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The Top 5 Brands Killing It In China



The days of dumping a product into the Chinese market and expecting success are well and truly over. One can no longer rely on provenance, name recognition, or price as the key differentiator that drives consumer conversion. Today, success comes at a much higher cost, especially with how far brands go being creative.


Both foreign and domestic brands in China seem to have gladly taken up this creativity challenge. It doesn’t always work out so well. The market is full of confusing campaigns, head-scratching flavours, and forgettable moments. But, creative gambles can also pay off in big ways.


Take a look at some of the brands using creativity to their advantage and killing it in China.


#1. Hyperlocalisation: KFC


The first foreign fast-food chain to enter the Chinese market following economic opening up, KFC has spent decades perfecting what it means to localise. Besides the name, there is very little resemblance between a strip mall KFC in Omaha and one in downtown Shanghai. That’s because KFC has adapted the entire menu to fit Chinese tastes. Congee, youtiao, and soymilk are just a few of the additions. Even the Colonel’s seven sacred spices are different here. With 5,000 restaurants in 1,100 Chinese cities, the largest of any QSR chain, it’s clear KFC’s hyperlocalisation has created a winning equation for driving sales.


#2. Creative brand extension: Nongfu


In 2013 one of China’s biggest bottled water brands, Nongfu Spring, found themselves in a public relations nightmare. Inspectors discovered water quality far below national standards, arsenic in certain juice products, and disease-filled larvae in a large number of bottle caps. This prompted a massive backlash against the brand, with many people feeling a sense of caution when it came to Nongfu. To overcome this, the company underwent a huge rebranding campaign. Much of this came through rapid ideation for line extensions. Now, Nongfu has lines of premium water, tea, juices, and yoghurts. It’s 茶π brand of teas have been wildly successful, enlisting the likes of K-Pop superstars Big Bang in advertising campaigns. Like a phoenix risen, Nongfu has been able to attract a younger demographic of fans with money to spend.


#3. Collaboration creates relevance: White Rabbit


One of China’s most recognizable, time-honoured domestic brands, White Rabbit candies are a staple of Chinese nostalgia. Unfortunately, the product had lost much of its market share over the past decade to newer, modern competitors. Seen as outdated, the company had to do something drastic to regain share and consumer loyalty. To do this, White Rabbit began partnering with brands in tangential segments. Cross-over collaborations with brands in the perfume, tea, and cosmetics sectors gave White Rabbit space to modernise and hit new target segments. The result was an astounding turnaround for a withering brand. White Rabbit flavoured lip balm sold out within minutes, while a White Rabbit milk tea collaboration commanded a 2,000% premium and five-hour waits in line.


#4. Get it while it lasts: Lay’s


For many years, packaged goods relied on flavour innovations to try and differentiate themselves. It made sense. There was no need to go through a drawn-out innovation process on the product itself. All you had to do was spray a different flavouring on top and, voila, you had yourself a line extension. After a while, though, this started to flood shelves with some of the strangest flavour profiles imaginable. Competitors joined the game, driving a price war and carving up market share. Lay’s has done a great job recently at scaling this type of innovation back, creating flavours which are well-informed and resonate with Chinese consumers. Flavours like green plum, white peach, and sakura are offered in exclusive batches to match seasonality. This exclusivity drives buzz and sales.


#5. Promoting playfulness: Wei Long


As TSI’s noted before, the key to driving impressions in China is by allowing yourself to have fun. This doesn’t only relate to the NPD process, but also in how you design your pack. Chinese snack brand, Wei Long, has taken this to heart in some of the innovative packs hitting shelves recently. With a nod to Apple, Wei Long is tapping into a sense of creative individualism among younger Chinese consumers. The general impression of their space – one Chinese refer to as “spicy strips” – is not all too positive. Most consumers view these products as cheap snack alternatives sold in corner markets, nutritionally void and not preferred. Pack innovation is giving the brand a bit of a renaissance and certainly changing its image among consumers. They are not quickly gaining a position of prominence versus their competitors, with consumers more likely to view Wei Long as cool and upmarket. Much like White Rabbit, tapping into creativity is resuscitating a brand on life support.



Inspired? Letting your creativity show is one of the keys to success in the modern Chinese market. Now it’s time for you to get to work!

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