Walking into a Chinese supermarket is a little bit of a culture shock in and of itself: crammed frames, crowded narrow corridors and no apparent organization at all! Just as an example, you can find the loaves of bread above the freezer filled with fish or the laundry detergent which is sitting next to the shampoo bottles (something that can be very dangerous when you can’t read the Chinese characters!). The most unnerving thing I found however as a young, European traveller on my first trip to Asia was that there were hardly any products I recognized. In contrast, when you travel around Europe for example, almost all countries have essentially the same products. In China, however, this is far from the reality.
Upon my arrival in China, a new and unfamiliar country, I was of course eager to test as much as I could, but nonetheless it was still comforting to stumble upon a Coca Cola bottle or Wrigley’s Extra, making me feel just that little bit closer to home. It can also be fun to play a bit of a guessing game with yourself- trying to guess the brand from the background and packaging despite the unfamiliar writing.
奥利奥= Ào lì ào = Oreo
This brought me to another dilemma though- even if you manage to find certain brands that you recognize, you cannot really be sure that it is really the same product as the one you grew up with. Take Oreos for example. Who doesn’t know this iconic, black and white, “twist, lick, dunk” cookie with its bitter chocolate outside and its creamy, sweet inside – and more importantly, who doesn’t enjoy it!
However, I found myself at the super market staring at a shelf that was stacked not with the familiar black, white, and blue boxes but instead with these:
I began considering the possible reasons for this rainbow colored change. The first idea that came to mind was: the Oreo brand has lost its way! How could you possibly twist, lick or dunk this neon looking cookie??
After some thorough investigation though I came upon an article from NPR that shed some light on this issue of localization of the “Ao li ao”.
As it turns out, the Chinese were not keen on the bittersweet flavour for which the Oreo is so famous in the western part of the world. For Chinese tastes, it was a little bit too bitter and a little bit too sweet at the same time. So Kraft went about some in-depth market research on the issue eventually leading to a change in the recipe, where the cookie itself became more chocolaty and the cream less sweet.
This developed and evolved to the point where now you find Oreos in all kinds of flavours- green tea, mango, and raspberry just to list some examples. Afterwards it wasn’t long until the the Chinese began to adopt the American style of eating Oreos – twist, lick and dunk. This was thanks in part to much “emotional” advertisement, such as the kind where children show their parents how to eat an Oreo in the correct way. Such tactics helped the American cookie to conquer the Chinese market, making Kraft the No. 1 biscuit maker in China.
And so what can one learn from this story? First of all, it’s important to remember that “there’s no accounting for taste.” Lorna Davis, head of the global biscuit division at Kraft puts this idea in very elegant business terms for us: “Any foreign company that comes to China and says, ‘There’s 1 1/2 billion people here, goody goody, and I only need 1 percent of that’ … [is] going to get into trouble. You have to understand how the consumer operates at a really detailed level.”
It is interesting too to watch as while the Chinese did not like the American Oreo, the Australian and Canadian consumers, as it turns out also have started to lean towards its new, Chinese counterpart. Robert Smith from NPR summed it up quite succinctly as he points out that “by the time the Oreo finishes its world travels and come back home, Americans might not recognize it.”
- Christina Grohmann- CPG Marketing Intern