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Branding, FMCG, Trends, Wellness
July 25, 2012 | 0 Comments

Chocolate: China’s new health food?

Chinese ad for Dove chocolate.

Dove Chocolate. I feel better already.

Large international confectioners like Mars and Ferrero have been courting Chinese consumers since the 1980s. In 2011, China finally overtook Japan and became the largest confectionary market in Asia. Chocolate sales, in particular, have seen an increase, and are expected to grow faster than any other candy category over the next 5 years. Concurrently, product safety concerns have been driving Chinese consumers to pay a premium for foreign and imported products, most notably in the female hygiene, and infant nutrition segments. This provides an opportunity for foreign brands to dominate the market for milk-related products, including chocolate. 

Chinese consumers previously used chocolate mainly for gifting, but are now more likely to  buy it for personal consumption. Dove, China’s most popular chocolate brand, is marketed as a self indulgence, especially for female professionals. Local media reports regarding the health benefits of dark chocolate helped convince Chinese consumers to take a bite. Dove’s healthy aura may have been supported by the brand’s resemblance to Unilever’s similarly-named personal hygiene brand which also enjoys a high profile in China. Overall, 66% of Chinese consumers reported buying chocolate last year, a 20% increase from 2009.

Promoting dark chocolate as beneficial makes sense, but can milk chocolate – the sugary, fatty cousin to the pure dark original – be healthy too? Depends who you ask: Ferrero is trying to convince local consumers that it is by sponsoring youth sports events and promoting chocolate’s milk content; and Mars have a variety of global initiatives to educate consumers on chocolate and other snacks’s role in facilitating a healthy lifestyle, albeit not yet in China. China had its fair share of tainted milk and other food-related dramas, and local consumers increasingly see the adjectives “healthy and “safe”as interconnected and interchangable.

China’s chocolate industry was not (yet) affected by a major scandal, but urban consumers are suspicious of local brands anyway. Häagen-Dazs became popular in China by emphasizing its imported dairy ingredients, and raising prices to differentiate itself from local and locally-produced competitors. By doing so, it managed to reach out of its traditional high end niche and attract mass-market consumers. What works for ice cream can work for other dairy-related products. Foreign chocolate brands should do more to capitalize on China’s health and safety concerns. After all, while chocolate has little to do with baby food or female hygiene, it does contain milk and some even say it’s better than sex.

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