The recent sale of Weetabix to US company Post Holdings reminds us of how Weetabix struggled to gain market share in China. This chapter for the brand should serve as a cautionary tale for others considering Asian expansion.
While there is clear and growing demand for UK brands in China, they simply can’t rely on a ‘build it and they will come’ strategy if they want to succeed in this lucrative but extremely nuanced market. Here are three things brands can take from the Weetabix experience to ensure they hit the ground running.
First, take a startup mindset. Traditional breakfast eating habits in China are hard to break - from a taste, price and convenience perspective. So big companies need to act more like fledgling businesses until they become more familiar with the market. They should focus on their most likely ‘early adopters’ and look to use creative marketing to grow a fanbase.
Second, tap local trends. China’s urban households drink just one fifth of the milk we do in the EU, and consumption has been flat for over five years. It’s important to understand and anticipate these differences, for example with different serving suggestions or uses for products that fit in with existing habits. Starbucks positioned itself as a high-end ‘aspirational’ brand to capitalise on the perception in China that typical Western lifestyle products are culturally superior - its latest new drink is always a ‘must try’.
Third, be in it for the long haul. The sheer geographical size and diversity of China makes it harder to crack than a country like the UK. Like any other sector, fmcg companies have to be in it for the long haul, both in terms of recruiting a knowledgeable local team and being patient in waiting for demand to mature. Many firms also take on domestic partners to benefit from their local expertise.
China continues to be a land of vast opportunity for British brands, but the winners will be those that invest the time and effort up front to make themselves as relevant as possible to the newer generations of sophisticated Chinese consumers.
Arnold Ma is CEO of China-focused marketing agency Qumin