We are experiencing a moment in time in which the Chinese are looking back at the nation’s long history with more appreciation for traditional values and things Chinese to be proud of. This includes a number of old famous food brands (laozihao in Chinese) that have (almost) gone lost in during the years of rapid economic growth. Of the 2000 traditional brands in China, about 27% are food and beverage businesses, according to a research report from Beijing Technology and Business University.
Several of the Beijing-based brands used to enjoy national fame — Yili, Sanyuan, Beibingyang, Liubiju, and Wangzhihe. Curiously enough these old Beijing brands still have large numbers of loyal customers but also mirror the development of typical State-owned enterprises in the capital. A number of famous old brands based in other regions of China are being revived as well. The national government has started to protect those brands with a system of certification.
The Beibingyang Beverage Co’s soda water, for example, can be seen in snack bars and small restaurants in the city where it is quite popular, with demand always far outstripping supply on hot summer days, according to Ma Chunying, Party head of Beijing Yiqing Holdings Ltd, a Beijing-based food manufacturer, who added, “Beibingyang Beverage grew out of an ice plant that started in 1936, so it’s nearly 80 years old.”
Beibingyang (Northern Ice Sea) used to be China’s top brand soft drink, but disappeared 15 years ago, when it proved unable to reposition itself in the world dominated by Coca Cola and the likes. Yili announced its return in 2011.
Yiqing literally means ‘First light’ and is an abbreviation of the Beijing First Light Industry Corp., a management vehicle of the part of the industry that used to be operated by the Beijing Bureau of Ligh Industry, which in turn was the local branch of the Ministry of Light Industry. This ministry was demoted to the China Light Industry Association and the former ministry’s local branches were reorganised into holding companies that managed the individual companies. ‘First’ refers the lighter types of industry like food.
Beibingyang is performing well. The company has filed a turnover of RMB 600 mln for 2017. It has also launched a type of peanut-based protein beverage of its own, under the Beibingyang brand. It has also started to pack its soda in PET bottles mid 2018 (see pictures).
Based on its initial success, Beibingyang launched its first ice cream popsicle, Brow Sugar Pearl Double Stick ice cream, in the summer of 2020.
For me personally, reading the brand name Beibingyang alone brings back my own memories of my year in China in 1975-76.
Yimin ice cream
The resurrection of Shanghai Yimin No 1 Food Factory, one of China’s oldest ice cream makers, is creative: the brand chose a new durian flavoured sundae to announce its comeback. Yimin’s vanilla ice cream has some history to it. Now the brick-shaped dessert sells at RMB 8 yuan apiece. Back in its heyday in the 1950s, its price was RMB 0.25. Its popularity continued through the 1980s and 1990s. Its size and shape resembled a soap bar (see photo above). And consumers would dip it in soda water, mix it with cookies and fruits, or even allow it to melt so they could use the fluid as a dressing on fruit salad. Those were the days when air conditioners and refrigerators were still few and far between at homes. At its peak, Yimin’s vanilla ice cream commanded nearly 80% of the local market. But then, the ubiquitous imported ice cream brands mauled the 95-year-old firm’s offerings. Let’ watch and see if the new flavour can help Yimin recoup some of that old market share.
Moqi Peach Drink is not even a very old brand. Launched in 1984, and booming by 1992, the brand faded away before the end of the century. It grew a dull and old-fashioned image and was no match for the ‘modern’ international soft drinks. However, Moqi was relaunched on February 5, 2018.
Yili bread (not to be mixed up with Yili, China’s top dairy company), another Yiqing Holding brand, especially the type filled with jam, was known in practically every household in Beijing in the early 1960s and ’70s, and, Ma adds, “This bread keeps the traditional flavor and texture of dozens of years ago and which is still popular, and along with Beibingyang soda water, in the words of one customer “still brings back childhood memories”. In fact, reading the brand name Beibingyang brings back my own memories of my year in China in 1975-76.
These sentiments for old brands fit in with the current trend in China to go back to traditional Chinese values and respect the good things of Chinese culture. Protecting a number of national brands is another distinctive trait of the current Chinese government, as I indicated in the post on infant formulae.
An employee of Yili bread, Zhang Chunlin, explains why it still tastes good after so many years of development by saying that the company insists on using the traditional fermentation method, which produces the particular flavor and nutritional benefits and that the food safety is a major concern for Yili and Beibingyang, which claim to have strict production standards for raw materials and processing. Yili bread does not have any food additives or trans-fat, which can increase the risk of disease.
When it comes to food security, no one feels stronger about it than Sanyuan, according to a company spokesman, which is a Beijing Sanyuan Foods Co brand and one of China’s leading dairy producers. Sanyuan started life as the Pingjiao State Farms Administration office in 1949, the year of the founding of the PRC; another government agency turned company.
China’s diary business was badly hurt by the 2008 scandal in which several giant Chinese companies were found to be adding melamine, a chemical that can cause kidney and other damage, to their food, while Sanyuan’s products, a relatively smaller operation, proved to be safe. Since then, the government has imposed tighter quality controls on the industry, and has tried to restore consumer confidence. Sanyuan acquired most of the assets of Sanlu, China’s largest dairy company until it got bankrupt as a consequence of the melamine incident.
In a spot inspection, in 2011, China shut down 426 dairy producers and told another 107 to suspend operations until they made improvements. Then, in 2014, the Beijing government gave RMB 10.8 mln to the Sanyuan Group to develop safer, healthier infant milk powder.
One Sanyuan Foods manager said that in addition to about 30 tests for heavy metals, pesticide residue and chemical additives, the company has advanced testing facilities for antibiotics and somatic cells.
They also have a complete industrial chain, from cow breeding, feeding, and processing, to sales and cold chain transport to after-sale service and use information technology and intelligent systems to identify the cows and calculate the amount of exercise and, in processing everything is automated.
Five Star Beer
Established in 1915, Five Start was one of China’s oldest beer brands, but when it failed to redefine itself in the new competitive environment, it was finally taken over by Tsingtao in 2000. The new owners discontinued the brand. In September 2015, Tsingtao announced that it will revive the Five Star brand, for the time being concentrating its marketing in Beijing and the Northeast.
Wangzhihe, of the Wangzhihe Group, a subsidiary of Beijing’s Ershang Group, goes back to 1669, so it has a long history with fermented bean curd. The parent group owns dozens of national brands with long histories, including Liubiju sauce and pickles, and Yueshengzhai pickled beef and mutton.
The literal meaning of Ershang is ‘Second Commerce’. Like Yiqing, it is a management vehicle for the state owned enterprises under the former hierarchy of the Ministry of Internal Commerce. That ministry merged with the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations & Trade into the current Ministry of Commerce. And again, the companies involved were distributed over a number of holdings.
Wang Jiahuai, GM of the Wangzhihe Group, says, “It takes at least 100 days for the furu (fermented tofu) while the natto (Japanese soy food) ferments in about one week. There is a wide gap in texture, fermentation and nutrition between Chinese furu and the Japanese natto.”
Wangzhihe’s furu got national recognition as a cultural heritage item, in June, 2008, Wang added, so, it gives all its suppliers an evaluation and certification before letting them work. They are mostly in the northeastern provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang, which have high-quality soya beans.
In denying a rumor that furu contained nitrite, a food additive that can cause cancer if taken in excessive amounts, he said, “Wangzhihe uses a biologic method to ferment furu, and it won’t harm your health,” then went on to explain, “People get used to eating furu as a side dish and do not know much about its nutrition and cultural connotations so, a major mission of our company is to develop the traditional processing and do more research on microbial fermentation and nutrition.”
Liubiju Pickle is “China’s Time-honored Brand”, enjoying a history of over 400 years. It was originally created in 1530 A.D. as a small store bu brothers surnamed Zhao in Xishe Village, (Linfen, Shanxi). Later, it specially dealt with pickle business. The name Liubiju was taken from the motto coined by the shop’s founder and means “House of Six Musts,” referring to prime raw materials, choice ingredients, the best yeast, pure water, proper curing, and flavorful pickles.
The pickles in Liubiju have carefully-chosen materials and strict processing procedures. Natural saucing method is adopted and abided by strictly. All materials come from fixed places. For example, soybeans are purchased from Majuqiao of Fengrun (Hebei) and Yongle Store of Tongzhou (Beijing), and the wheat flour are from Laishui (Hebei) and. cucumber from Daxing (Beijing).
In 1988 all the sauce and pickle makers in Beijing, including Liubiju, merged to establish the Beijing Pickles Company, later renamed the Liubiju Food Company.
The Chinese cola brand Tianfu, that in 1991 was good for 80% of the Chinese cola market, will be relaunched around the Spring Festival of 2016. Back in 1980s and 1990s, the Chongqing-based company was the largest soft drink maker in China with a strong hold of 70% of the soft drink market. Tianfu Cola was sold beyond China and started to gain market recognition in Russia and America. In 1994, the company set up a joint venture with American cola producer Pepsi, which was not successful. By 2005, Tianfu Cola’s market share had plummeted to 1%. The company blamed the failure to the decision to cut the production of Tianfu Cola to make way for the production of Pepsi-Cola. In 2006, the company sold its stake in the joint venture to Pepsi. However, Pepsi refused to give back Tianfu’s production right. In 2010, Tianfu took Pepsi to court accusing the US firm of stealing the secret recipe for its beverage, with success. Tianfu will still use its natural traditional Chinese medicine herbal recipe to produce the drink, which was developed in cooperation with the Sichuan Research Institute for Chinese Medicine.
In Shanghai, Yimin No 1 Food Factory is trying to regain its earlier leading position with a new high-end ice cream. Founded in 1913, Yimin No 1 Food Factory is one of the first ice cream makers in China. Originally a conglomerate that produced beverages, canned foods and snacks, the company later made ice cream and sold it under the brand “Bright” during the 1950s (Bright became one of China’s leading dairy companies). At its peak, Bright accounted for 80% of ice cream sold across the country. By the early 1990s, the company produced 15,000 mt of ice cream every year, 18 times the amount when it was started four decades ago. But with the aggressive expansion of foreign brands in the late 1990s, the brand fell down the pecking order in the market. Its main consumers today are middle-aged consumers looking for a slice of nostalgia. In 2017, the company recorded RMB 200 mln of sales across its product categories, up 10% from the previous year. However, a low profit margin and a dissipating market share, especially in areas outside Shanghai where people are less attached to the history of the brand, remain big concerns for the company. Yimin is hoping that a new polar bear logo for their high-end offering could eventually become a prominent IP like characters from Disney, in turn drawing more young people to try their product which is available in three flavours — vanilla, cheese and strawberry yoghurt.
Adapting to modern demands
Most of these time-honoured brands stick to traditional methods, but also try to improve through modern technologies, which they consider inevitable if they hope to meet the demands of customers beyond Beijing, change is necessary.
Wangzhihe says it has more tailored marketing strategies for different parts of China and products that cater to local tastes, with Wang pointing out that the people of northern China prefer the red furu while southerners like the white better.
Yiqing Holdings says it has been trying to adjust to meet market demands and, in 2011, opened its first store in the Yili chain in Beijing, and in doing so got to know more about the market and got customer feedback. In the past, businesses such as supermarkets and snack bars just went to the plant themselves to get the goods and the company just stood by, passively waiting for buyers, something that was really out of step with the times.
Ma explains, “There are 65 chain stores in all and that is expected to reach 100 by the end of this year,” while Li Qi, the president of Yiqing Holding, in commenting on their development, says they consider the development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region as a business opportunity for their brand strategy.
The company was also a sponsor of last year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Beijing and its sponsored products cover food and beverages and sponsoring such grand international event was a good way to become known globally.
Other regions in China will undoubtedly have similar clusters of old trusted brands produced by new style state owned enterprises that are no longer directly operated by the government, but still closely monitored and protected by it. I will report on these regions in the near future.
Old brands introduced in previous posts
A number of earlier posts in this blog introduce other old famous brands. I will list them here, with links to the relevant posts.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.