‘Made in China,’ Once a Badge of Derision, Finds New Fans—in China

In 2008 at least six babies died and 300,000 fell ill after drinking made-in-China infant formula tainted with toxic chemicals. In response, many Chinese parents embraced foreign brands, catapulting the likes of Danone SA’s Aptamil and Nestlé SA’s Illuma to the top of the market. Yet for the past two years, the leading formula brand in China has been made by China Feihe Ltd., a Beijing company that emphasizes its local roots rather than seeking to obscure them. “More suitable for Chinese babies,” the company’s advertising boasts.

In categories ranging from baby food and bottled water to sportswear and skin cream, Chinese brands are putting pressure on global rivals that depend on the country for much of their growth. While increasing nationalism has boosted the momentum of domestic products for the past couple of years, the Covid-19 pandemic is hastening the shift. With prices typically lower than foreign brands’, domestic products have increasing appeal in times of constrained household budgets, and the growth of online sales has weakened the multinationals’ advantages in distribution and marketing. “Chinese shoppers are showing stronger confidence in local brands,” says Helen Wong of Qiming Venture Partners, which has backed local startups such as lingerie maker Neiwai and cafe chain Coffee Box. “The coronavirus is accelerating the trend as people stay home, watch livestreaming, and shop.”

‘Made in China,’ Once a Badge of Derision, Finds New Fans—in China

Investors have piled into domestic companies that are overtaking multinational rivals, doubling the combined value of China’s 500 top brands in the past four years to about $3.8 trillion, according to marketing consultancy World Brand Lab. Clothing and shoe manufacturer Anta Sports Products, which in 2018 passed Nike to become China’s No. 2 sports apparel brand behind Adidas, is up more than 50% this year even as the benchmark Hang Seng index has fallen 6%. Shares of China’s biggest bottled water brand, Nongfu Spring, have more than doubled since its September Hong Kong trading debut. Yatsen Holding, owner of cosmetics house Perfect Diary, a growing threat to the likes of L’Oréal and Estée Lauder, has jumped 75% since its U.S. initial public offering in November.

‘Made in China,’ Once a Badge of Derision, Finds New Fans—in China

Local names account for seven of the top 10 cosmetics brands, up from just three in 2017, according to market researcher Daxue Consulting. L’Oréal SA’s Maybelline makeup line has seen its share in China plunge, to 9.1% last year from more than 20% in 2010, according to Euromonitor International. In the skin care and lotion category, the share of L’Oréal Paris dropped, to 4.5% last year from 5.6% in 2014, putting it neck and neck with local brand Pechoin. The growing strength of Chinese cosmetics makers can be traced to their smart online strategy, according to Derek Deng, a partner in Shanghai with Bain & Co. “Insurgent Chinese brands are more likely to be digital from Day One,” he says, while multinationals tend to favor physical stores.

Perfect Diary, launched in 2017, now stands just behind several European-owned brands, with 4% of the crowded market for so-called color cosmetics such as lipstick and mascara, Euromonitor estimates. Its advertising stresses that its products come from the same manufacturers as Dior, Lancôme, and Armani but sell for less than one-third the price. It’s teamed with Mondelez International’s Oreos for a skin foundation cream (no, it doesn’t contain ground-up cookies; the box looks like an Oreo). On Singles Day, the Nov. 11 shopping palooza organized by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., Perfect Diary’s online store included livestreams of influencers pitching products such as animal-themed eye shadow (co-branded with the Discovery Channel) featuring colors and packaging inspired by rabbits, deer, and fish. “We’ve proven we can stand out in a highly competitive market,” says David Huang, chief executive officer of Yatsen.

‘Made in China,’ Once a Badge of Derision, Finds New Fans—in China

Foreign brands aren’t finished in China, of course. They dominate categories such as high-end handbags and luxury cars. Estée Lauder Cos. sold more than 2 billion yuan ($300 million) of products on Singles Day with a livestreaming campaign, two-for-one discounts, and installment payment plans. And KFC—still the biggest fast-food chain in China—is supplementing its fried chicken with products such as fast-cooking stinky sour snail noodles to cater to diners stuck at home in the pandemic. “The attitude of big international brands is changing significantly,” says Wu Wenmi, founder of Wenzihui MCN, an agency in Hangzhou that partners with Alibaba. “They are more humble now and willing to hear our opinions of how to play the game.”

One way Chinese companies are playing the game is with marketing that resonates for locals. While foreigners’ ads stress the nutritional value of their infant formula, Feihe nurtures relationships with consumers via loyalty programs, new-parent support groups, and collections of bedtime stories. And Chinese brands are increasingly tailoring their wares to domestic tastes. China Mengniu Dairy Co., for instance, is stepping up sales of innovations such as pineapple-flavored cheese and squid-infused snacks in addition to its lineup of basic milk and fruit yogurts. “Foreign brands were so innovative three decades ago when they first came to China,” Mengniu CEO Lu Minfang said at a November media briefing. “But now they’re developing slower than local brands.” —Bruce Einhorn and Daniela Wei

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

With assistance from Bloomberg

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.