Taking Your Packaged Goods East: How to Achieve Success in the Chinese Market

With the ever-shifting marketplace of consumer packaged goods, more and more brands are looking to take their products to a different market on the east side. And no, we don’t just mean on the east side of town but the Eastern hemisphere — namely China. There is a booming market for strategically designed packaged goods across a variety of industries, mainly food and beverage, household goods, and of course beauty products.

In order to be successful overseas, it is important to know the key drivers of purchase intent for Chinese consumers — what they are looking for in their packaging, and inversely, what would make them walk away from your product on shelf.

How and Why the Chinese Shop

The first step in understanding how to design or market your product and brand to succeed in China is to understand their consumption habits. One of the key purchase drivers for the Chinese consumer is social recognition. They shop to be seen more than they shop for necessity. Given this fact, a brand’s ability to be connected and shared on WeChat (which is the Chinese’s version of Facebook but with a lot more features) is paramount to success on and off shelf. Because they are shopping for what will look ‘coolest’ to their friends, the Chinese have become extremely emotional shoppers, like Americans but even more so. Therefore any sort of marketing campaign that leans heavily on occasional uses (like Dove’s campaign targeting Chinese consumers that played on the concept of chocolate indulgence) has the potential to be very successful in this arena.

Another factor to keep in mind is that foreign brands are regarded as premium goods in China. The unique look of American package designs automatically signals quality without having to modify many more elements than language. Take this Nabisco packaging for example. Its simplicity and bright, prominent colors are foreign to those familiar with traditionally cluttered snack packaging that is more common from Chinese-owned brands (on the right). Therefore, without too much change to their existing design language, American brands already have a leg up on the local competition.

Because of this, American brands should absolutely market to a younger generation. According to a McKinsey & Company article, those born before 1985 in China mainly used the Internet for work. Those born after 1985, referred to as the Generation-2 (G2) consumer, are the first real generation to use the Internet for every aspect of their lives, and do so for everything they purchase.

Cultural Considerations in Symbols and Color

Since we just learned that when taking an existing brand overseas, the main element you need to focus on is the language, it is important to mention that this process involves more than just using a translator to change it from English to Mandarin. Symbols, words, and numbers have different connotations in Western vs. Eastern culture. For instance, in the Chinese language, the verbal English of the numerical “eight” sounds very similar to the word meaning “make a fortune.” As a result, Chinese people often try to make connections with the number eight whereas, in western cultures, the number seven is viewed as a symbol for good luck.

Color is another interesting factor to keep in mind since color theory and meaning are very different between American and Chinese cultures. For instance, the color red in Western culture produces a viscerally negative emotional reaction. However in Asian cultures, red symbolizes luck, joy, and happiness. The color white also presents an interesting split in meaning. In the US white is often a color used to symbolize newness, cleanliness, and happiness whereas, in China, white is the color most often worn at funerals and is a symbol of death and mourning.

Overall Packaging Considerations

A dichotomy exists within the Chinese consumer where they want their packages to be bespoke and unique in order for them to stand out in the crowd, but packaging must not be wasteful in their form factor. Starting with the first aspect of this separation, studies have shown that younger shoppers are more often shopping the periphery of Chinese stores. Mintel noted how the use of transparent materials, contemporary design, recyclability, or unique shapes can help draw in younger consumers to the store center. In general, packages with more puzzling form factors or multiple elements that make “unboxing” a longer and more exciting experience are highly valued.

Despite this desire though, China was the first country to pass an ‘Excessive Packaging Law’ in 2011 that prohibited companies from using environmentally dangerous and excessive retail packaging elements. The key rules put in place from this law are:

  • Packaging layers are limited to three.
  • The permitted headspace (void-space) volume is restricted.
  • A maximum ratio is specified between the cost of the packaging and the retail product price.

Therefore, the challenge for American brands is to do more with less in both form factor and differentiation.

Overall, whether your brand’s first application will be viewed in the Chinese market or you are a traditional American brand that is toying with the idea of bringing your product overseas, there are many factors to keep in mind. Social engagement, emotional ties, cross-cultural symbols, proper color use, and unique but not excessive packaging forms are all very important to make that transition a successful one.

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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