The Packaging Pitch: How to find produce branding success in China

June 01 , 2017

By Fresh Produce Marketing founder Lisa Cork

I’ve been working with Western produce brands in China for the past three years. While the learning curve has been steep, the projects have been exciting as there is no market like China.

Over the past three years, I’ve come to realise there are seven things that will help a fresh produce company find brand success in China.

  1.  Understand your product…and your brand

Before you even think about sending product to China, ensure that you have done the foundation work required to understand your product and your brand. What makes your product unique? What’s your unique selling proposition? What does your brand stand for? What is your vision, mission and values? The more you know and understand your product and your brand’s position within your home market, the faster and better you will be able to migrate your brand to the Chinese market.

  1. Make sure China is for you

Selling in the China market is not easy. Competition is fierce, distribution channels can be complicated to navigate and for most fresh produce businesses, the China market is different from any other market you might export to. So before you invest in branding and marketing for China, make sure it’s a market you really want to invest and succeed in. Visit the market, trial export some products and decide if it is the right decision for your business. Just because if feels like everyone is selling to China, it still must fit your business goals and objectives. 

  1. Have an open mind 

    Packaging is an important part of branding in China. From Fruitday’s offline City Shop store.

There is no doubt selling or marketing a product in China requires you to have an open mind. The way customers or consumers will ‘see’ your product and experience your product might be very different than how your domestic customers see and experience your product. This means how they promote it or how they consume it will be different. And this is a good thing. Be open and be flexible. Ask questions. Find out how and why they use your product in a certain way. Where did that habit or tradition come from? How can you leverage that difference in your marketing, branding or naming? 

We worked with one client and consumer research showed shoppers had a strong belief the products needed to be extensively washed or peeled before being eaten. From a Western perspective, this was not the ‘norm’ for this product, but it was very real for China. So rather than try and convince them to eat the fruit with the skin on, we focussed on understanding the underlying beliefs that led to them wanting to peel. Once we understood the beliefs, then we could work within those beliefs to create marketing materials that were impactful because they understood the product from a Chinese consumers point of view.

  1. Create a Chinese brand name

If you have a known brand and are wanting to carry that brand awareness into China, then be prepared to create a Chinese name. Most Western names cannot be read or understood by Chinese consumers, so success in China requires creating a new name. This is trickier than it sounds!

The ideal name ticks two boxes: 1) it sounds like your existing brand name; and 2) it means something related to your brand name. This is where knowing your brand and knowing your products benefits (see #1) come into play. The more you understand your brand, the more you can help your naming agency better understand and create the best brand name for you. It also helps to understand how local consumers view/use your product (see #3). Take Coca-Cola, which is called Kekoukele in China, meaning ‘tasty fun.’ Not only does it sound like an international name, but it has a meaning that personifies the Coke brand.

  1. Protect your brand early

Before exporting to China, protect your brand name. A competent IP attorney, either in your home country or within China, will be able to help. In China, trademarks are allocated on a first claimed basis. So before you export, protect your English brand name. And as soon as you have created your Mandarin brand, protect it before using it in market.

  1. Don’t just translate – localise

    Cork says kiwifruit marketer Zespri has done a good job at ‘localising’ its product

We recently ran some brand workshops to help a client better understand their brand story, brand essence and brand themes as a first step to establish a strong branded presence in China. The key to creating a strong and successful brand in China is to know your product/brand (see #1) and then truly localise your brand positioning.

Localising is more than translating. Two weeks ago, I was in Shanghai interviewing digital agencies for a client. We are outsourcing their brand positioning and digital strategy to a local company in China in order to get the best result for the client. As we soon found out, agencies had radically different approaches to localisation. 

Some agencies viewed ‘localising’ simply as translation. Give them your Western POS, brochure or website and they will ‘translate’ it into Mandarin. This is not localising.

Localising involves them understanding your brand and then creating a positioning/story based on how Chinese consumers will engage with your brand. The two are very different. Long term success in China requires you to localise, not just translate.

  1. Test everything – small details matter

True story. We created brand POS for a company selling to an online retailer in China. Being a fruit, the first colour palette we picked emphasised the green of the orchard and the red colour of the fruit. Bad idea! When we took the concept to in-market testing, we learned that green and red together signify adultery and a man who wears a green cap is perceived to be cheating on his wife. Right. We had to change the materials. Good thing we tested!

The Chinese culture is very different from Western culture, with different beliefs, values and symbolism. Be prepared to local market test everything you create to ensure it resonates with your in-country target market.

If you are interested in selling or marketing your fresh produce to China, we can help. We run brand workshops that give fresh produce companies a positioning advantage and help you achieve success faster. Feel free to drop me an email to find out more –

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  1. Garland Perkins says:

    Great insights as always! Interesting to hear the differences between Western approaches compared to what is likely to work with a Chinese audience.