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Striking a sound note in hearing aids

By Wang Zhuoqiong | China Daily | Updated: 2019-08-12 10:51
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Employees work at a Phonak production facility in Zurich, Switzerland. [Photo/Agencies]

Patrick Perler introduces fidelity into Sonova's China strategy

For people with hearing loss in the digital age, hearing aids connected to their smartphones and mobile apps are becoming more helpful to improve their hearing efficiency, said Patrick Perler, vice-president for Asia-Pacific of Sonova Group, the world's biggest provider of hearing solutions by revenue.

Phonak Marvel, the latest innovation from the Sonova, can enable people with hearing problems to stream all audio content seamlessly from any iPhone or Android device to both ears in full stereo.

Sonova is the corporate parent of Phonak, Unitron, Hansaton, Advanced Bionics among others. Its products such as the Phonak Marvel are gaining traction in China.

The Phonak Marvel's digital-enabled features, Perler said, are a major improvement in accessibility. The product has become one of Sonova's revenue drivers in China this year.

According to Sonova's financial results for the year to May, Asia-Pacific sales rose 5.4 percent in local currencies, with both the hearing instruments and the audiological care business growing in the high single digits.

Globally, the product is helping the company to grow. In May, Sonova reported full-year (2018-19) sales of 2.76 billion Swiss francs ($2.78 billion), up 4.4 percent year-on-year. Organic growth stood at 4.9 percent in local currencies, accelerating to 7 percent in the second half, driven by the successful introduction of the Phonak Marvel in November 2018.

Having entered China in 2003 as the last one among the big names in the hearing aids segment, Sonova relied heavily on working with distributors. The efforts paid off: it has become a leader in its sector. It later started to establish its own company, a factory and a training center.

In 2006, Perler relocated to China to establish the Phonak Asia Hub in Shanghai, which later became part of the Chinese Group Company of Sonova. He went on to move the hub to Singapore to support Sonova's expansion across Asia while also adding business overhead functions to the entire Sonova Asia-Pacific region.

He started his professional career in the hearing aids industry almost 20 years ago. He joined Sonova in 2005. Since then, he held different international positions and focused on business development. Asia, being a high-growth region, has always been a center of his attention, he said.

After years of development, Sonova has risen to the top in terms of units and market share in the hearing aids segment in China.

Although the China market is relatively young, it figures among Sonova's top three markets in Asia-Pacific, following Australia and Japan. The China market's contributions are still small in terms of Sonova's global revenue, but no other market is growing as fast as China, said Perler.

It may well overtake many currently leading markets in the coming years, he said, adding that Chinese consumers are interested in small-sized hearing instruments. "The Chinese market is very digital-savvy and also cosmetically sensitive."

In the past 15 years, Sonova's team has been ramping up efforts to better meet consumers' demands.

Next year, their new custom-made Phonak Virto Marvel will be in the ear and also connected to any mobile devices, Perler said.

Compared to benchmark Asia-Pacific markets like Australia and New Zealand where hearing aids penetration rate is the highest and hearing care is very strong, penetration in China is seven or eight times lower, said Perler. The latest national survey showed that there are 27.8 million people in China born with, or affected by, hearing problems.

By contrast, there are only 10,000 certified professionals in the country who can prescribe tailored hearing solutions for rehabilitation. There are just four universities in China that offer audiology degrees. So, Sonova's academy in China endeavors to train enough qualified hearing professionals.

Apart from the efforts from its academies in China, Sonova has also launched online and offline learning programs for hearing-care staff, offering online courses and practical experiences, to enable them better help local consumers.

The latest national survey showed that there are 27.8 million people in China with hearing impairment, and according to business media CBN's report, the country has more than 70 million people with hearing loss.

Sonova has cultivated hearing-care professionals in China to better help local customers with their hearing problems. Sonova thus combines the engineering strengths of its European talent with the brilliance of its digital-savvy Chinese team.

In 2016, the company set up a global strategic cooperation framework with the Beijing Institute of Otolaryngology, focusing on scientific research and training, as well as education, and makes efforts to improve public awareness of hearing care in China.

It also worked with Shanghai Jiao Tong University for a pilot clinical program on hearing in Chinese toned language amid a noisy environment.

Sonova offers its customers one of the most comprehensive product portfolios in the industry - from hearing instruments to cochlear implants to wireless communication solutions.

Founded in 1947, the group has a presence in more than 100 countries and markets across the globe, generating a net profit of 460.2 million Swiss francs.

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