1.4 billion business opportunities
Are you ready for the big league? The most ambitious, exhilarating and demanding market there is? Making it in China will be one of the major watersheds of the coming generation for businesses. As one of the leading insight, innovation and design agencies in the Nordic region, Kuudes wants to be in the frontier, creating new opportunities for Nordic brands.
We believe that understanding the consumers’ profound values, latent motives and attitudes in decision making is a key element, whether innovating successful product or service concepts or positioning a brand into a new market.
Thanks to our wide-scale study, the Informed Consumer, in Finland and in Sweden, Kuudes has vast amounts of insight about Nordic consumers. But in order to succeed in China, there has to be deeper understanding of how the Chinese differ from their Nordic counterparts as consumers. The goal of this report is to help Nordic food brands understand the main differences between China and the Nordic countries. Whether your brand is already in the Chinese market or you are planning to enter it, you can use this report as a first tool for finding your brand’s spot on the market.
China is not just the world’s biggest nation: during the last couple of decades China has undergone a massive transformation from an underdeveloped country into one of the world’s leading economies and booming consumer markets. The rising economy has lifted hundreds of millions of households out of poverty and has created a new wealthy middle class. For years, China has been called the world’s factory but now it’s also the world’s consumer. As the Chinese middle class grows and becomes wealthier, more and more Chinese will be travelling abroad – and the Nordics are one of the favoured destinations. Understanding the Chinese consumer is also beneficial for companies who only operate locally.
“Brands tend to underestimate Chinese consumers and trust that they will buy any food if it’s Western.”
But it is important to remember that there are vast economic and demographic differences across the country which affect lifestyles and consumption patterns. Generalising the Chinese consumer into a one-size-fits-all is not possible.
In our study, we targeted consumers who have the interest and means to buy Western food: young, educated middle-class consumers with a relatively good income living in the first-tier cities and Hong Kong. During the project, we partnered with Fudan University’s MBA students who assisted us in planning and executing field studies in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. In total, our Sino-Nordic team visited eight homes, conducted 12 in-depth interviews and carried out nearly 100 contextual interviews in restaurants, cafés and supermarkets.
And what an importance food has for the Chinese! It has a central role in life, and people connect multiple meanings to it. It’s a way of creating togetherness, a tool for self-expression, a source of inspiration, or something to turn to when looking for comfort. Not to forget the aspect of health, which is an inseparable part in the context of food in China.
We have divided this report into six themes that all present different values that are connected to food: Stimulation, Convenience, Community, Individualism, Heritage and Safety. These themes provide viewpoints on what food means to the Chinese and what is shaping Chinese consumption.
We believe that there is huge potential for Nordic food brands in China. But we have noticed that brands tend to underestimate the Chinese consumer and trust that their product will sell well since the market is so big and the Chinese will buy any food if it’s Western. Through our learning from China and a comparison with Nordic context, we are proud to present our study and help Nordic food brands use their full potential when conquering a new market.
Looking for growth in China?
The values of Nordic food brands offer a strong competitive edge in China. But what works in the Nordics, gets lost in China’s vast selection. Nordic brands are premium and not something for the masses. So we really need to know who to target and how to attract them. At Kuudes, we can help you look at your brand through the lenses of a Chinese consumer.
Contact us for:
- Tailored talks to share our insights.
- Workshops that allow you to discover the advantages of your brand in China.
- Insight & innovation projects for developing concepts that answer to global and Chinese needs. Designed in co-creation with Chinese consumers.
- Branding & design where the positioning, communication and visual language are world-class and speak to the Chinese.
We cooperate with our Chinese partners from Fudan University and Thenetworkone, the world’s leading independent agency network.
+358 40 730 9612 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Åsa Samuelsson, Kuudes Stockholm
+46 733 937 323 / email@example.com
Project in a nutshell
Opportunity: The biggest market in the world offers 1.4 billion business opportunities, but China still remains a mystery for many Nordic companies.
Universal needs, different manifestations: Before answering to specific needs, we need to know the Chinese and their origin. People everywhere have the same universal needs, but the manifestation of them differs greatly.
China is showing the way: As one of the leading markets in technology, the Chinese consumption patterns are already showcasing the future scenarios, such as cashless society, for the rest of the world.
What did we do?
Worked in co-operation with a Chinese University: Studied consumers in co-operation with Fudan University. Concentrating in three major cities: Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Met and talked with people: 3 weeks of observation, 80+ contextual interviews in local supermarkets, restaurants and coffee shops.
Went to their homes: 12 in-depth interviews, 8 of which conducted in Chinese homes.
What did we learn?
If you’re looking for more detailed insights from China, just scroll down to read the entire report!
In China, food is used more and more as a lifestyle indicator. But instead of focusing on what you can afford, the emphasis is more on knowing what the coolest thing is at this very moment. And those moments come and go at a rapid pace. Therefore, people expect a lot from food: stimulation, novelty, experiences and inspiration. For the Chinese, food is a way of living in the moment and embracing it.
1. The Chinese live to eat, while the Nordics eat to live
Food plays a central role in Chinese people’s lives as a source of well-being and enjoyment. The taste and texture of food are important parts of the enjoyment and the Chinese expect experiences from every single mouthful. In addition, relaxation and social gatherings are more emphasised compared to the Nordics, where people sometimes let food serve only as fuel and as a necessity to keep them going.
Above all, for the Chinese, food should always taste good and be delicious. Looking from the Nordics, this is considered hedonism but from the Chinese perspective, it is simply a starting point. Good taste and enjoyment are being taken for granted and people are not willing to give up tasty food for health or environmental reasons. The Chinese are masters at mindful eating and people describe food as a source of happiness. Nordic people might feel shame about their emotional eating but the Chinese happily stimulate their taste buds to feel better. As the old Chinese saying goes, food is the sky.
OPPORTUNITY: The Chinese expect a lot from food and their flavour preferences differ from ours. Push your products, make them rich in flavour, and indulgent and explorative in texture. Dare to challenge the usual and be original, but combine the newness into a flavour, format or context that is familiar to the Chinese. Make use of the curiosity of the Chinese and share knowledge: the Chinese are endlessly interested in food. Especially with snacks, they experiment with new products and brands, while with staple foods people they can be more loyal to known brands.
2. The Chinese embrace all food inspiration, while the Nordics fear being victims of marketing
Being endlessly curious about food, the Chinese are inspired by everything they see around them: social media, apps, ads, celebrities, packaging and cooking shows. It is important to be aware of the newest phenomena and show off the understanding of what is the latest trend. The Chinese are not afraid to be influenced by marketing, and it is regarded as a viable channel of communication. In the Nordics, attitudes towards marketing messages are more complex and sensitive: people might be scared to be seen as “victims of a marketer” if they do not question their messages and aim for individual, informed choices.
Even though the Chinese follow celebrities closely for inspiration, peer reviews are still the primary source for validating information. And being a social media influencer is a role that many seem to dream of, and sharing your life in social media is common. The Chinese truly build their identity on social media rather than just keeping up with their friends and sharing content. If you know that your pals haven’t yet tried the hip restaurant around the corner, you are bound to share your visit on WeChat Moments. That is also why you must queue at Heytea (it is a crucial part of the experience), no matter how much you hate queuing.
OPPORTUNITY: Remember that in China, information travels through social media and the power of word-of-mouth is much greater than in the Nordics. The Chinese have robust networks around the globe, spreading information from one continent to another. Chinese immigrants in the Nordics are a valuable source of information. Involving them in your product development by using user-centric methods such as co-creation or validation could be worthwhile, as they may provide a lot of new and useful information. If they are keen on the concept, their friends back in China will definitely hear about it. In addition, utilising local celebrities and opinion leaders is a potential way of gaining attention and creating interest among local consumers.
3. The Chinese seek enjoyment from food every day, whereas in the Nordics the emphasis is on the weekends
Hectic days full of stress and demands are something that determine life equally in Shanghai and Stockholm. Although the Chinese consider success and financial freedom to be major goals in life, the underlying motive is universal: to gain a balanced and good life. When the present moment is sacrificed for some hard work, the need for balancing experiences is paramount.
Food allows the Chinese to connect with the present and enjoy life right here and now. It is a way of recuperation and a delightful counteract for work and other demands. The Chinese make sure they have enough time for a proper meal, no matter how tight a deadline might be. The occidental habit of having a working lunch or just snacking through the day would not be appreciated. Skipping lunch or dinner is out of the question.
And the Chinese do not feel bad about seeking comfort or relaxation from food after a hard day at the office. In the Nordics, relaxation comes after the week is done. People tend to separate holidays and weekends from the ordinary everyday: at the weekends people are willing to spend more time around food, while during the week the emphasis is rather on food’s functional value.
OPPORTUNITY: Whereas in China the awareness of stress-related risks are on the rise, those in the Nordics are connected to the simple things and life quality. Young professionals in particular are starting to question the meaning behind making sacrifices for working hard and are seeking simple life solutions without stress. The idea of “less is more” is becoming more and more mainstream. Therefore, there is great potential for a Nordic product that offers an indulgent experience for the hectic Chinese lifestyle. But do remember that the Chinese care about the full experience and context: they like to be educated on how the food is served and enjoyed and want to be immersed in the correct atmosphere, for the ultimate relaxing moment.
Key opinion leaders have an impact on people’s eating habits and lead trends in both fashion and food. Rishiji is such an opinion leader on Sina Weibo with more than 12 million followers, posting short cooking videos and teaching culinary skills. The videos are short but the stories are heart-warming, similar to the popular Japanese TV series Late Night Canteen. The interaction with a white cat in each snippet makes it even more fascinating. Rishiji started his own business on Taobao.com in 2014, selling snacks, coffee, plates, bowls and cooking implements. The business currently has a fan base of 600,000, having successfully transferred fans from social media to an e-commerce platform.
Special, premium treats offer relaxation during a busy day. They provide an important break from a fast-paced and goal-oriented life. Heytea’s overly indulgent cup is like a cigarette after a hard day’s work – and it is a moment to show off on social media after standing in a queue for 30 minutes.
Thanks to China’s rapid economic growth and the rise in the standard of living, people have gained access to products, services and experiences their parents could only have dreamt of. And all of them are available instantly and conveniently, anywhere and anytime, thanks to new technology. In a hectic everyday life, where working overtime is the norm, convenient and time-saving solutions are highly appreciated.
1. In China, online food services are highly developed, whereas in the Nordics we are just taking baby steps
Due to “the Great Firewall of China”, most of the Western social media platforms and services are banned – and can only be reached via VPN connection. Therefore, China has created a domestic ecosystem of its own, consisting of digital services that are well developed, innovative and more efficient compared to their Western counterparts. They are not only making the country the largest e-commerce market in the world but also the forerunner of digital services. Food, as a fundamental part of life, is always at the frontier of change.
The Chinese are truly embracing the opportunities of new technology. Great take-out food and different products are immediately available in a couple of clicks. Nordic people still don’t rely on the Internet when it comes to food but for the Chinese, online equals great variety and good quality. The competition is fierce, meaning that service producers are constantly forced to make improvements and to figure out innovative ways to provide added value to consumers. Transparency and guaranteed quality are ways to differentiate. Locals are quick to vote with their feet, or to be specific, with their fingertips.
OPPORTUNITY: It might not be important or even useful for your product to be sold by big chains via bricks-and-mortar channels. The young Chinese middle class buys its food online – and even C2C. Find out where your target group can be reached.
2. In China, new retail is the new norm, but in the Nordics, we still make a strict distinction between online and offline
Chinese people expect to get a comprehensive experience regarding food. Online services are challenging the traditional bricks-and-mortar stores: when everything is conveniently reachable online, physical stores need to offer something that cannot be experienced via mobile. This has created a wave of new retail stores in China that are changing the way the Chinese do their grocery shopping.
New retail stores and concept restaurants are integrating services beyond traditional limits and combining offline and online seamlessly and innovatively. Online retail stores launch offline locations and physical stores integrate online features to their services – creating new and inspirational shopping environments. How would you feel about being able to scan barcodes with your phone for inspirational product information? Or being able to order the product that you are missing straight to your doorstep? In the Nordics this feels like something that can be experienced far in the future, but in China the future is already here.
OPPORTUNITY: Aim to create a full and immersive Nordic experience around your product. Remember that the Chinese are not just buying your product but the whole Nordic lifestyle. Take advantage of new retail and utilise the in-store restaurants that enable consumers to pick their food from the store and get it prepared and served on the spot. That might be a viable way of sharing information about Nordic products and helping locals to understand how the products could be used.
3. The Chinese utilise convenient food services, whilst the Nordics rely on convenience food.
Consumers in China and in the Nordics prefer homemade food since it is prepared with fresh ingredients and is perceived as healthier and safer. In particular, families with children are trying to cook and eat at home, while single people prefer eating out or ordering take-aways. In China, slow cooking is considered particularly healthy, and a proud housewife or grandmother will take the time to prepare nutritious slow-cooked broths to care for her family.
In the Nordics, people struggle to find the time to cook, and often they rely on ready-to-eat meals. The same phenomenon is growing in China. Due to the hectic pace of life, people don’t have time to cook at home as much as they would like to and are looking for tips for time-saving products that are easy to cook. Instant noodles and frozen dumplings have been available for decades but only in recent years has the convenience food category seen growth and a diversification of options. Moreover, take-away culture is strong as the Chinese are embracing convenient and affordable food services.
OPPORTUNITY: Even when talking about convenience food, it is important to remember that Chinese cooking habits differ from ours. Many meals are prepared by steaming, even though microwaves and ovens are becoming more and more common. When introducing a novelty product, it is vital to make the preparation instructions understandable (not just the product). Do not take it for granted that the Chinese will intuitively know how to prepare an instant porridge in the microwave – or that they would even be willing to do so. Adapt your product to local habits rather than trying to change the way they prepare their food.
Coffee Box is a café without a physical location – they serve only online. Delivery services in the Nordics are not yet agile enough for us to be able to imagine ordering a cup of fresh hot coffee via Facebook right into our hands, but in China it is business as usual. Coffee Box is available conveniently through WeChat and it is growing aggressively because customers get hefty discounts for inviting new people to join.
If you visit a physical store, you really need a good reason for it. Some restaurants offer a whole package for a weekend’s entertainment – restaurant, supermarket, fresh market, amusement park – all in one. “I like the Baoyan seafood restaurant a lot, not just because of the freshness of the food. There are so many places where children can have fun and adults can relax. We don’t have to change places the whole day.”
What’s the next step after meal kits that offer a recipe with all the necessary ingredients? The WOCHU app provides semi-finished food for busy people who are always on the go. For many, the most time-consuming and boring part of cooking is the preparation of raw ingredients. At WOCHU you can get a packet of beef, needle mushrooms, asparagus, lettuce, garlic bolt and tomato sauce, for example. All you need to do is to boil the water and add the ingredients.
In China, family is everything. People work hard to achieve financial security to care for their children and ageing parents. Food has a central role in building social relations and creating a sense of belonging. Having dinner is an important moment in the day, shared with family members, friends and colleagues.
1. For the Chinese, communal dinners are a way of creating social cohesion, and people in the Nordics are starting to realise this as well
In China, having dinner is not only an important moment in the day but also a way of building social relations. And for the Chinese, it is essential to be a part of the community. Therefore, they take time for food and pay attention to the social setting around it. In the Nordics, the habit of communal eating has disappeared to some extent, and especially in everyday life, people struggle to find time for family dinners.
The Chinese value relationships, and business networks are built around the dinner table. Having business dinners and spending time with co-workers is an essential part of the local business culture that is firmly built on trust, also known as guanxi. Sharing is a ubiquitous theme in the Chinese dinner: you are not only sharing the moment but in addition, all the dishes are meant to be shared. This could be tough for Nordic people who are used to having their individual special diets and food restrictions, since they see food as a way of distinguishing themselves from others rather than connecting with them.
OPPORTUNITY: Understanding the significance of having a communal dinner is crucial for achieving success in the market. When creating products for the Chinese, it’s important to keep in mind that they tend to share their food. Shareability is a vital feature for everything from snack products to meals, and the ritual of gift-giving is important. This should be considered in packaging.
2. Chinese children bear great expectations; in the Nordics childhood is more carefree
Becoming a parent changes the way people relate to food and makes them more concerned about safety, healthiness and quality. Parents are extremely careful with the food they provide for their children, especially in China. Due to scandals involving food and even baby formula, Chinese parents have little trust in domestic food, and after having their first child, families often start to purchase more imported food. It’s not uncommon for a child to be given different food from the rest of the family, so that he/she can have the more expensive imported, organic and trusted brand products that are guaranteed to be safe.
As an outcome of the one-child policy, Chinese children face huge expectations. Both parents and grandparents have high hopes for the child’s future success since they are unlikely to have any more offspring. The competition for university places and jobs is fierce from an early age and Chinese children are said to be too busy for playtime. Children are also provided with food that is beneficial for their growth and believed to make them grow tall, strong and clever. Dairy products, eggs and meat are considered particularly good for growing youngsters.
OPPORTUNITY: In the Nordics, kids have a long-lasting, happy-go-lucky childhood where play is believed to be their main job. This image of Nordic childhood could be used in premium children’s products in playful ways that appeal to the Chinese. Nordic food is considered clean and safe. We also have a long history of tracking children’s growth and development and therefore have good knowledge of youth nutrition. This know-how could be valuable and credible for Chinese parents.
3. In China, family members are dependent on each other, whereas in the Nordics, people rely on the state
In the Nordics, the traditional extended family has shrunk into nuclear or single-parent families, whereas in China the definition of family is much wider. Chinese mothers return to work soon after having a baby and instead of enrolling the baby in day care, it is common for grandparents to start taking care of their grandchildren. Young families live with (or close to) grandparents, so combining everyday lives is easy. This can also be seen in food consumption. One person – usually the grandmother – typically shops and cooks for the whole extended family. In every case, the decision maker and the cook are not the same person, so the needs and opinions of different generations need to be fitted together.
As long as they are able to, parents take care of their grown-up children but unlike in the Nordics, it works the other way around as well. It is common for the grown-up offspring to start saving a significant share of their income in order to care for their parents when they get older. In the Nordics, people rely on the welfare state to support those in need.
OPPORTUNITY: The fact that many generations live together helps families put great emphasis on eating. One person can take time to cook for a big group of people. But needs must also be merged. Although the most important target group for imported foods are the young and educated, a brand must consider the children as well as their parents. How does the older generation respond to the brand? Will the grandparent understand how to cook the new product purchased by the parent? Are the health benefits relevant to different ages?
Yili QQ Star
The Chinese traditionally think that children who eat fish are cleverer. That’s why some companies, especially those in the dairy segment, add fish oil extract or DHA to their products and use brain development claims. One of them is Yili, the largest dairy company in China, and they have a sub-brand called Yili QQ Star, which offers products for bone and brain development and a balanced diet.
Milk in gift packs
The Chinese are enthusiastic gift-givers, and exchanging gifts is a part of the social glue that builds social relations. Gifts have an essential role in showing affection and appreciation to friends and family as well as business acquaintances, and the Chinese do pay a lot of attention to them. When deciding what to give as a gift, the answer is often food. Fruit is one of the most common food-related gifts. Ready-made fruit baskets are conveniently available in supermarkets and fruit stores, but sometimes just a couple peaches will do the job. Regional specialties are highly appreciated and the Chinese make sure they have something to bring home when they return from their trips. Large milk packages or eggs are also considered good gifts for relatives and family, since they are practical and often needed. Milk is commonly available in multipacks for gift-giving purposes.
China has been defined as a collectivist society with an emphasis on the group rather than the individual. Today, however, people have more opportunities to make their own choices and have started to use consumption as a way to search for and express themselves. The Chinese are masters of independent thinking: they are used to being critical about “official truths” and trusting their own experiences rather than listening to guidance coming from above.
1. China is in a consumption boom; the Nordics have a consumption hangover
Nordic people have reached such a level of material comfort that they are searching for meaning elsewhere. People want to make a difference, and caring for nature as well as animal and human rights is increasingly meaningful. Unsustainable consumption habits and the exploitative use of environmental resources are causing anxiety, and matured markets are trying to follow people and fulfil their needs and wishes in other ways.
In China, the growing middle class has recently entered the world of material luxury after a history of poverty. Today, a commonly accepted ideal for life is built on individual success and material comfort. Being able to pay attention to environmental or societal matters are still considered a luxury few can afford. As attention is on other topics, awareness of consumption-related problems is quite low. Few people are aware of the risks that food production is creating to the environment, for example.
OPPORTUNITY: Sustainability is not yet a value that will help you sell a product in China. That doesn’t mean that the clean Nordic nature shouldn’t be used in food branding. And we shouldn’t forget that the Chinese are taking huge leaps ahead, and sustainability will also be a topic of the future for them. So far, green marketing has focused mostly on the (health) benefits for the individual, but the next wave might involve opportunities to provide both: for the consumer and the environment. And even if the Chinese don’t take action themselves, green Nordic values will help to build the image of Nordic food as safe and pure.
2. The Chinese trust in individual experience, whereas the Nordics trust in the authorities
In the Nordics, most people still have faith in the authorities, but the Chinese lack trust in “public” information, such as food certificates. They don’t want to be guided by the authorities – instead they wish to make decisions based on their own – or their friends’ – judgement. People are keen to gain more knowledge about food and are quite skilled at finding information to support their decisions. The ways of finding food-related information include individual networks of trusted sources such as official research, family and friends, and a multitude of online channels. Having a good reputation is invaluable since food-related knowledge spreads through social media.
Ultimately, recommendations are the most reliable source of information. The Chinese rely on personal connections and make a clear distinction between what is said by private profiles and what by official accounts. In the Nordics, people have such a profound trust in officials, research, media and other guiding instances that in some cases it is fair to say the link to common sense and individual responsibility is somewhat lacking.
OPPORTUNITY: Don’t forget that Chinese trust is built on personal experiences and the experiences of others. Your product is safe if enough people have tried it. The credibility of a product stems from social media. Although the Chinese don’t always trust local authorities, do bear in mind that they may still have trust for Western authorities and therefore our local eco labels and other indicators possess value.
3. The Chinese search for individuality within their community, while the Nordics are encouraged to strive for independence
Since it has become easy to fulfil basic needs, the Chinese want to make consumption choices that reflect their identities. Food has become a major tool for self-expression, since it is strongly present in all areas of everyday life and has such profound importance in Chinese culture.
Therefore, Chinese consumers are becoming more brand-sensitive and expect brands to reflect their values. Expectations grow and choices become more emotionally driven. Brands have growing importance and people don’t want to just buy in bulk.
However, even if the Chinese consumer strives to make more individual choices, they don’t want to be distinguished from society or the community. In the Nordics, individualism means independence from others, but in China, people are extremely sensitive to society’s norms. They make individual choices within generally accepted limits and look for constant validation for their choices in social media. That is why sharing experiences of brands and products is so important: all e-commerce sites have a social component and people can spend several hours a day discussing their consumption choices. It is a way for people to show and gain social capital.
OPPORTUNITY: Imported food is a daily luxury, which is why many Chinese want to invest in buying into an aspirational lifestyle. Successful products have a story that you can become part of and want to share. Find out what it is in your brand and product that really touches the Chinese. And make it shareable.
Redbook started as a platform for young women to share and recommend products that they bought while travelling overseas. Later, it became an e-commerce site for purchasing such products. Redbook has an interface similar to Pinterest. Users comment and save recommendations that others post. If you post quality content you get followers and may become a powerful influencer in this service that has more than 60 million users.
Although sustainability is not an issue of interest for the Chinese, Hunter Gatherer has managed to make a highly relevant business around a sustainable concept. The chain runs their own farms, making the food local and seasonal. The seed-to-table restaurants offer natural, fresh, chemical-free food in Shanghai. And above all, Hunter Gatherer answers the Chinese need for eating safe and clean food without trying to push green values.
The Nordic countries are strongly influenced by new food trends, such as gluten-free or veganism. The Chinese do pick up trends but don’t go too far with them. The country has thousands of years of know-how of food and well-being, and people are not easily convinced to change their habits. Restrictive special diets are unimaginable, because the purpose of food is ultimately to enjoy – stressing out is unhealthy.
1. China has a rich and old food culture, whereas Nordic food culture is young and simple
In China, food is one of the most essential things in life, and people are extremely proud of their rich culinary culture. Knowledge and the symbolic significance of food are passed on from one generation to another.
China has several regional cuisines that are rich in flavours from sweet to sour, bitter to hot, while Nordic food might taste bland. The Chinese are emotionally attached to their food culture and many who have moved away from their hometown still prefer those familiar flavours. Some justify their preference for local over Western cuisine with their “Chinese taste buds” or “Chinese stomach”. In some cases, Eastern food has a reputation for being unhealthy fast food and people may find it challenging to adapt to foreign flavours. However, the Chinese are very open to trying new dishes and modern traditions emerge from influences of other cultures and imported foods. It has become common knowledge that oatmeal is a healthy breakfast. Dairy, beef and food supplements are now also perceived as healthy because of Western influence.
OPPORTUNITY: Build understanding on how your product fits in with the Chinese food heritage. The Chinese might use your product in a different situation or serve it in an unexpected way. Oatmeal may be enjoyed with meat floss and cold drinks might be heated up. Understanding the context and associations will help you to package and communicate the product correctly.
2. The Chinese believe in ancient wisdom; the Nordics believe in the latest studies
Perceptions of health knowledge vary greatly between China and the Nordics. The average person has a high level of awareness of traditional Chinese medicine and has perhaps learnt to take charge of their own health by knowing what is good for your personal mind and body type. This is why people value experience rather than following the latest scientific studies, like we do in the Nordic countries.
There are some general guidelines: respect mealtimes, drink your water warm, avoid certain food while you have your period… But what you should eat always depends on the current balance of your body. Therefore, the issue of healthy food is much more complex and sophisticated than just saying that some foods are good and some bad, like we do in the West. From the Chinese perspective, the Western way of healthy eating appears to be taken out of context: eating specific food to target a single health benefit is not as rational as taking the whole spectrum of health into consideration. Good nutrition supports your health as a whole, not just a single purpose.
OPPORTUNITY: Find out how your wholesome product supports traditional Chinese medicine. The health perceptions of an ingredient may differ significantly from what we think in the West. We are used to connecting liquorice root to sweets – the Chinese use it as a medicine. And if you introduce a health benefit that is new to a Chinese consumer, it could still help to rely on history: the long traditions of rye bread or fermented dairy in a wholesome lifestyle can make the product more credible.
3. The Chinese nurture the whole body and mind – the Nordics focus on fixing symptoms
Nordic people are becoming more and more interested in taking a holistic approach towards well-being, which has always been the way the Chinese think. They know it is better to prevent a disease with good food than cure it with medicine. For health problems, there are no quick fixes because the aim is not only to cure the disease; it is also to nurture the whole body and work on its unbalance. Treatments for this are specific foods and ways of eating – often for a period of several months – even though the symptom may be overcome in days or weeks.
While Nordic people separate the mental and physical, for the Chinese, happiness equals healthiness. One cannot eat bad food and feel good (but eating healthily is not the only tool for a healthy life). Eating ideally in accordance with your body type can even be knowingly compromised if it feels too demanding or is not easy to organise. Stressing about healthiness is not considered healthy.
OPPORTUNITY: Avoid branding your healthy product with a problem-focused approach. Try to keep in mind that if a Chinese person has a sore throat, they will take care of the whole body, not just the body part in question, by using Chinese medicine with a bunch of natural herbs and food products. Also, the new products should nurture you in a holistic way – and not be a quick fix.
Chinese medicine boiling and packaging service
Traditional Chinese medicine plays a big role in people’s lives. Letting the ingredients simmer for hours until you have a dark, medicinal soup is a crucial ritual. But today many just don’t have the time for that. Many hospitals offer ready-made and packed Chinese medicine so that anyone can enjoy its benefits conveniently.
Starbucks Reserve is much more than just a café: it offers inspiration, insight and coffee heritage to the Chinese customer who is so thirsty to know and experience more. The whole production line is brought into the café, allowing customers to see how their brew is made from bean to cup and to learn about different varieties and experience new products. “My mind gets peaceful when I watch the barista making a cup of siphon coffee.” More and more food stores are using this kind of lab concept in order to showcase innovation and communicate about outstanding flavour, quality and safety.
Ultimately, food is a simple matter in China: safety is the number one criteria for most people. Scandals have shaken trust in domestic food, so people look for ways to find trustworthy products, be it imported or from a brand that guarantees transparency and traceability. In the Nordics, food security is taken for granted, but in China, it is a matter of life and death.
1. The Chinese trust imported food; the Nordics value local
The Chinese worry about food safety above all. In recent years, China has faced a series of severe food safety scandals, creating a deep concern towards local food. Imported food is perceived as being safer, especially if it is made in developed countries, because of their strict food quality standards. For the Chinese, the link between the product and the origin is of utmost importance, and people connect certain foods with certain countries: milk with Australia, beef with New Zealand, cheese with Switzerland. But when people found out that the popular Danish butter cookies by Danisa were actually made in Indonesia, people were shocked and made them react.
Pollution is also a factor that is making the Chinese turn towards imported food. As China is one of the most polluted countries in the world, it is a tangible issue in their everyday lives that cannot be avoided. In the morning, people check the air quality using an app, like how Nordic people check to see what the weather is like. People are worried about the effects of pollution and chemicals, and are aware that traces of them will also end up in food. Chinese brands need to work twice as hard to be trustworthy, and therefore they will also end up raising the bar for imported brands.
OPPORTUNITY: Apart from Denmark, the Chinese don’t know much about the Nordic countries or identify them with specific foods. The Nordic region as a whole is known, and it should be used as a basis for branding. Currently, the Nordic associations are limited to salmon and dairy, but there is potential for more. The Chinese also connect the Nordic countries with health, happiness, quality of life, good education and clean nature. These are wonderful and naturally highly appreciated associations for proper and pure food. Most of our food companies have such strict principles and high values that by increasing transparency and communication, we could build brands that are highly credible for the Chinese.
2. The Chinese worry about freshness, the Nordics worry about the expiry date
Freshness is crucial to the Chinese. And people don’t just look at the expiry date: they check the manufacturing date too. Products with a very long shelf life are treated with suspicion, but on the other hand, food that doesn’t expire too quickly is considered safe and convenient. Generally, food packaging is an important informant about safety: if the item is well packaged, it is considered safe. From a Western perspective Chinese products can appear over-packaged. The quality of the packaging is seen as a sign of the quality of the product itself.
People weigh their options and buy imported meat because they value safety, but they might still choose local milk because it is fresher. Some are becoming more critical about imported goods – especially because of their freshness. Is the product produced too far away? Is it fresh? Is it really high in quality? Traditional fresh markets are extremely popular in China, even though it is impossible to track the origin of the products. In the markets, freshness indicates quality. Some people don’t want to buy fruit and vegetables from ordinary grocery stores and have separate shopping lists for stores and fresh markets. They also prefer to buy live seafood in order to make sure that is fresh.
OPPORTUNITY: The Chinese worry that food imported from the other side of the world cannot be as fresh as they expect it to be. Still, stores are filled with products that are made in New Zealand or Australia and many Chinese consider them to have been made quite close by. The Nordics seem further away. This is partly due to low awareness of the region. But if you measure the distance from the Nordic countries to China and compare it to the distance from Australia, the difference is minimal. And this is something we need to convince the Chinese about. It is important to highlight the freshness and unprocessed quality of the raw ingredients. It is also good to critically evaluate which products are OK to be imported all the way from the Nordics.
3. The Chinese trust big brands, while the Nordics value small and artisanal
In China, it’s hard to know what is really clean and safe but it is better to be safe than sorry: the most concerned even boil and filter their bottled water. Since food safety is not a given, people rely on well-known brands. Brands are credible and trustworthy if they are big and have a long heritage. For example, Japanese dairy company Meiji is creating credibility by stating that it is the number one best seller in Japan. Good experiences with the brand accumulate when you try products and notice the brand’s presence. Having seen it on TV is a positive reference. Small-scale brands lack credibility and the Chinese question the safety of those products. But when sold through trustworthy channels like Sam’s Club or Tmall, people will not doubt the safety of the small challenger.
OPPORTUNITY: If you have a big market share in Finland, it might be valuable to boldly state so in China. But if you are a small business you can build on long history, popularity, the top class of your production methods, or maybe on the long traditions of the ingredients you use. The Chinese want validation. Remember that small brands disappear in amongst the range offered by big retail chains: online might be the way to go.
To gain the trust of consumers, the Chinese dairy brand Feihe has launched a transparent system where consumers can remotely connect to any surveillance camera installed in any unit of the industry to see live activities, from grass growing to dairy cow farming and logistics. The visibility and traceability of the whole industry chain makes people trust the safety of its product. Sales of their premium milk powder tripled in 2017.
Milk stays good for seven days, but Ririxian milk is put on the shelf for only 24 hours. Previously, consumers needed to find the milk with the freshest manufacturing date from the shelf by themselves. RIRIXIAN claims that it will never sell milk which has been displayed on the shelf for more than one day, so consumers can always buy the freshest milk.
Sellers in Tmall have to have a registered company and trademark; no individual people are accepted. A deposit is charged before you open your online shop on Tmall, and all the registration files should be completely authentic or your company will be deprived of any activity. Taobao has a different model from Tmall. Anyone can open a store at Taobao without paying any fee, which means the entry barriers for each store owner are extremely low. Meanwhile, the credibility of Taobao stores are relatively low compared to Tmall. If you are looking for premium, you would prefer Tmall over Taobao.
China offers 1.4 billion business opportunities, but they don’t come free. Chinese consumers are more capable, confident and curious than ever before, and keeping up with the ever-changing consumer habits and preferences is truly a challenge. They embrace technology in their daily lives in a way that puts them way ahead of the rest of the world. And when it comes to food, the central role that food has in the Chinese way of life means that the bar is raised to a very high level for new products and services. In some sense, the Chinese are much more demanding than their Nordic counterparts – and they are also willing to pay for good concepts and high quality.
The norm for what is considered desirable in China has been greatly influenced by Western ideas and commercial concepts. This will change, as the whole meaning of “made in China” is undergoing a major transformation and attitudes towards domestic design and production are in flux. Future generations of Chinese people will not be Westernised Chinese, but modern Chinese individuals. In the future, the Chinese will shape their attitudes for themselves and for the rest of the world than follow the given, imported meanings for what is considered desirable and what is not. For a product, being Western is not the key to success.
The modern China is actively defining the future and leading the way for the whole world. Therefore, we should never underestimate China but instead learn from this highly advanced market and work hard to design products that are meaningful and attractive to the Chinese consumer.