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From ‘punk health’ to live-stream shopping: Exploring the idiosyncratic Chinese health and wellness market – Interview

Zarina Kanji, head of business development and marketing for Tmall Global at Alibaba Group, UK, and Nordics
With the second largest wellness economy in the world, China offers lucrative opportunities to nutraceutical brands that understand the idiosyncrasies of its market dynamics and of Chinese consumers, says Alibaba.
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Zarina Kanji is head of business development and marketing for Tmall Global at Alibaba Group, UK, and Nordics. Ahead of her presentation at Vitafoods Insights Europe Virtual Expo, held next week from 14 – 17 November, we caught up with her to find out more about Chinese consumer trends and dynamics.

Are there any health and wellness ‘white spaces’ in the Chinese market where innovation is still needed?

“The wellness economy in China is the second largest in the world – valued at $683bn. Health and wellness is a priority for Chinese consumers, with many focused on taking better care of themselves post pandemic. The typical Chinese wellness consumer is incredibly quick to try new trends and adopt new habits. As such, the growth of the supplements market and ‘wellness from within’ is a significant opportunity.

“Chinese consumers take products preventatively rather than reactively and look for specific ingredients and targeted solutions. This provides rich scope for innovation – as we’ve seen with collagen jelly shots for energy to sleep gummies for a better night’s sleep. Innovations in convenient wellness –functional, healthy, and convenient solutions which are simple to integrate into daily life - are warmly received by Chinese consumers.

“A good example is ‘night owl drinks’ combining traditional Chinese ingredients such as goji berries – known as the miracle fruit for the liver – with tea and coffee for a caffeine perk in a genre called punk health or yangsheng.”

Can you give an example of a successful European supplement or functional food brand that has ‘made it’ in China? What learnings are there for other brands?

“In 2015, British vitamins company Vitabiotics launched its flagship store on Tmall Global, our cross-border marketplace. Since then, China has become of one of the company’s top three global export markets and a key focus for international growth.

“Perfectil collagen shakes from Vitabiotics rose to the top seller in the collagen category when it launched on Tmall Global in March 2022, as a testament to the Chinese consumers' willingness to try new consumption methods and their desire for a more youthful appearance.

“Over the past seven years, Vitabiotics has prioritised its partnership with Alibaba to expand its business to three stores focussed on mother and baby, health, and inner beauty. Vitabiotics has worked closely with the Tmall Global category teams and relied on the expertise of its trade partners on the ground in China to better understand local dynamics and how to capitalise on Chinese health and wellness trends. It’s critical for brands to then tailor their proposition accordingly.”

How are European brands perceived by Chinese consumers? Should they consider a branding strategy that is specific to Chinese consumers to succeed?

“European brands are held in high regard by Chinese consumers, with their quality, heritage, and provenance of their ingredients clearly a factor in their export success. It’s important for brands entering the Chinese market to understand their target consumer, focus on education and bring the brand story and USPs to life. The consumers in China often approach health and wellness brands from a preventative versus reactive angle and often the end consumers of health supplements in China are much younger than in the West.

“A great example of this would be Holland and Barrett's Evening Primrose Oil Supplements, which are bestselling for menopausal women in the West yet are taken by younger women in China to combat period pain.”

Many Chinese consumers seem to openly embrace technology and digital solutions. How can functional food and supplement brands leverage this?

“The way Chinese consumers shop online and consume media is very different. Technology is at the core of the future of health and wellness in China, be it the way consumers discover and purchase products through livestream commerce, through to ingredients, consumption novelties and devices.

“[...] Livestreaming with key opinion leaders (KOLs), and increasingly with key opinion consumers (KOCs), plus a brand representative, is extremely effective as it enables Chinese consumers to better understand a brand, its quality, and its points of difference – and establish a much deeper connection. Brands can interact directly with consumers and this feedback can then be incorporated into new localised product developments specifically for the China market.

“Holland and Barrett recently leveraged new technologies in its 11.11 livestream by using a virtual KOL who was able to answer questions from consumers and replicate its product expertise that offline consumers would benefit from in a store.”

Do you have any advice for companies on how to overcome the seemingly daunting language and regulatory barriers when entering the Chinese market?

“We recognise that taking the first steps to export to China can be daunting. Our research shows that 48% of UK businesses believe exporting internationally is a viable opportunity but are concerned about the challenges of cross-border trade. Chief among their concerns was increased paperwork and customs rules, as well as payment security and late payments.

“Our cross-border marketplace, Tmall Global, allows international brands to forego the need for local processing and infrastructure, with no need to meet local requirements. As the largest B2C cross-border ecommerce platform in China, more than 80% of brands on Tmall Global have made their China debut on the platform.

“Working with the right trade partner can also be helpful to provide tailored, specialist support and instil greater confidence. Online marketplaces are an essential part of today’s export landscape, offering a simpler and more seamless solution to access international markets.”

European brands are well aware of EFSA and EU regulations for their products, but how strict are Chinese regulatory authorities when it comes to making health claims or approving novel health ingredients?

“Cross-border e-commerce means that brands can sell to Chinese consumers by adhering to the health claims and regulations of its home country, that is the ease of the model and what makes it so attractive to international brands wanting to access the more than 100 million annual active consumers shopping on Tmall Global. Alibaba’s category teams and the third party trade partners and distributors are available to provide guidance on a case by case basis, as are organisations such as China Britain Business Council (CBBC) in the UK who can deliver advice to enable businesses to seize the China opportunity.”

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