Chinese Beer, Context and Branding

The beer market is a fickle place. Tastes change with the season and fashion is as much a part of the selection process as flavor.  Even so, experimentation can be limited and people fall back on standards. Beer behavior is hooked on tradition, likes its regular place at the bar and distrusts strangers.

Admittedly, with the exception of regional favorites, this is partly thanks to the small number of global brewers who control virtually every brand we drink.  It is also due to the fact that beer buyers are creatures of habit. So, while there are a host of beers coming out of China, they have trouble gaining traction in the West.

When it comes to Chinese beer, the biggest hurdle by far is a cultural one. In the liquor store we may be more clear headed and open minded.  We may experiment a little, at least if the consumption is purely for ourselves.  But get into a bar, or even a party, and the game changes. There’s nothing a beer drinker hates more than to walk up to the bar and spend five minutes deciding what to drink. When you order a beer, it must be ordered with confidence. What the drinker doesn’t want  is to belly up to the bar and be confused by spelling they don’t understand and brands they find unfamiliar.  To be sure there is a segment that loves to experiment, but most will not, at least not in this setting.  Yes, context raises its ugly head again.

That is sadly one reason why westerners still labor under the misconception that Chinese beers are only to be consumed with a Chinese meal (the same holds true for Indian and Thai beers). Visit any Chinese restaurant in the west, and when you ask your waiter what beers they have, you’ll probably get the condescending choice of either Bud Light, Heineken or one of two Chinese brands. So while Tsingtao is available around the world, it is rarely found anywhere but in Chinese restaurants – only a handful of people stock it in their refrigerators. Search the Web for mentions of Tsingtao and you’ll find thousands of pages describing how well it goes with kung pao chicken, dumplings or crab rangoon. Rarely do you find more.

If the statistics are anything to go by, foreign restaurants must account for a tiny share of the mainland’s beer sales. The country’s 513 breweries produced over seven billion gallons of beer in 2004, making it the world’s biggest brewer for the third year running.  Snow is now the biggest selling brand in the world by consumption, but it is unknown outside China.  So what?  Here’s what.  That breaks down to 5.5 gallons a person for the entire country annually. That’s a lot of beer

So why aren’t we drinking more of it?  Often, people talk about a rice flavor to Chinese beers, though they struggle to define what exactly that flavor is – rice, after all, is not the only grain used by Chinese brewers. And it’s used in the west as well.  The truth is that the typical Chinese beer is mild-tasting, slightly hoppy and light. These beers possess the same qualities as any lager from any place on the planet.  It has been brewed to ensure that even after several bottles and an eight course meal, you still have a bit of space left.

More likely than flavor being a deterrent are cultural biases.  We still question the quality of Chinese brands (even though half of any consumer goods we purchase are made in China). There are cultural and racial biases we are loathe to discuss, though truth be told they influence our interpretations. Equally, we view Germany, Belgium and the UK as the true masters of the craft and have a hard time looking to China for new brews.  It isn’t flavor so much as it is cultural barriers to brand and product interpretation. And then there are the unfamiliar names and spelling conventions.  It all adds up to pose a serious challenge for Chinese brands.

Now, if you aren’t a beer drinker or if your in another line of business than brewing, why should any of this matter.  It matters because it helps illustrate the difficulty in global marketing.  If you plan to launch a brand in China, it serves you well to think about not only the people over there, but also the people over here – it serves you to think about how cultural bias and worldview can influence our use and interpretations of a brand.  Products and brands have a wide range of meanings and uses – social media proves the point every day.  Now expand that into a global market and the challenge becomes all the greater.  Remember that with beer this cheap. If your first choice turns out to be bad, you can always buy another.  Not so when selling a car or a TV.  Get it wrong and you stand to blow millions. Context is king, even with something as fundamental to life as beer.

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