In this interview, RedFern Digital discusses the Mother & Baby industry in China with Mei Chu, Assistant Director of Consumer and Creative Industries at CBBC. The interview focuses on the baby food category and provides insights into current market trends.
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Could you provide some background into your and CBBC’s experience within the baby food category?
Mei Chu: I currently lead CBBC’s consumer goods and creative industries in Shanghai and specialise in cross-category business collaborations to support UK companies in their China market development. Part of what we do at CBBC includes helping baby food brands from the UK develop their new sales channels in China. We support them on consumer insights and provide assistance on their in-market campaigns.
Prior to CBBC, I was the new product development lead at Nestlé and was the cross-border E-commerce team leader of its largest baby food brand in the China market.
What are some key differences between the Mother & Baby industry in China compared to that of Western countries? What about specifically in the baby food category?
MC: The Mother & Baby industry in China has its own unique culture. Mothers in China often seek out social platforms specifically for new mothers, where they can join communities. In these communities, the mothers can discuss their parenting experiences, obtain parenting advice and knowledge, or receive product recommendations. Recommendations or product reviews from their peers can be extremely important factors that mothers consider when making a purchasing decision. Because of this, these social platforms, such as Babytree or Mamabang, or other vertical platforms, such as Beibei or Mia, are very important for the Mother & Baby industry in China.
When it comes to the baby food category, the entire concept of how to feed or nourish babies is quite different when comparing Western countries to China, especially due to differences in culture, habits and general consumer backgrounds. In recent years, I would say that the way Chinese mothers are feeding their babies has been influenced by Western habits.
We can observe this by looking into the category trends. For instance, 20 years ago, the older generations of parents adhered more to the belief that self-made mushed rice is best for feeding babies. However, when looking at the current generation of Chinese mothers, we can see that they are more accepting of feeding their babies rice cereal products developed by brands. As a result, these mothers tend to be very loyal to the brand from which they buy their rice cereal products. Part of the reason for this change in approach to infant nutrition is also due to changes in lifestyle between past and current generations of parents, and the convenience of purchasing rice cereal products, rather than making their own rice-mush.
What would you say is a major developing trend in the baby food market?
MC: Many brands have started to expand their marketing focus beyond rice cereal, which has traditionally taken up the majority of sales. Brands are increasing investments in other baby food subcategories, for example fruit puree and snacks. In more recent years, brands have begun to educate Chinese mothers on fruit puree products, going against the traditional belief that fresh fruits are better than ready-to-eat purees. Brand education, combined with the changing lifestyles of parents, has seen an increased need for more efficient and convenient methods of feeding young children. As a result, the newest generation of mothers are more accepting of feeding their children ready-to-eat purees, such as those sold by Ella’s Kitchen or Little Freddie.
Brand education, combined with the changing lifestyles of parents, has seen an increased need for more efficient and convenient methods of feeding young children
Because of the changes in feeding concepts and lifestyle, aside from rice cereal, consumers are showing a rise in demand for other baby food subcategories such as purees, baby snacks, and edible teethers.
What are some new product developments that have emerged in recent years in the baby food industry?
MC: Many brands are focusing on very specific sub-sectors of the baby food market. Brands are launching products that have specific features or functions. For instance, Nestlé launched their ‘low sensitivity + gentle protection’ product line, which is aimed at babies that may be sensitive to different types of more harsh ingredients. Some local brands have launched baby food products that they market as having been specifically developed for babies that were delivered through C-sections or born with low-birth-weights.
Another trend that has been a huge hit is A2 milk, which is a type of cow’s milk that has lower amounts of the A1 form of beta-casein protein and is claimed to better suit babies’ more sensitive guts. After the a2 Milk Company launched A2 milk into the market, other brands followed suit. Illuma launched its own version of milk products with the A2 claim, alongside Nestlé Nan. However, when it comes down to it, A2 milk is a very small sub-sector of the larger baby food market in China.
Goat milk is another subcategory that has seen some growth both through cross-border e-commerce and among local brands.
Have you seen a difference between how domestic and foreign infant nutrition brands approach the infant nutrition market in China?
MC: In the infant nutrition industry, local brands have quite a strong presence. Not only because they’re supported by the Chinese government, but also because they frequently position and market themselves as local brands that know and better understand the nutritional needs of local babies. One example is the brand Feihe, which frequently uses the claim ‘designed for Chinese babies’.
Local brands have quite a strong presence. Not only because they’re supported by the Chinese government, but because they position themselves as brands that better understand the nutritional needs of local babies.
On the other hand, imported foreign brands will often focus on two factors in their marketing. The first is the high quality of their products – these brands will emphasise their product origins and how their products have passed the strict standards of their country of origin. The second is the ‘premium’ status of the foreign brands. The tone and visuals used in the brands’ marketing efforts and campaigns will be focused on positioning the brand in the more ‘premium’ and higher priced market.
What insights can you share about what’s given key competitors in the baby food market an edge over the rest?
MC: As an example of a successful brand in the China market, Little Freddie started by focusing on one product type, puree. Puree is a category that generally has less customer loyalty. This is different to infant nutrition, where mothers do not like changing the brand after they start to use the brand’s products. Generally speaking, puree is considered a supplementary snack for Chinese babies, so it has low barriers of entry, even as it has low customer loyalty. Little Freddie was able to penetrate the market through its puree product lines, building up brand recognition in the China market. Only after becoming established, did Little Freddie begin to expand its product lines beyond purees, investing in baby snacks or rice cereals.
Do you have any suggestions for new brands coming into the China Baby Food market?
MC: For brands that are just entering the baby food category, one suggestion is to focus on recruiting one type of consumer or mother that suits the brand positioning and products, then continually provide brand education and recruit new mothers within that consumer segment.
As from the Little Freddie example, brands can find success by initially launching products in one subcategory, rather than launching multiple product lines at once. Doing so will allow the brand to focus its investment and penetrate the market, ensuring that the one product line succeeds before expanding into other subcategories.
Every year, new mothers are entering the market, so the most crucial aspect of this industry is for brands to start engaging with the mothers early on in their pregnancy, in order to influence them at the start of their preparation stage for a new baby. Continually recruiting and educating new consumers/mothers is always key in this industry.