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HomeBusinessIt's getting a lot harder for global brands to win in China

It’s getting a lot harder for global brands to win in China

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Western brands are having to work harder to win over customers in China.

Where American or European companies could once expect to find an enormous market hungry for their products, changing tastes and the challenge from new Chinese rivals are forcing them to adopt new strategies to succeed in the world’s second biggest economy.

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“It doesn’t work to just show up anymore,” said Benjamin Cavender, a Shanghai-based analyst at consulting firm China Market Research Group, referring to brands that are household names in the West. “Chinese consumer tastes are evolving rapidly.”

Coca-Cola (CCE) is one of the top companies that’s having to adapt to this new reality.

“We’ve seen a tremendous change in the consumption patterns,” Curtis Ferguson, the company’s China CEO, told CNN at last week’s World Economic Forum in the Chinese city of Tianjin.

Coke has launched more than 30 new drink brands in China in the past six months and now has about 275 in total, Ferguson said. They range from regular Coke to more exotic varieties with flavorings like yellow bean and apple fiber. Coke even has its own line of teas in China.

That’s a big change from the Atlanta-based company’s previous approach of relying on the strength of its brand.

coca cola plus china
Coke has launched more than 30 new drink brands in China in the past six months. This ad is for an apple fiber drink.

The philosophy was “let them drink Coke,” Ferguson said. He argued Western companies can’t afford to treat their brands as sacrosanct.

“Either you destroy your own brand in China, or someone else is going to do it for you,” he said.

Starbucks scrambles to keep up

Starbucks learned the difficulties of shifting Chinese consumer habits the hard way.

The coffee chain has about 3,000 stores in the country, making it one of its top markets. But in June, the company reported a sudden slowdown in growth in China, just weeks after it had announced plans for rapid expansion there.

That’s partly because it faces growing competition from an upstart local competitor. Luckin Coffee