OVER the moon
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," goes the saying. Conservative types would suggest that it is better not to toy with the classics; established favourites are best left alone.
It seems, however, that these ardent traditionalists are in the minority in forward-looking China. Mooncakes, for example, are no longer just a confection made of duck eggs and bean paste.
Starbucks sells them in coffee flavours. Haagen-Dazs makes an ice cream version. Hong Kong brand Taipan stuffs them with unusual fillings such as mango, coconut and swallows' nests. Beijing's Fangshan Restaurant has even teamed up with the Canadian Embassy to offer maple syrup and smoked salmon varieties.
The traditional round Chinese pastries are shared between family, friends and business partners. Mooncakes are a symbol of the Mid-Autumn Festival, and they are no longer the exclusive domain of domestic producers.
International food and beverage companies are wading into the market with new concepts and innovative products. The potential is huge.
Gao Kemin, secretary-general of the Shanghai Bakery Association, says that innovative mooncake flavours could account for up to 15 per cent of the market this year.
Foreign ice cream manufacturer Haagen-Dazs entered the mooncake market in 1997, and the firm has established a large distribution network.
It sells mooncake ice cream in its 47 outlets across the country in cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. Its mooncake business is also connected to retailers, shopping malls and supermarkets, says Song Weiqun, marketing director of General Mills Inc, the parent company of Haagen-Dazs.
Song says that the company has developed many large-scaled enterprises as their long-term clients, since those companies send mooncakes to their business partners and staff every year. "FESCO is one of our large clients," he says.
Song says there is still opportunity to develop and that the company is looking at emerging markets such as Nanjing, Ningbo and Suzhou.
Nestle successfully carried out a trial last year and continues to promote its ice cream mooncake.
The firm co-operates with online search engines such as Google, Sohu and 3721, in order to reach consumers, says He Tong, Nestle's public relations manager.
She adds that when Nestle first entered the market, it emphasized product demonstrations in key account channels, such as shopping malls and supermarkets, and put up bus station billboards to raise consumer awareness.
She declines to reveal the exact sales volumes, but says development has been positive.
Starbucks is introducing new products this year to complement its line of coffee-flavoured mooncakes. The company introduced five new flavours this year, including green tea, cheese and curry flavours.
Company spokespeople will not comment on market share, but say the products were introduced to satisfy consumer demand.
"We conducted market research before entering the mooncake market in 1997. It showed that domestic consumers were bored with the traditional cakes.
They said mooncakes were old fashioned, and young people were staying away," Song says.
He says that the industry shift has brought new flavours and concepts to consumers. Nestle's He agrees.
"Nestle mooncakes offer consumers an exciting variation on tradition. People are looking for new holiday food and our products answer the call for tasty, quality treats," He says.
She adds that seasonal food brings business opportunities to both foreign and local companies.
"We have a unique strength in this market - a combination of international and local experience," she says.
Haagen-Dazs always looks for connections between its ice cream and local food, Song says.
"Food culture around the world gives us ideas to develop new products," he says.
Foreign enterprises also benefit from their strong brand image.
Nestle's He says that the company has strong brand development, research capabilities, and technical skills. Haagen-Dazs also says brand image is its biggest advantage.
"We have over 80 years of experience worldwide, and we came to the Chinese market nine years ago. Our products are symbols of elegance and luxury," Song says.
He adds that most of its mooncakes are handmade. This ensures quality but is too slow to satisfy market demand.
"We plan to increase our capacity in the future," he says.
Experts say that foreign firms also bring new sales concepts to seasonal food.
"Foreign brands normally sell their products through coupons, which means they only produce according to market demand. This helps them avoid overstock risks," Gao says.
(China Daily 09/12/2005 page5)
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