Do novel foods reflect an individualisation trend in Chinese culture?

Chinese demographers estimate that China will have 92 mln singles in 2021

Yili Dairy, China’s top dairy brand (and second food brand in 2014), based in the capital of Inner Mongolia, Huhhot, has launched remarkable marketing campaigns for some of its popular products. Mengniu, located in the same city, has followed suit.

Oat milk

Breakfast milk is; another member of the expanding Chinese family of formulated dairy products. Yili has entered this market with Oat Milk.

The phenomenon breakfast milk is a product of the increasing of the pace of life in China. From the beginning of the Chinese nation to very recent times, three hot meals a day were sacred in China. Gobbling down a sandwich on your way to work, a familiar sight in my home region, would abhor any Chinese. That thing with the sandwich is still rare in China, but the quick ready-made breakfast is emerging.

The ad for Oat Milk shows Taiwanese singer Eddy Peng drinking (well, at least one end of the straw is in his mouth and the other in a carton of Oat Milk) striking a masculine pose. The text introduces him as a nanshen ‘male god’. Although Chinese women are just as attracted to males like this as their sisters in any other part of the world, such direct sexual remarks are rather un-Chinese. And I am not talking about post 1949 China. Han Chinese are usually rather reserved about this type of emotions.

Eddy

The text adds that male gods are busy chasing their ideals, but impeded by the hardship of work. I have translated the Chinese word ouxiang ‘icon’ here as ideal. It alludes that Peng is the male icon of many Chinese men, but also an object of worship for most women.

The Oat Milk slogan is: four special functions:

OatMilk

Overtime Miracle

Travel Mate

Slimming Success

Ideal Snack

Overtime has entered China already a while ago. China is one of the few nations the constitution of which includes the right to rest for all citizens. However, overtime now seems to be more normal than in many Western countries. What Yili seems to be suggesting is that its Oat Milk can be used to replace the meal that a proper employer would provide to staff members who agree to overtime. A carton of milk with chunks of oat floating in it, that you can consume while continuing to work, would until recently never be accepted. Now, the marketers of Yili seem to believe that this suggestion will no longer elicit protests.

The Chinese term lütu banlü has been coined after kafei banlü Coffee Mate. However, the latter is a powder that is much easier (and again quicker) to use than liquid coffee creamer. Oat Milk is a liquid that you are advised through this ad to carry with you while travelling. A quick bite/sip on the road. Once more, this suggested use is a replacement of the meal that Chinese travellers would usually not be willing to skip. Chinese travellers board a train heavily packed, not with clothes, but food and drinks to consume while chatting with their companions and enjoying the landscape.

Both functions seem to indicate that the pace of life is accelerating in China. One of the cultural rituals affect most strongly by this development is that of eating three warm meals a day.

The oat fibre in Oat Milk is said to help keeping your waist slim. That by itself would not be much more than an empty promise, but the picture of a man Eddy Peng makes it real. Drink Yili Oat Milk and look like Eddy Peng.

The word ‘snack’ in my translation of the final term refers to the Chinese concept of lingshi. It literally means ‘fragmentary food’, food that you can eat any time between meals. When you look at the scope of what is regarded as lingshi by Chinese it seems to be basically identical to xiuxian shipinleisure food’, about which I have devoted an entire post in this blog. Lingshi then seems to be a more colloquial term, while xiuxian shipin is used in a more commercial context. Why it is called ideal seems obvious: as you are snacking anyway, you might as well do it on healthy food. However, I wonder if people would be willing to pack a relatively heavy carton of beverage instead of that pack of melon seeds, preserved plums or other traditional snacks.

Regardless whether Yili’s Oat Milk will be a success or a failure, its ad already is making history.

So, what’s in it? Here is the ingredients list:

Fresh milk, water, crystal sugar, oat grains, oat meal, Vit. A, Vit. D3, iron (fe edta), zinc, food additives (microcrystalline cellulose, CMC, gellan gum, carrageenan, monoglyceride,sucrose ester, sodium bicarbonate), food flavour.

So it is not completely natural, but we would not have expected it to be to begin with.

In the course of 2018, Yili has launched another oat milk, this time flavoured with coconut, marketed under the Guliduo (‘Lots of Cereals’) brand. It is said be made of Vietnamese coconut, carefully selected milk and Australian oat.

You Yoghurt

Yili has hired the services of another Tainwanese star, Jack Chou, to advertise for one of its yoghurt ranges: You Yoghurt (you means ‘best’). Jack Chou is shown sitting in a director’s chair, shouting ‘I want You’. The scene is derived from the TV program Voice of China.

YiliYouAd

Note that the makers of this ad assume that the intended audience have a command of English sound enough to recognise the pun. The deeper reference to the old American military posters telling young American men that ‘Uncle Sam wants you’ will escape the attention of most of them, though.

Expressing love through French fries

Early 2020, McDonald’s contracted the young superstar Jackson Yee, another male young god, not as their icon, but as their ‘spokesperson (daiyanren)’ for its advertisements. Af first sight, it seemed like yet another good looking young guy trying to sell food. However, some of the ads are quite funny, although I’m not sure if they were designed to be funny. My favourite is the ad for Mickey D’s famous French fries, which includes the slogan: ‘every single fry tastes of love‘.

Winter Olympics

Yili is one of the first Chinese food companies to respond to Beijing’s winning of the Winter Olympics in 2022. The company has launched the following commercial:

YiliOlymp

The text reads: ‘I have a seven-year appointment with the Olympic Games‘. And again we see the emerging individualism in this frame. The lonely icehockey player, instead of a team and the use of ‘I’ instead of ‘we’.

It is fascinating to see how a traditional state owned enterprise is able to reinvent itself to fit into the 21st Century. According to the Rabobank survey, Yili now ranks among the world’s 20 largest dairy companies.

Yoghurt icecream

Mengniu, China’s second largest dairy company, has recently launched one of China’s first yoghurt icecreams, marketed under the Dilan brand. The company started the promotion campaign with handing out samples for free to white collar workers in Beijing’s major commercial buildings. Dilan’s ads also indicate that the product is geared to that market segment: the individualist young professionals focused on their careers.

DailanYoghIce

Ambrosial

Yili’s has launched another innovative marketing campaign for its latest range of formulated dairy products, marketed under the brand name Ambrosial, in early 2020. This product’s ads can be divided in three types. The first is linking the brand with famous athletes, singers or movie stars.

The second type tries to link the brand to several symbols of modern life.

The third is more abstract, linking the brand to a number of goods pointing at good taste and healthy living and a human arm grasping a bottle of Ambrosial.

Ingredients:

Fresh milk, crystal sugar, whey protein powder, addives (acetylated distarch phosphate, pectin, agar, diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono(di)glycerides, gellan, food flavours), lactobacillus bulgaricus, streptococcus thermophilus.

Single-portion milk

Here we see a trend towards individualisation expressed in the packaging as well. Some Chinese hate milk, a few like it, and many drink a glass a day for its healthy image. If there is only one milk drinker in a household of, say, four, milk can easily spoil before finishing your 1 litre bottle or UHT pack. Xiajin (Ningxia) has launched a 243 ml bottle of milk to solve this problem in 2019. It is interesting to note that it is not one of the top dairy processors like Yili, Mengniu or Bright that first launch milk in individual portions, but Xiajin, that has been a good second tier dairy company for several decades.

Tea for one

A group of friends chatting for hours around a table with not much more than a pot of tea and a tray of melon seeds is still a very common sight in China. However, the first brand of tea presented in small bags for a single cup has appeared on the market. The term ‘independent’ in ad for this Chicory and Gardenia Tea by Qiandaohu (Hangzhou, Zhejiang) leaves nothing to the imagination.

 

Male vs Female

Yet another product of Yili is a lactic acid beverage branded Changyi that is marketed as being beneficial to the ‘male spirit’ (nanshen). Most of Yili’s new ads introduced above use male bodies as icons for position various dairy products. This product takes this trend one step further by directly referring to the male spirit.

Changyi

Mengniu has launched a sweetened milk, Tianxiaohai, that comes in separate female (pink) and male (blue) packagings

MnFemPack  MnMalePack

However, the ingredients are exactly the same; no gender-related formulation.

Fresh milk (>= 80%), sugar, additives (sucrose ester, monoglyceride, carrageenan), flavour

No sharing with others

Specialists in national culture all agree that Chinese culture is collectivist, placing the group’s interests above that of the individual. This trait of Chinese culture has left a huge mark on the Chinese practice of eating and drinking, in which sharing is a key concept. A Chinese meal is typically eaten around a round table with all dishes placed in the middle, for all participants to share. An now, in 2016, Yili launches this ad.

YiliWangpai

The ad is for Weikezi Chocolate Milk and the boy is saying: ‘Weikezi is delicious, no way I’m going to share it with you’. That statement sounds outrageously un-Chinese. So, is this a sign that young Chinese are becoming more individualist, or is this ad perhaps meant to provoke? I am sure it will make more than few Chinese eyebrows rise.

The ultimate individualisation: one person hot pot

Hot pot is a hot item in China. Nothing beats a group of people around a table throwing chunks of meat, vegetables, bean curd, mushrooms, or virtually any other fresh ingredient in a pot with boiling water and fishing them up when they are cooked. Hot pot is the ultimate communitarian food for a communitarian nation like the Chinese. Even a European fondue is hard to imagine to enjoy on your own, right? Well, be prepared to see this fact shattered by exactly those extremely communitarian Chinese. The past year has witnessed the launching of a number of one-person instant hot pots.

On the outside they look like a big instant noodle cups. Inside you will find a variety of ingredients, like the classic hot pot. Just heat it in the microwave, open it, and enjoy . . . on your own. Some brands are even packed in self-heating packagings. Squeezing the pack will create a chemical reaction that will heat up your hot pot, so you even lose the microwave. I have collated pictures of a couple of the instant hot pots currently on the market. How does it taste? Probably like most instant foods. Is it fun? Not more than eating instant noodles, or instant congee, certainly not as fun as enjoying hot pot with a group of friends or your relatives.

   

Single dog noodles

Early 2018, entrepreneur Zeng Ruilu founded Single Dog, a company producing potato crisps and similar snacks in single portions, geared to the growing group single Chinese. This company launched a range of single portions instant noodles in 2019. Smart readers will say: ‘aren’t all instant noodles made for one person to eat?’. You are right, of course, but Single Noodles (Danshenliang) still caught on. While Chinese singles used to be single for specific reasons (like a shy nature), more and more Chinese remain single for a while by choice. Those people like to confirm this by snacking on food that is specially made for them.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.

 

Formulated milk beverages in China

Even though dairy has been incorporated in several traditional regional cuisines, China is not known as a typical dairy nation. However, the industry has been developing rapidly during the previous decades, in spite of a number of food safety problems that have received global attention. The main reason is that Chinese, with support of the national government, strongly believe in the nutritional value of milk. Already in 2006, the prime minister stated that ideally every Chinese should drink one glass of milk per day.

China produced 32.31 million MT of raw milk in 2019. A little over 60% of this was used to produce drinking milk.

Still, a high volume of milk is consumed by the food industry. This is because, in spite of the healthy image of dairy, the average Chinese consumer still finds the taste of milk hard to appreciate.

Designer beverages

The combination of these facts, high nutrition + disagreeable taste, has created a very unique market segment in the Chinese dairy industry, including a broad variety of beverages with milk as their main ingredient, combined with a number of flavours and nutrients. We will refer to this product group as formulated milk beverages (FMB).

FMB can be further categorized in a number of ways. First of all there is the distinction between fermented and non-fermented beverages. Fermented FMB have a more sour taste and often contain probiotics.

Another subtype is what the Chinese industry refers to as ‘protein drinks’. These beverages used peanuts, almonds, soybeans, etc., as their main ingredients. They have a thicker texture than the average soft drink. A number of protein drinks combine milk with peanuts, red beans, or other of these protein ingredients, which makes them part of the scope of FMB.

These macro ingredients are usually supplemented with a number of other ingredients that can be divided in three main types:

  • Flavours: achieving the targeted flavour of the end product. Red bean milk will obviously contain red beans, but also needs a small amount of red bean flavour
  • Sweeteners: Chinese like their drinks sweet, so sugar is an ingredient in the bulk of FMB. However, with the growing awareness of the harm of excessive sugar intake, part or all sugar can be replaced by a combination of artificial sweeteners
  • Texturizers: texture is an essential aspect of FMB, and especially the protein beverages. Chinese consumers expect a creamy, thick, texture. Even Chinese who do regularly consumer plain fluid milk expect such a creamy mouth feel. Some Chinese ‘plain’ liquid milk products therefore contain small quantities of thickeners, to ensure that consumers do not suspect it to be diluted milk.
  • Nutrients: FMB are all marketed as nutritious products, healthier alternatives for the regular soft drinks. Milk, beans, fruits (e.g. dates; you will find a recipe in the linked blog), and vegetables already add to that nutritious impression, but special nutrients can be added as well. These include the regular vitamins and minerals, but also herbal extracts from traditional Chinese medicine, like Lingzhi fungus (Ganoderma).

Here is a representative example: Strawberry Flavoured Milk Drink

Produced by: Zhujiang (Pearl River) Beverage Company, Zhongshan, Guangdong

Image

Ingredients:

Main ingredients water, sugar, whole cream milk powder, strawberry juice
Sweeteners acesulfame‐K, sucralose
Flavour ingredients citric acid, strawberry flavour, monosodium glutamate
Other ingredients potassium sorbate, monascus colour

 

Many readers will doubt the nutritional value of a product like this, compared to simply drinking a glass of milk, which should be a lot cheaper as well. However, for the time being, this can be expected to be the mainstream in ‘dairy products’ in China.

Also see the dairy section in our item on cost price break down of several Chinese food and beverage groups.

New development: combination with probiotics, organic salt

Probiotics have become a pet ingredient in Chinese formulated dairy beverages. The total turnover in 2015 of probiotic milk drinks was RMB 11.98 billion, up 14.9% compared to 2014.

Huishan Dairy (Liaoning) has launched a new range of fermented dairy drinks with fruit and vegetable juice under the brand name Huawo. The company thus combines two major ‘healthy’ trends in the Chinese food industry: probiotics and natural juice, in one product.

Huawo

Haocaitou (Fujian) has launched a dairy drink with probiotics and natural lake salt imported from Australia, that it markets as a sports beverage.

Rusuanyan

Also look at the Xiaoxixi vinegar milk with pineapple vinegar introduced in my post on new vinegar-based foods and beverages.

A special subtype in this category are the imitations of Yakult. This Japanese product is so successful worldwide, that a number of Chinese companies have not been able to resist the urge to launch similar products. A recent one in this category is Yili (Inner Mongolia), that launched its Meiyitian lactic acid drink early 2018.

Government support

A discussion has been going on in the Chinese media whether these beverages should be allowed to be marketed as dairy products. The government has supported the industry in this debate by officially allowing these drinks to use ‘XX milk’ a product names in October 2014. In this way, the producers are allowed to position their products with a healthy image.

The trend for 2018: healthier formulations

Three Chinese dairy companies are ending the year by launching healthy dairy specialties. It is hard to say if these launches are incidental, or that they are part of a concerted action. However, these beverages can be regarded as examples of the new generation of formulated milk drinks. These beverages are not only formulated to mask the less attractive flavours of milk, but also add several functional ingredients.

Mengniu: A2 beta-casein pure milk

A2 milk is cow’s milk that mostly lacks a form of beta-casein proteins called A1 and instead has mostly the A2 form. Milk like this was brought to market by New Zealand’s a2 Milk Company and is sold mostly in Australia, New Zealand, China, United States and the United Kingdom. Mengniu has selected 2000 cows from its Future Star (Weilaixing) Farm as designated producers of A2 beta-casein milk. It is marketed as a healthy milk for children.

Yili: Changqing (clearing bowels) flavoured fermented milk

The meaning of the product name speaks for itself

Ingredients: raw milk, oat fruit jam (³8%), crystal sugar, thin cream, concentrated milk protein, hydroxypropyl distarch phosphate, pectin, DATEM (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono(di)glycerides), agar agar, lactococcus lactis, lactococcus lactis subsp. cremoris, lactococcus lactis subsp. diacetyl, streptococcus thermophiles, lactobacillus plantarum, lactobacillus rhamnosus.

Kedi: Soy milk milk

The English translation is rather unfortunate. The Chinese name, Doujiang niunai, literally means ‘soy sauce cow milk’, but soy sauce refers to a different product in English, and our default milk is cow milk, so we usually leave the ‘cow’ unmentioned, while we speak of ‘soy milk’, due to the colour of the liquid. Anyway, it is a combination of milk and (non-GMO) soy milk powder. In Kedi’s own words, it is the best of both.

UniPresident, non-dairy specialist has launched a Papaya Milk in March 2018

Eurasia Consult has a database of more than 130 formulated dairy drinks and their manufacturers + a large number of recipes for formulated dairy products that circulate among Chinese food technologists.

Also see my post on individualisation in Chinese food marketing.

Eurasia Consult Food knows the Chinese food industry since 1985. Follow us on Twitter.

Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.

Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation.