What do you do when you have a headache? → Advil
Pimples? → Clearasil
Bad breath? → Listerine
Indigestion? → Pepto-Bismol
For many health problems, we have a solution to tackle the symptoms in a discrete and exacting way. It is not even a question of what category of product we should search for to help us. Oftentimes, it’s not even a question of which brand is a better choice. The answer is common knowledge – as specific as a single product.
In China, however, health and wellness solutions do not quite work the same way. When you have a health problem here, the Chinese doctor (or in the absence of one, your colleague, neighbor, or mother-in-law) will follow the principles of look/touch/smell, and finally ask a question that could seem totally irrelevant: “How are your bowel movements lately? Sleep? Do you easily feel cold or hot when the weather changes?” Finally, your caregiver will give a recommendation: you should go to sleep before 11pm, drink chrysanthemum tea, eat citrus fruits, and avoid coffee and fruits like lychee.
Such a solution is often far from what an observer would have anticipated. It is not a specific product, much less a specific brand. In fact, it could be a completely different category of remedy than what might be expected. Such a systemic approach to wellness more naturally searches for the root of the problem hidden below the surface, tackling the range of symptoms holistically. Because of that, it is not uncommon in China to find local companies that seem to make products for the dietary category, but position themselves within the categories of beauty, image, or vitality enhancement instead.
This dynamic runs totally counter to the Western approach of positioning. Continuum has been accumulating knowledge of different facets of wellness in China through an extensive range of projects for both multinational corporations and Chinese companies ranging from developing a platform of consumer packaged goods home care products, developing a positioning for several beauty products, performing wellness retail audits, and developing several healthy snacking product platforms. We’ve realized that with Chinese consumers seeking higher quality of life, awareness of Wellness is going up sharply. While many discrete product offerings fail to resonate with Chinese consumers, there are more and more emerging success stories of cross-category, systemic wellness products that succeed in unexpected ways. In general, wellness product categories in China fall into six groups: Image, vitality, diet, relationships, environment, and personal hygiene. Although products might be placed on the shelf in one category, the actual application might belong to one or more other categories.
The question for companies entering the Chinese market is: Are you in the wellness business without even knowing?
For example, products that are related to diet, like vinegar, are often used as cleaning products for the home environment due to a perception that they contain less harmful ingredients, and therefore preserve wellness in the long run. It is especially common to use these products for the care of garments with close contact with sensitive skin, for periods of pregnancy or for baby items.
Other products within the diet category are often taken for the purpose of enhancing one’s image, thanks to certain ingredients that are seen as nourishing and replenishing from within, balancing heat and cold, dryness and dampness within the body. WangLaoJi, an herbal canned drink, is one of the greatest success stories in this segment. Initially produced by a Guangzhou pharmaceutical company, it was later licensed by Hong Kong-based firm JDB, and in 2002 was the first product to be positioned as a wellness soft drink that can reduce internal heat, therefore preventing a long list of symptoms, including pimples and sore throat. The company went from $3 million in sales in 2002 to $3.2 billion in 2011, a growth rate according to some sources three times as high as Coca-Cola. It is now referred to as the nation’s favorite drink. Most interestingly, the drink successfully competes not only with fellow beverages, but also with skin care products fighting pimples before they even appear. It wouldn’t be surprising if WanglaoJI further moved to position itself in the image space by developing a line of skin care products or cosmetics. Another food company, HanBo, has produced a drink made out of red date that is purported to replenish blood and give women a healthy glow. Recently it has launched a massive campaign with a Marilyn Monroe lookalike and the line: “Drink extract of 27 dates every morning to make your beauty come back.” The company claims to have the largest share of the market in this category, and is still expanding aggressively.
Meanwhile cosmetic giant Estee Lauder, perhaps one of the most respected skin care brands in China, is moving in the opposite direction by linking image with a healthy diet. The company sells 12 of its 28 brands in China, its third largest market after the U.S. and U.K., and will soon be launching its first China-specific brand, Osaio. The company’s research has showed that in Chinese culture, beauty is a representation of wellness. Therefore, the focus is on skin treatment rather than cosmetics.The product will use medicinal food ingredients such as herbs and mushrooms that are more usually found as ingredients in soups or on the shelves of traditional Chinese apothecaries to be eaten in order to “nourish from within.” Now, they will work from the outside as well to deliver the desired luminous and radiant skin. In fact, in-store counters are anticipated to emulate Chinese apothecaries with a many-drawer set-up and a consultant that will perform “look/touch/smell” and ask questions in order to choose the right product. It would only be logical for Estee Lauder to compliment these treatments with its own line of beauty foods or drinks to complete the systemic approach.
Image and diet products seem to be ahead of the game in the cross-category positioning. For companies doing business in China: Perhaps it’s time to rethink your positioning? You might be sitting on a gold mine of cross-category wellness opportunities for the China market without even knowing it.