Snack foods. We love ‘em! They are food for comfort, for parties or for staving off hunger pangs at work.
But the tastes we love aren’t always shared by snack foodies in other countries, so food and drink producers are striving to adapt to local tastes in the battle for survival in the China market.
Take Oreo. It’s the best-selling US cookie, with the traditional two chocolate wafers sandwiching a wide array of sweet cream fillings.
But in China, sweet isn’t always sweet with consumers. After consumer polling and internal tests, the Oreo producer Mondelez last year broke the cookie’s stereotype of sweet fillings by introducing wasabi and hot chicken wing flavors.
Many Chinese, particularly the young, prefer spicy, salty flavors. Too much sugar nowadays is being vilified as a health risk.
Shanghai office worker Aurora Ren said she has tasted one of the new Oreo versions and was surprised at how well such an unconventional taste seem to work.
“I only bought it out of curiosity,” she said. “After all, it’s really not an everyday food.”
Food producers are keen to keep up with changing consumer tastes because China is such a large, lucrative market. Euromonitor predicts overall sales of packaged food in China will grow 4-5 percent annually in the next for years, reaching US$342 billion by 2023, but confectionery will see only 2 percent increases because of rising health concerns.
Oreo’s new flavors and packaging have proven popular among fickle millennial consumers and also created social media buzz.
Another brand leveraging flavors to consumer tastes is Lay’s potato chips. In China, its versions include lemon tea, hot and sour fish soup, and spicy hotpot flavorings.
Nestle’s Kit-Kat, a wildly popular candy in Japan, has a whole range of flavors catering to the Japanese and perhaps wider Asian tastes, including adzuki bean, wasabi, green tea and grilled corn.
Flavors that break the norm add playfulness to the consumer market, inviting not only tasting but also conversation that helps produce profile spread.
“Many multinational companies are offering local flavors to target specific consumer groups and gain market share,” said Li Meng, deputy research director at research firm Mintel. “Chinese consumers, for example, have a special preference for matcha-flavored snacks because of their long heritage of tea drinking.”
Online buzz is important in how well foods fare in the market space. The more unusual, the more the buzz.
Salty flavors are a special preference of Asian consumers. According to Mintel data, salty snacks in the past year account for 11 percent of total new food snacks. Innovations, like mixing chocolate with saltier flavors are increasing.
Sometimes new creations go beyond just concocting new flavors. They sometimes cross the boundary of a product category. Witness Shanghai-based Rio, which sells pre-mixed alcopop drinks.
The company teamed up Shanghai-based pen and ink producer Hero to introduce an ink-themed cocktail. Hero helped Rio in a new package design, using elements of its iconic black-blue ink. There’s a saying in Chinese that someone who has “drunk some ink” is knowledgeable and talented.
Tang Minhui, digital retail business director at Rio, said it’s also offering seasonal products, such as gift boxes of sakura-flavored drinks and snacks.
Last year, Rio introduced alcopops with a floral-fragrance flavor, an idea borrowed from the Liushen floral water sold by Shanghai personal care giant Jahwa Group. Liushen contains several kinds of traditional herbal ingredients that are said to soothe insect bites.
Some 5,000 packages of the fragrance water-flavored cocktail sold out on Tmall within just 15 minutes last June. Through the Liushen tie-up, Rio has successfully attracted new customers. As many as 92 percent of shoppers for the limited edition were first-time purchaser of Rio products, and the majority were aged between 18 and 25 years.
Some analysts question whether such product gimmickry really benefits long-term branding strategy.
“It’s increasingly difficult for consumer brands to grab shoppers’ attention because so many media channels are available, so they seek to appeal to social media users with weird and even bizarre tastes to create online buzz,” Coolio Yang, chief executive officer of Kantar’s Media Division in China, told Shanghai Daily.
New offerings become hot topics and appeal to shoppers craving something new and unusual. But the fascination can wear off quickly as consumers move on to the next innovation.
“Despite spectacular sales results in the short term, most hypes regarding cross-segment collaboration don’t really reflect the core spirit of the brand, nor give consumers a clear understanding of the brand’s positioning and how it relates to everyday life,” Yang explained.
For the long term, he says brands need to dig deeper to discover how they can continue to resonate with contemporary lifestyles. Straying too far from core product lines can be a pitfall.
So, it’s best to “stick to one’s knitting?” Perhaps. Local beverage brands, for example, might be best positioned to keep a loyal consumer base if they tie themselves to China’s long-time penchant for the culture of tea and traditional alcoholic drinks.