Zarina Kanji, business development, health and wellness and food and beverage brands at Chinese online retailer Tmall, reveals top trends in the market and what international brands can do to connect with shoppers

While life in China may largely be back to normal for many, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a lasting impact on how consumers think about their health and wellness. People are now taking a more active role in protecting themselves from illness and are adopting a preventative approach to their health. This focuses on giving the body everything it needs to fight illness, rather than simply looking to solve problems when they arise. 

This new approach has created a huge opportunity for international brands, as Chinese consumers often look to overseas products for their high-quality production standards and brand heritage. And while many people think ‘Made in Britain’ is something fashion or car brands tend to use when marketing to China, it can be just as powerful in the vitamins and supplements category, too.

For example, UK brand Vitabiotics is one company that has been able to capitalise on its British credentials and actively promotes that all its products are made to stringent UK standards. This promotion, coupled with marketing campaigns that lean heavily on their British heritage, resulted in 25% year-on-year growth during Alibaba’s 11.11 Global Shopping Festival 2020. 

For any brand considering entering the market, it is important to keep up to speed with new and emerging trends. Here are the top three that you need to be aware of, followed by my advice on how best to connect with the Chinese consumer. 

1. ‘Pill-fatigue’ is real

You heard it here first: ‘pill-fatigue’ is real. Though supplements and probiotics remain hugely popular in China, consumers are seeking an alternative format to tablets. 

Cookies, gummies, drinks, jellies, and even breadsticks are becoming increasingly popular. Skincare brand Xiaoxiandun recently joined forces with ice cream company Chicecream to launch an ice cream containing stewed bird’s nest – considered a magic skin-healing food in traditional Chinese medicine.

Brands that want to target the market successively, need to think of new ways for customers to enjoy their products, if they are to engage a trend-led Gen Z audience in China in 2021.

2. Plant-based diets are here to stay

Plant-based products and alternative, dairy-free milks are seeing significant growth and are expected to account for 24% of the entire beverages category by the end of 2021. Within this category, soy milk is proving to be particularly popular, along with pea and a variety of nut milks – thanks to the increased nutritional benefits they offer.

British brands already successfully capitalising on this demand include East London-based Minor Figures, which sells a range of barista quality oat milks, and recently launched Rude Health, which is entering the market with a range of soya, coconut and almond milks.

3. Healthy snacking

Snacks are big business in China. In fact, 71% of consumers argue that snacks are equally as important to their psychological health as their physical health.

Driven by the millennial generation (accounting for 350 million consumers), Chinese consumers are looking to healthy, nutritious snacks that fit into their hectic schedules – more than 40% of adults work 50-plus hour week in China.

This consumer group has created a spike in demand for products such as the increasingly popular meal replacement bars, supplements, and shakes, all of which offer high nutritional content and low-prep individual portions.

British brand success stories include Myprotein, Slimfast, and emerging brand Exante, which make everything from shakes to cereals bars, to help consumers enjoy a balanced diet alongside their busy lifestyles.

These brands have contributed towards a meal replacement subcategory that is expected to be worth 120 billion yuan (approx. £13.8bn) by 2022.

Connecting with Chinese consumers

Demand alone though is not enough. To be successful in China, brands must be ready to apply technology in new and creative ways to engage consumers.

Take livestreaming for example. For a few years now, livestreaming has played a significant role in selling food and beverages. Run by influencers, or key opinion leaders (KOLs), livestreams offer the opportunity for hundreds of thousands of consumers to simultaneously look at a product while a trusted KOL samples and promotes the product.

Consumers can interact with the livestream – commenting, liking, sharing, asking questions, and clicking to buy during the session.

Chinese consumers are also drawn to personalisation in e-commerce. By offering new and innovative flavours of products, brands can entice potential consumers to their stores. For example, renowned British tea brand Whittard of Chelsea launched a ‘moon bunny tea’ exclusively in China to celebrate 2020’s Mid-Autumn Festival, and has recently revealed a new lychee tea presented in a red box, specifically for Chinese New Year.

Limited edition products help unlock new opportunities for brands looking to establish themselves within the market, as consumers rush to be the first to try new flavours

An international opportunity

While the Chinese health and wellness market is continuing to grow, there remains ample room for businesses looking to break into the sector.

Business considering whether to enter the market should invest their energy in finding a partner on the ground, who can help them stay on top of new and emerging trends and assist them in finding the right KOLs to partner with to boost brand awareness.

China’s population has never been more concerned with its health, the opportunity is ripe for brands willing to take the international opportunity.

About the author

Zarina Kanji has been leading Tmall business development for health, food, and beverage brands at Alibaba UK & Nordics since September 2018.
She is responsible for helping brands to enter the Chinese market and build their business by connecting them to the over 711 million annual active consumers on Alibaba’s platforms. Kanji is based in London.

Date published: 23 February 2021

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