if proposed tariffs weren’t enough already. Although Chinese place less significance on the environmental impacts of food production than their Western peers, this is changing. With origin being such an important decision driver for many Chinese purchases, it would pay to think strategically. Go to Page 2 to see this week’s China news and highlights.