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How can plant-based food gain traction in China?

Plant-based food sources have undoubtedly become a trendy topic at a global level, spreading from the United State to Singapore and beyond. Keywords such as ‘vegetarian’ and ‘plant-based’ are now must-have on any restaurant’s menu if the establishment wants to prove it is still ‘in’. China, being one of the biggest and most lucrative markets in the world, has become the next frontier that many plant-based companies want to conquer. However, Chinese consumers are not yet fully buying into the concept of ‘plant-based’. Why? Below we are going to share what Chinese consumers think about this new trend and how plant-based products could actually carve some space for themselves in the Chinese market.


Why has ‘plant-based’ food struggled to get the attention of Chinese consumers?


The simplest answer to this question is that: the average Chinese diet already includes a lot of plants (i.e vegetables). Asking most Chinese people to eat more plant-based product is essentially the equivalent of asking Italian people to eat more pasta. If we analyze the average Chinese and American diets, we will find some very apparent discrepancies. In a standard American meal, proteins and carbs account for 80% of the total space on the plate and vegetables account for 20%. However, in an average Chinese meal, proteins, carbs, and vegetables are distributed more evenly and make up about 33% of the plate each.


There are some traditional Chinese vegetarian restaurants that have been incorporating the color and aroma of meat in their vegetable dishes for generations (one example is Gongdelin, a vegetarian restaurant with over 200 years of history). Vegetarian cooked snacks such as dried tofu and spicy gluten strips have been popular in China for a very long time. Therefore, Chinese consumers do not see plant-based products as a fully novel trend that they would crave for.



(Left to right: sweet and sour lotus roots, taste like port ribs; Dried tofu; Spicy gluten strip)


A month ago, Weibo ("Chinese Twitter") account -- Global Daily posted the news about the IPO of Beyond Meat, a plant-based company headquartered in California. The comments on the post showcase how Chinese consumers are hesitant to embrace the western plant-based concept. They believed Chinese vegetarian dishes and other soy products are more in line with their traditional eating habits.



Marketing plant-based products to Chinese consumers: less focus on origin, more focus on health benefits


Chinese consumers may not find the plant-based concept and ingredients attractive, but the benefits that these products bring to the table could actually be very appealing to them. So, what benefits should you focus on?


A Chinese local food company Jiangzhong's marketing poster of their vegetarian product

On the Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods websites, we can easily see that protecting the planet is at the core of both companies’ mantra. Chinese consumers, however, perceive environmental protection as a behavior they promote and encourage, not as the primary driver that influences their purchasing decision. At least not yet.


Health benefits, on the other hand, are an excellent way to capture Chinese consumers’ attention. Just as with any other marketing strategy, how to feature these health benefits will depend on the ultimate target audience. If the targets are middle-aged consumers, an emphasis on the absence of cholesterol is a good initial approach. However, if the targets are millennials (-who, by the way, currently have the highest food purchasing power in China), using terms that align with traditional Chinese medical science is perceived as “down to earth”. For instance, the marketing campaigns for Hericium Erinaceus Rice Plaste, a product manufactured by a local vegetarian food company Jiangzhong, do not overemphasize the product’s main ingredient, but rather focus on promoting Yangwei (a term in traditional Chinese medical science that means nourishing people’s stomach).



Chinese millennial consumers are reluctant to be called vegetarian



Throughout the world, young people are identifying with labels that highlight their personality and social inclinations. In western countries, we have observed how celebrities and key opinion leaders influence their predominantly young audience to think that being vegetarian is cool. However, since vegetarianism has been related almost exclusively to religion in China for thousands of years, it does not represent a “cool” identity for Chinese millennials. Instead, influenced by traditional Chinese aesthetic concepts and peer affection, this consumer segment is allocating a lot of value on beauty. Food that has good appearance or that helps consumers look better often gains popularity quickly in China. For instance, Wang Baobao, one of the most popular cereal brands on Chinese e-commerce platforms, uses welcoming colors on its packaging on low-calorie and low-fat products that support consumers’ overarching desire to maintain a slim figure.


Wangbaobao, one of the most popular cereal brands on Chinese e-commerce platforms


Chinese food processing plants are actively embracing plant-based products


Currently, a lot of Chinese food processing plants are undergoing a period of transformation initiated by a new Chinese government’ policy that actively promotes agricultural industrialization, new product development, and new technologies in the food industry. At the same time, many of these plants are also actively seeking foreign partnerships to both comply with the new government mandate and help access this new market. The plants’ production bandwidth, distribution capabilities, and relationship with the government will undoubtedly complement the experience foreign this new market. Plant-based products can be an important catalyst in the implementation of the new Chinese policy. Please contact Alazan for more information about the opportunities that are afloat in the Chinese food industry at the moment.


Summarization


Plant-based products have an astronomical potential to succeed in the Chinese market, especially as the purchasing power of young Chinese consumers continues to rise, health-oriented concepts get increasingly popular, and Chinese regulators develop policies that promote agricultural industrialization and innovation. However, it is extremely important to note the pronounced dissimilarities between Chinese and Western consumers when it comes to marketing these novel food products. Although creativity and localization play an important role for any new entrant to China, they are highlighted requirements for plant-based food companies attempting to create an appetite for their products in the massive Chinese food market.


About Alazan


Our story began in 2017 when we started providing food supply chain related consulting services and executive education to chain restaurateurs and foodservice distributors in China. We helped them gain strategic insights and empowered them to succeed with pragmatic and powerful solutions. In 2019, we opened our first overseas office in San Francisco to be closer to global resources, experts, and business partners. Today, we are not only active participants in the ongoing food supply chain revolution in China but also the catalyst of nascent cross-border alliances.

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