Skip to main content

Mark Tanner looks at the forces behind the recent upswing in popularity of dairy products in China.

Milk: that white gold that strengthens your bones and teeth, can improve your skin and even lower the risk of obesity. In China, renowned doctors and even the Government have advocated drinking milk to build the body’s immune system to help fend off the dreaded COVID-19.

This endorsement of dairy has stirred up a feverish debate online – whether to start the day on traditional steamed buns and congee (rice porridge), or to chow into milk, eggs and toast to ensure the family has the best chance of staying healthy.

Zhang Wenhong, a doctor at the infectious diseases department at Shanghai’s Huashan Hospital, and champion of milk, has been accused by some of “fawning to a Western diet.” Nevertheless, the majority of comments online have taken heed of his advice, with some even posting photos of milk receipts and daily drinking selfies to prove their dedication.

We’ve observed some interesting dynamics in dairy buying behaviour since the outbreak, using China Skinny’s Dairy Tracker. The changes are partly contributed to by the official dairy advocacy.

Although China’s annual per capita consumption of dairy has risen to around 34 litres, it is just one third of what the average Australian consumes, indicating there is still plenty of room for growth. Even with WeChat posts about China’s biggest dairy brand scandals going viral and concerns remaining about food safety even 12 years after the melamine scandal rocked the nation, the uptick in milk consumption in China seems unabated at present.

The growth of milk is a further testament to the power of official endorsements in China. Those endorsements span beyond food and beverages. We only need to look to the rise of football and winter sports, ecommerce and oral hygiene regimes following Beijing’s backing. The way China has contained the coronavirus has seen consumers further increase their faith in the government and what it says.

Yet influences aren’t always positive. Earlier this month, Kweichow Moutai, China’s premium baijiu brand and its most valuable domestically-listed company, lost $25 billion in value following commentary by a WeChat account owned by People’s Daily noting that Moutai’s products are often involved in the country’s official corruption cases and used for bribery given their high prices.

Beyond influencing the rise and fall of a category or a brand’s prosperity, Beijing can also help shape demand for a product’s country of origin. Beyond the well-publicised tactics such as banning beef from abattoirs and holding shipments at customs, arguably Beijing’s most powerful tool is the sway it has over public opinion through its media and online channels.

China Skinny’s recent research gauged the change in Chinese consumers’ purchase intent by origin. The likelihood to buy domestic products soared to 1.33 (with 2.00 being the maximum). Most other countries dropped below zero (-2.00 is minimum), with a handful of countries including Japan, New Zealand, Germany and Russia, seeing positive change – although only barely – hovering below 0.20.

Geopolitical tensions are likely to continue, so brands should be considering measures to minimise the impact on their products’ sentiment in China. Marketers should review origin communications and have propositions that expand beyond just provenance.

They should understand Chinese consumers’ sensitivities and look at how they can localise, partner and engage brand ambassadors that best accommodate these sensitivities. 

Mark Tanner is CEO of China-based marketing agency China Skinny. Reproduced with permission.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


Dishing up export possibilities

Exporter Today Editorial TeamExporter Today Editorial TeamApril 16, 2012

What’s mine is not yours

Exporter Today Editorial TeamExporter Today Editorial TeamApril 16, 2012

25 countries… and counting

Exporter Today Editorial TeamExporter Today Editorial TeamApril 16, 2012