China's relationship with food is a window into basic instincts. The country's cuisine is a manifestation of a civilization that has never taken survival for granted. An understanding of what and how Chinese want to eat is a quick way to know China. With the ever popular dim sum of Guangdong province literally meaning "touch the heart," it's fair to say that food is a window into the Han soul.
In most categories, local brands including Mengniu, Yili (both dairy companies) and COFCO (everything from chocolate to pork) rule the roost. Although Chinese cravings differ to those of Westerners -- noodles, not burgers, are comfort food -- it is a myth that people reject foreign food brands simply because they are foreign. Western marketers were slow to enter China and made huge mistakes. Kellogg, for example, launched cold cereal, an alien category, at prohibitively high prices. Since then, many others have made significant progress. From Kraft to Nestle and Dove to Coca-Cola, brands have tailored products to suit Chinese tastes. Recent successes -- Lipton milk tea, Danone fortified calcium biscuits, Pizza Hut's seafood lover's pizza -0 are testaments to the power of empathetic insight. Yum! Brands' KFC menu localization has been particularly impressive. Hot wings and chicken burgers are the biggest sellers, but the menu also includes products like Beijing Chicken Roll, Golden Butterfly Shrimp, Four Seasons Fresh Vegetable Salads, Fragrant Mushroom Rice and Tomato Egg Drop Soup.
The following are a few basic principles of marketing food in China.
Delicious balance. Chinese cuisine is tremendously varied -- Shanghai food is sweet and oily, while Sichuan dishes are hot and spicy -- but the balance of yin (cooling) and yang (heating) is important everywhere. From stir-fried beef with broccoli to sweet and sour pork, dishes should be "harmonious." Yin foods, not necessarily low in temperature, include toast, bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cucumber, duck, tofu, watercress and water. Yang foods include bamboo, beef, chicken, eggs, ginger, glutinous rice, mushrooms and sesame oil. China will never be a coffee culture because beverages should be cooling, but Nestle three-in-one coffee is a hit because sweetness balances bitterness. Illness is perceived to spring from yin and yang imbalance. "Heat patterns" (e.g. headaches, bleeding) are remedied with cooling foods while excessive yin (e.g. runny noses, night sweats) are cured with heating foods. Chinese aren't lactose intolerant, but dairy products, including ice cream, are perceived to be "damp." Even today, milk sales increase if accompanied by something "dry" like bits of wheat.
Safety: Never assumed. Counter-intuitively, international brands are preferred to local brands, assuming compatibility with local taste and acceptable price. This is because Chinese never take safety for granted. Prior to the 2009 tainted milk scandal, local dairy brands were known for purity. But dairy manufacturers, in cahoots with local officials, abused this trust by adulterating products with illegal ingredients. That's why all leading brands of infant formula are foreign, despite price premiums of up to four hundred percent. That's also why endorsement from central government organizations -- such as national dental and medical associations -- are highly sought after for any item that goes inside the body, from toothpaste to orange juice.
Protection is king. Chinese fear invasive elements, hence the appeal of germ-kill products in many categories including soap (Safeguard), toothpaste (Colgate, Crest, Zhonghua), mouthwash (Listerine), air conditioners (Midea) and even dishwashers (Little Swan). It is, therefore, not surprising that foods that promote "immunity" are embraced. Infant formula, again, is a case in point. Every brand must demonstrate resistance to disease before moving on to performance benefits. Physical transformation, on the other hand, has less appeal. "Bigger, stronger, taller" babies are not objects of admiration; every mother wants her child to be "perfectly normal." Emotion protection is important too. Breakfasts are warm and soft, nourishing hugs moms give families before they dive into a cold world -- the Chinese don't "crunch" before noon, so cold cereal will always be niche. Special K would be most effectively positioned as a woman's energy bar.
Advancement always. Once physical safety is a given, food becomes a weapon in the game of life. First, most nutritional benefits ladder up to academic excellence. Energy is closely linked to intelligence or, more specifically, concentration and quick-witted resourcefulness. Calcium strengthens both bones and brains. In a dog-eat-dog society, a sharp mind, not a buff physique, is the difference between success and failure. Second, convenient foods are means to an end. They provide the "fuel"needed start every day with a kick, so every indulgent food must also be "good for you," a sugar-coated pill. Third, transformation benefits have growing appeal for the mature market. Dietary supplements, particularly in first tier cities, help the older man perform on the basketball court and at the office. Osteoporosis scare mongering is old school.
In the hyper competitive business world, the comfort of food lubricates trust and transactional gain. Partnerships are tested in Chinese restaurants at round tables in private rooms. Dishes are meticulously choreographed. Proper seating must be respected, with the guest of honor placed directly opposite the door, flanked by his hosts. Serving oneself prematurely is faux pas. Leaving before the fruit comes is bad.
Familiarity at home. A glance through any city's expat guide gives an impression Chinese are culinary adventurers. Shanghai's restaurant scene rivals any American or European city. Mexican, tapas, Japanese, Western brunches, Asian-French fusion, Johnny Walker parties, glamour clubs, wine bars... the list is endless. But, deep down, the Chinese are restrained about foreign food or new tastes. Inside the home, a refuge from the outside kaleidoscope, they are loath to experiment. Pizza Hut will receive delivery orders for office parties, but rarely for consumption at home. Despite Starbucks, roast and ground coffee is not purchased in supermarkets. Italian restaurants are ubiquitous in all major cities, but few enjoy pasta with the family. In public, anything goes. People pay a premium to project internationalism, hence Haagen-Dazs' success as an ice cream parlor but failure as an overpriced in-home treat. With professional acquaintances, the world is a stage.