In 2013, Mars, Inc. was responsible for a whopping 40% of Chinese chocolate sales (Burkitt). Some suggest that one of the biggest factors behind the success of companies like Mars in China is their foreign prestige, which gives them inherent advantages over domestic competitors (Allen). However, it was by no means easy for even the historically successful Big Five to capture the Chinese market. With annual global sales of $2 billion in 2013, Snickers is the bestselling chocolate bar in the world, enjoying indisputably strong branding and popularity (Said). If riding off of foreign prestige were sufficient, one might expect Snickers to have been an overnight success in China. Yet it took fifteen years after its initial introduction in China for the bar to achieve the number 2 spot in the Chinese market (Hiroko). While branding and inherent foreign appeal have certainly been a part of the success story, it was also necessary for chocolate companies like Mars to actively foster a healthier perception of chocolate in order to remove barriers in developing overall chocolate demand. Evidence of the company’s commitment to pushing chocolate as a healthier snack in China can be found in China-specific product changes and marketing strategies.
For many Chinese, chocolate is an on-the-go snack. However, chocolate is often forgone for other snack foods like noodles due to health concerns (Hiroko). Like their Western counterparts, many Chinese consumers cite calorie concerns (Hiroko). Beyond the calories, however, chocolate companies are also faced with the widely held traditional Chinese belief in Yin and Yang. The concept suggests all foods can be categorized as Yin or Yang, and balancing these forces through one’s diet is critical to achieving good health (Allen). Worries that consuming too much Yang chocolate will throw the body out of balance is still relevant for today’s consumers. Thus, many Chinese consumers were initially deterred from purchasing American Snickers bars, for both their size and sugar content (Allen). These health concerns led companies like Mars to pursue product changes and strategic advertising that could help to stimulate chocolate demand.
Since its initial introduction to the Chinese market, Mars has both reduced the overall size of Chinese Snickers products and increased the availability of smaller bars (Allen). Additionally, Mars also appears to use a different formula for their Chinese version. The picture below compares the cross-sections of an American (left) and Chinese (right) Snickers bar. Even without tasting these bars, a quick glance at the color and texture of the bars’ interiors reveal obvious differences.
A comparison of nutritional information across Chinese and American Snickers bars confirms that the Chinese bar contains less sugar. A calculation using the nutritional information available on the American Snickers website indicates carbohydrates account for 63% of the bar’s total mass (“Snickers®”). A calculation based on the below Chinese Snickers wrapper shows carbohydrates account for only 57% of the bar’s total mass. While Mars maintains secrecy over its exact formula, the nutritional information shows that at the very least, the Chinese version contains less sugar and carbohydrates.
Finally, even in advertising, Mars has continued to emphasize the healthful energizing benefits that Snickers bars provide. In the short commercial embedded below, Mars presents a rowing captain who is so hungry and fatigued that he is no longer himself and is letting down his teammates. It is only when he takes a bite of the Snickers bar that he gets the critical energy he needs to revert back to his normal self and successfully continue the race. While Mars can hardly disguise that their Snickers bars contain more sugar than what many Chinese consumers might prefer, through this kind of advertising, the company is at least able to suggest that their product also provides a health benefit via a special energy boost that allows people to perform at their physical best.
Although Mars was certainly fortunate to enter the Chinese market with a certain level of credibility due to its status as a foreign company, the story of the Chinese Snickers bar shows that brand alone is insufficient. Discussions with Chinese consumers indicated that healthfulness was an important factor in determining their snack choices. Thus, chocolate companies wishing to increase chocolate demand needed to carve a space for chocolate in the Chinese snack market not only by thinking about physical ways to make chocolate healthier but also by encouraging consumers to reimagine chocolate as a more practical snack food with special health benefits.
Allen, Lawrence L. Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers. New York: American Management Association, 2010. Print.
Burkitt, Laurie. “M&M’s Rides the Chocolate Wave in China.” Wall Street Journal. WSJ, 7 Aug. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.
Christian. American and Chinese Snickers Cross-Section. Digital image. 在哪儿? Blogspot, 12 Oct. 2010. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
Hiroko, Tabuchi. “Mars’s Snickers Gets Olympic Lift; Accord to Become Official Chocolate Aids Sales in China.” Wall Street Journal [New York City] 22 Aug. 2008, Eastern ed.: n. pag. ProQuest. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
Liebig, Jason. China – Mars – Snickers – Foil Chocolate Candy Bar Wrapper – 2013. Digital image. Collecting Candy. WordPress, 31 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
Said, Sammy. “The Top 10 Bestselling Chocolate Bars.” TheRichest. TheRichest, 27 May 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
“Snickers®.” Snickers®. Mars, Inc., n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.
“SNICKERS, China TV Commercial Ad.” YouTube. YouTube, 4 Feb. 2014. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.