A Little Too Foreign: The Spread of Chocolate in China

Thirty years ago, if one asked a random Chinese person about chocolate, the response would probably have be a quizzical stare, for chocolate was unknown in the Chinese vocabulary. Fast forward to today, where many Chinese regard chocolate as a delightful exotic treat, and brands that Westerners know and love make billions of dollars per year in China. But chocolate’s status as a foreign luxury is both its blessing and its curse. On the one hand, this image has proven most successful in enticing Chinese consumers, but on the other hand, it embodies distance. Enormous growth notwithstanding, chocolate still falls far from winning the hearts and tastebuds of China the way it has in the West.

Chocolate’s radical introduction into the Chinese diet and evolving image as an exotic curiosity occurred was driven by the dedicated efforts of large chocolate corporations. Beginning in the 80s, the Big Five global chocolate producers–Hershey, Nestle, Cadbury, Mars, and Ferrero Rocher–each experimented with different chocolate products and marketing tactics (Allen).

Bringing chocolate to China was not an easy task, for in terms of food, social structure, wealth, and market structure, China differed radically from Europe or America in ways that ill-suited the chocolate market. First, sugar appears only sparingly in Chinese cuisine, and dairy was a recent introduction. Second, infrastructure for chocolate production and distribution was lacking: transportation beyond the vicinity of major cities was slow, and refrigeration was absent, so in hot summer months, chocolate melted and spoiled easily. Third, most Chinese were still far poorer than their Western counterparts and had neither freedom to nor the habit of indulging in impulse buys of confections (Allen). Marketing tactics that succeeded in Europe and America were not transferrable.

The companies that did not understand and adapt to the above issues flopped. For example, Cadbury tried to market half-pound Dairy Milk Bars, not realizing that Chinese only tolerated sweets in bite-sized portions. Further, their use of local Chinese milk to cut costs made Chinese-produced Cadbury bars smell and taste somewhat cheesy, to the distaste of customers. Similarly, Nestle first found that the Chinese did not appreciate KitKats and then reduced ingredient quality to lower costs, dissatisfying the few KitKat customers they had and compromising their reputation for producing high-quality foods  (Wharton).

In contrast, the companies that adapted to Chinese ways could capture significant shares of the Chinese market. The first to enter, Ferrero Rocher noted that the Chinese tended to gift  sold their signature gold-wrapped truffles at a high price, imported from quality-controlled European factories. Noting that the Chinese tended to gift expensive foreign products, they marketed their product as a foreign luxury, pricey but perfect for special-occasion gifts (Allen).

A larger success story came from Mars’s Dove line. Introduced in China in the 1990s, Dove chocolates were bite-sized, smoother-tasting, and more romantically packaged than the average grab-bag chocolate. Reflecting its look and feel, its prices were on the high end of affordable. Essentially, Dove perfectly tread the line between luxury and everyday indulgence; it was worthy of being gifted but also fit for a random treat, like a Ferrero Rocher for the commoner. Marketed as such, Dove’s popularity swelled for good. Today, Dove captures nearly 40% of China’s chocolate market and is enjoying 50% growth per year (Wharton). Indeed, as longtime Hershey and Nestle executive Lawrence Allen writes, Dove became “the preferred chocolate taste with China’s first generation of chocolate consumers” (Allen 202).

The following Dove chocolate advertisement, aired on Chinese television, summarizes the image that not only Dove but chocolate in general has taken in China. A well-dressed girl waits at an expensive establishment; when her date calls, she coquettishly asks him to bring her a Dove bar. The advertisement closes with the girl blissfully enrobed by the chocolate. The message is clear: chocolate is romantic, seductive, classy, and overwhelmingly luscious.

Meanwhile, chocolate’s exotic image means that domestic producers have had less success, struggling to convince consumers that they can properly produce these fine foreign luxuries (Allen 216). Leconte, the largest domestic producer, speaks volumes on their home page:

Following the European standard to prudently select the best ‘Golden Cocoa’ and applying the traditional chocolate making techniques from Switzerland, we provide customers with classic chocolate of pleasant cocoa flavor. The baking, grinding, fine grinding, blending and all other procedures are using to enrich the aroma of the chocolate which give our consumers a pure European taste.

To Chinese consumers, chocolate is a fine exotic treat, and true chocolate should be produced the European way, not by a Chinese company.

That being said, the problems that chocolate companies confronted before still continue to hamper chocolate’s popularity. Over the last decades, the economy has grown explosively, and many of the infrastructure problems have diminished, but still a billion people live in poverty inland. Moreover, the taste problem remains: many Chinese, particularly older generations unaccustomed to sugar, just don’t like sweets that much. Even among confections, they generally prefer light and familiar fruit and tea flavors. Indeed, Chinese bakeries produce light, airy sponge cakes, possibly with slightly-sweetened whipped cream and fruity fillings, not brownies and rich buttery cakes of America. At the end of the day, most Chinese still have no access to chocolate, and those who do want only small portions, for it is too strong, too dark, too foreign to their palate to be consumed in large quantities.

A typical birthday cake from an Asian bakery is an airy sponge cake, with fruit filling and lightly sweetened whipped cream, much less dense than the buttery frosting-laden cakes common in America.

Thus chocolate has a long ways to go before it can be called a natural preference of China. It possibly never will. But over time, as China continues its rapid growth, and as a globally interconnected world becomes all that people know, purchasing patterns and culinary tastes will undoubtedly shift, and a multicultural palate may become the norm.


Works Cited

Allen, Lawrence L. Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers. New York: American Management Association, 2010. Print.

Dove, Chocolate, China TV commercial Ad. YouTube. N.p., 20 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eavBWhVLn30>.

Hong Kong sponge cake with fruit and cream filling and whipped cream frosting. Expat Gourmand: An Expat Gourmand’s Adventures in Hong Kong. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.bobturf.org/jeannie/images/HoiKingHeen_BirthdayCakeSlice.jpg>.

“Leconte.” COFCO. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.cofco.com/en/brand/products.aspx?id=134>.

“The Bitter and the Sweet: How Five Companies Competed to Bring Chocolate to China.” Knowledge@Wharton. N.p., 12 Jan. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/the-bitter-and-the-sweet-how-five-companies-competed-to-bring-chocolate-to-china/>.

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