As China emerges from lockdown, it’s becoming clear that the temporary restrictions may have prompted some long-lasting behavioural changes and preferences, particularly when it comes to food. 86% of Chinese consumers said they plan to cook and eat at home more post lockdown, while almost the same number (80%) said they plan to eat more healthily. China’s lockdown has left a lasting taste in the mouths of consumers, creating a unique and exciting opportunity for European brands looking to connect with a new group of consumers. Alibaba’s Zarina Kanji, health, food and beverage market specialist for the UK and Nordics, explains why.

China is changing. Consumers are prioritising health as the impact of coronavirus has led to a renewed focus on personal wellbeing. This trend will play out long term across a range of health touchpoints – for example, 60% say they plan to have more medical examinations in future – and we’re already starting to see this shift in the food categories and products which are not only resilient to the crisis, but booming.

A recent survey shows that almost three quarters (72.3%) of people in China developed healthier eating habits during lockdown. We can expect to see this increased consumer investment and interest in wellbeing extend beyond the immediate post-lockdown phase, as healthy eating is firmly in the Chinese government’s sights as part of its Healthy China 2030 initiative, which outlines the importance of physical and mental health as the foundation of a happy society.

Combine this trend with a longstanding affinity for overseas produce, which is often held in high regard with the view that it’s subject to higher food safety standards, and the opportunity for natural food brands from overseas has never been more apparent.

Healthy eating hits a high note
Demand for natural supplements, such as fish oils, probiotics and ‘functional’ teas, have seen sales of British brands including Pukka surge in recent months, contributing towards overall growth in the everyday health products category of 23.5% during the last year on Tmall Global.

The probiotics market is also thriving as many consumers see supplements as a quick and easy way boost immunity and gut health during their busy lives. ProVen and Probio7 are two examples of British brands that have enjoyed great success in recent months, in a probiotics subsector that continues to flourish as people look to boost improve their overall health post-lockdown.

Brands in the meal replacement and sports nutrition sector such as Myprotein, Slimfast, and emerging brand Exante, are all doing well too by offering individual portion-sizes and on-the-go packaging, which is perfect for people looking to fit consuming a balanced diet into their busy lives. The meal replacement subcategory is expected to grow by another 30% this year and be worth 120 billion yuan (approx. £13.8bn) by 2022.

Alternative milk is another category where we have seen a significant shift in demand. Established category leaders such as Oatly as well as smaller brands including East London’s Minor Figures, are eyeing the export opportunity and starting to reap the rewards of a category that is set to account for 24.2% of the total beverage manufacturing industry, and maintain its position the largest subcategory within the beverage sector.

Within the alternative milk sector, while soya, walnut, and coconut milks account for 11%, 10% and 12% of the market respectively, it is the new alternatives, such as oat, pea and rice milks, that are expanding most rapidly. This ‘other’ section of the alternative milk market already accounts for 64% and is expected to continue to grow as people look for mixed alternative milk products such as pea, banana and oat combined to give them increased nutritional benefits.

It is not just in the direct to consumer market that this trend towards dairy free milk is playing out. For example, Starbucks has recently signed deals with Oatly and plant-based protein company Beyond Meat, in China to satisfy shifting tastes. The deal will see more than 4,000 Starbucks stores in China serving oat milk matcha lattes and lasagne, containing Beyond Meat’s beef substitute.

While natural products that offer health benefits are proving popular, those that can also benefit someone’s physical appearance are seeing even greater returns, as the lines blur with China’s long-standing enthusiasm for beauty products. Vitabiotics’ Hairfolic Her supplements and Hairburst’s chewable hair vitamins are just two examples of businesses aligning with this surge in demand for look-good, feel-good products.

Eyes on the international prize
Despite these seemingly numerous opportunities, it is important for brands to remember that exporting into any market needs to be done with careful consideration, requiring a market specific strategy, and ideally with a local partner in place to help you navigate everything from customs and logistics to cultural nuances and marketing.

“… for those ambitious brands willing to take on the challenge, the lucrative opportunity is there to capitalise on China’s hunger for health”

This is particularly true for China. China is the world’s most advanced e-commerce market, and consumers make almost no distinction between physical and online shopping. This means that competition is fierce to grab consumers’ attention online. Brands must therefore not only spot a place for their product in the market but be open to making the most of new and innovative ways to capture and engage consumer attention.

One popular example of this is livestreaming. This trend sees brands livestream demos of their products in real time while interacting with prospective customers, showing millions of people how to use a product and answering questions in real time. Rwandan coffee brand Gorilla’s Coffee even invited their ambassador to China to appear on a livestream to talk about the heritage and provenance of his country’s famed coffee beans during a session on Alibaba’s Taobao e-commerce platform.

This method of marketing and selling a product proved particularly popular during lockdown, as consumers were hungry to interact with new people, brands, and experiences outside of their household. Brands were quick to try and maximise this opportunity, with Taobao – China’s largest online marketplace – reporting a 719% increase in new sellers joining the platform during February alone.

There is therefore a lot to consider for any brand considering entering the Chinese market and defining a ‘China strategy’ to encompass all the considerations above is an essential first part of that puzzle. But for those ambitious brands willing to take on the challenge, the lucrative opportunity is there to capitalise on China’s hunger for health.

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