I grew up in a very traditional Chinese household, where my mother and father took care in buying foods from Chinese markets back in my small suburban Midwest hometown. The dishes I had growing up were the same dishes that my mom and dad grew up eating in China, nutritionally balanced both in terms of the U.S. government’s MyPlate standards and the Yin-Yang balance that is rooted deep in Chinese culture and tradition. However, chocolate was never an element of these meals. That is not to say that I’ve never had chocolate before (whether it be in the sense of chocolates handed out at school during a Valentine’s Day event or the occasional chocolate gift from friends); nevertheless, our family has never had the habit of buying chocolate. Our family’s traditions give a peek at how China’s isolationist culture has created a barrier to cacao-chocolate industries due to both traditional food tastes as well as an ethnocentric pride against foreign products. These long-standing traditions that tie back thousands of years into China’s past provide insight into how some of the Big Five Companies— specifically Ferrero Rocher, Cadbury, and Nestle—struggled to market chocolate to a Chinese populace with virtually no exposure to the sweet treat.
A few years ago, I travelled back to China with my father and lived in Hangzhou, Zhejiang for two months. During this time, I was able to understand a lot of the atmosphere and culture surrounding one of China’s most popular cities. One of my biggest understandings in terms of food culture in Hangzhou was a very significant bias towards salty and umami foods. The supermarket shelves were lined with a large assortment of salty snacks; fish tofu snacks decorate the central aisle and classic sweet potato chips stand beckoningly one the cashier shelves. In the middle of the supermarket, small vendor-like counters offer mountains of steamed buns filled with a variety of meats, curries, and vegetable mixed filling. Every direction one looks gives sign after sign of foods that satisfy salty and umami tastes. On the other hand, a stark contrast between American and Chinese supermarkets is the distinct lack of assorted chocolate bars and snacks that are seen lining the cashier counters of stores in the U.S.; instead, these chocolate products are replaced by more traditional Chinese snacks such as bags of salted or seasoned sunflower seeds, an essential welcoming snack that is almost always offered to guests of the house in addition to fruit. This lack of presence in chocolate in China again ties into China’s traditional tastes. Because of the distinct food tastes among China’s population, chocolate has a hard time of showing up on supermarket shelves.
This struggle of incorporating chocolate into Chinese markets began in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Big Five companies all tried their hand at assimilating China’s near one billion population into the chocolate-loving consumerism, with each company bringing its own strategy and experience into China’s budding and diversifying market (Allen 15). Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing these companies was trying to make chocolate desirable. From the beginning of China’s history, China has mostly isolated itself from the rest of the world. It wasn’t until the late 1900s when China marked the beginning of its transition from communism to market socialism (Allen 14). This transition came with consequences, as not all of China’s one billion citizens could catch up to the upcoming sweep of technological and social changes over the next few decades. In fact, less than 50 million people are living in the twenty-first century, while the rest of China’s population are in living conditions alike to that of the twentieth century or even from the late 19th century. This disconnect of most of China’s population to changes from modern day society probably was the main cause in the struggle that surrounded big cacao-chocolate companies. When chocolate first arrived in China in the 1980s, the isolated people of China perceived chocolate as a foreign good, something that they’d never interacted with in the past (Allen 11). Many families in China struggle to feed their families even today, so people prioritize more well-rounded nutrition over the luxurious delicacy that is chocolate. Knowing this, the Big Five chocolate companies all set foot into China’s emerging global market with the same amount of inexperience with Chinese consumers, all trying their hand at winning over one billion Chinese mouths whose tongues had never touched chocolate in any shape or form.
With its delicately wrapped chocolates in a golden-colored box, Ferrero Rocher was a brand that portrayed the good life. Despite the company being relatively new to the global confectionery scene (introduced in 1982 in comparison to 1907 for Hershey and 1923 for Mars), Ferrero Rocher has been the most successful in establishing a large presence in the global market, and it became one of the first companies to enter China and depict the ideal image of chocolate in the minds of Chinese consumers (Allen 42-43). Ferrero’s success in marketing chocolate to Chinese consumers originated from its intensely aggressive strategy of portraying its chocolate as the perfect gift. One of the integral parts of Chinese social etiquette is the concept of giving gifts. Regardless if the occasion is a wedding, a means to say thank you, or even just welcoming visiting guests into one’s home, gifts are deemed as a necessary and polite gesture towards each other. It’s not uncommon to see families offer baskets of fruit or home-cooked dishes as gifts to strengthen social connections and express good tidings. Ferrero Rocher saw this is a prime opportunity to take advantage of, targeting major festivals such as the Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinese New Year (Allen 62). The company mass produced its finely wrapped chocolates just before these holidays and placed them on shelves in popular shopping districts. The look of Ferrero Rocher’s chocolate satisfied the criteria that Chinese citizens look for in a gift: its lucky round shape and golden color combined with its status as a high-quality brand with fancy packaging strike a luxurious image in consumers’ hearts (Hermesauto). Ferrero Rocher’s mission was to ensure the quality of its chocolate, giving Chinese consumers something that they could enjoy by guaranteeing its high quality and elevating it to a social status worthy of gift giving.
Cadbury followed a similar initial path of chocolate distribution to Ferrero Rocher, but later the company took a new direction. Cadbury believed that the key to achieving success with chocolate in China would be to build infrastructure to mass produce chocolate within China itself. And so, in 1993, Cadbury established the first chocolate producing factory in the suburbs of Beijing (Coe & Coe 173). This marketing move came with drawbacks; Cadbury took many gambles on the ingredients it used, including using China’s fresh milk production system for its milk chocolate instead of the safer, albeit lesser quality powdered milk (Allen 75-76). Cadbury and Ferrero Rocher both show a willingness to adapt to the customs and traditions of the foreign land that they were trying to sell their chocolate to. In Ferrero’s case, it was adapting to the culture of gift-giving, while Cadbury took a stand at using China’s natural ingredients. On the other hand, Cadbury’s mission was different from Ferrero Rocher’s; instead of marketing their chocolate as a high-end luxury product that acted as a superior gift, Cadbury intended to make their chocolate a form of self-conception, to win over the pockets of Chinese consumers on the daily. However, the previously established image of chocolate as a luxury good would prove a painful stake in trying to incorporate chocolate into Chinese customers’ daily consumption (Zhou). Furthermore, the production of chocolate on mainland China came with many high costs: the risk that Cadbury took with using fresh milk from Chinese farm of questionable quality resulted in a cheesy smell and taste in their milk chocolate, a result of pasteurized milk. As a result, Cadbury’s reputation sank to a low point, and the company would continue to struggle in regaining the hearts of Chinese consumers. Another problem with Cadbury’s production came with its portioning; Chinese consumers favored food products that came in smaller portions, as that would present a smaller investment risk when purchasing the product for the first time (Allen 81). These problems would haunt Cadbury up to this day as it still has been unable to place a strong, cohesive foot onto the chocolate market in China.
Today, Nestlé’s brand is “Good Food, Good Life” (Nestle.com). This message embodied Nestlé’s results and efforts in the global market. Out of the Big Five companies, Nestlé is unique in its diverse line of products that offer not only rich chocolates but also included other offerings that would improve the health and nutrition of its consumers. Nestlé’s products earned the company a reputation for healthy products that would flood Chinese pantries and incorporate itself into the lives of millions of Chinese citizens, a feat that the other four big companies continue to struggle to achieve (Allen 145). This emphasis on health and nutrition ties in closely with Chinese traditions for maintaining health. One of the challenging aspects of selling chocolate in China is the product’s innate nature as a sugary food. These simple carbohydrates are often stigmatized by news and entertainment as a source of unhealthy calories, depicting chocolate as an indulgence rather than a staple food. On the other hand, branding is an essential part of China’s consumer culture; as Jason Cieslak from Forbes Councils notes, a brand is “a purpose that attracts and unites employees who bring the product and customer experience to life; a purpose that connects different market segments and product offerings into a broader story and an emotional connection to customers who see a brand as an extension of their own value system” (Cieslak). In other words, building up the brand of a company is important to establish a positive reputation with the consumer audience, thus leading to trust and connection between the brand and the consumer. Nestlé built its brand first through non-chocolate products such as developing milk hydrating and processing technology, which ultimately improved the health and nutrition of Chinese citizens (Allen 147-148). With this trust in place, Nestlé began exporting its chocolate, Kit-Kat, into Hong Kong, in the same way Cadbury and Ferrero Rocher began their chocolate expansion into China. Nestlé also ran into a similar problem as Cadbury in terms of the portioning of its chocolate. However, Nestlé decided that Kit-Kat’s seventy percent chocolate to thirty percent wafer composition possessed the light chocolate taste that would appeal to Chinese consumers, which preferred smaller proportions in food. This proved successful for Nestlé, and Kit-Kat became the most popular of Nestlé’s chocolates in China’s global confectionary market (Allen 150).
These three of the Big Five companies—Ferrero Rocher, Cadbury, and Nestlé—all had to adapt to the traditions and cultural habits of Chinese consumers. Ferrero Rocher conformed chocolate into a symbol of gift-giving. Cadbury utilized domestic practices and incorporated local fresh ingredients for their domestic chocolate production in China. And finally, Nestlé built its brand as a nutritious, healthy choice and formed a trustworthy partnership with Chinese consumers that gave its chocolate bar a solid reputation. Overall, all the cacao/chocolate companies that try to capitalize on China’s emerging market face the same problems of adjusting to the vastly different customs of Chinese customers by understanding the needs and wants of people that have virtually never laid eyes on a bar of chocolate.
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