Coffee in China? If you asked me to choose between selling wine and coffee in China, I would have picked wine. How will you convince a culture with a deep-rooted tea tradition that includes ceremonial practices and beliefs to rather drink coffee? Well, it turns out by just applying the fundamentals of marketing.
The Chinese culture is ancient and diverse and has always been a complication when it comes to selling wine in China. Can we cross this cultural divide? The answer is a loud and clear yes if you look at the success of Starbucks in China.
Starbucks started with the customer. More than introducing a few ‘Chinese-friendly’ adaptations to their menu, they realised the importance of family, community and status in the Chinese culture and capitalised on that. It meant developing new initiatives for families, having a convivial layout rather than the one-person laptop stations popular in the West, charging 20% more than in other countries and using very high-end locations. Family – tick, Community – tick, Status – tick. Profit – I guess a big tick. Forbes.com reports that Starbucks is opening a store a day!
Inspired by their success, well-known American wine critic, James Suckling shares his new plan for selling wine in China with thedrinksbusiness.com. He “believes that wine can be made as popular as Starbucks coffee in China providing consumers are granted access to quality wines.”
Is quality enough? Suckling has his plans made and they include a strong distribution partner and the use of technology. Just returning from China, I again realised how important it is to invest in a market. Being successful starts with so much more than getting a listing. Spend the time, do the research, get to know the culture, find a like-minded and clued-up local partner. These fundamental steps are so important, but they can be expensive and time consuming. While the South African wine business in China might be hampered by a lack of free trade agreements and government support, we have a few other advantages.
Traceability is all the rage in China as food scandals continue to surface. (Read more). The certification seal on any bottle of wine exported from South Africa allows customers to trace the seal number via the Sustainable Wines South Africa Website, and trace their bottle all the way back while at the same time offering a guarantee of sustainable and environmentally friendly production.
Consumers of South African wine in China are therefore guaranteed that when a wine has the Certification/IPW seal displayed on the neck of the bottle:
- all the claims on the label with regard to vintage, origin and cultivar are true
- when evaluated by the Board, the wine was of good quality with regard to clarity, colour, flavour and taste
- vineyard and cellar practices are done in a way that is both sustainable and environmentally friendly
Versatile food partners
While food and wine pairing is not a familiar concept in China, wine’s ability to make your meal taste better, is a unique marketing opportunity. Some varieties are more versatile food partners than others – especially when it comes to complex Chinese flavours. Luckily for us Pinotage and Chenin Blanc are two varieties that are not only versatile in general, but with their pronounced fruit character often make for exceptional partners to Chinese food.
We might not get as much support as we would like from government, but the official wine industry bodies such as WOSA, Wesgro, SAWIS and VinPro all collaborate to offer the wine industry much-needed intelligence and support. Wines of South Africa has a permanent representative in China in the person of the very capable Michaela Stander, a very thorough manual on how to do business in China has been published and from a tourism perspective, Wesgro plays a vital role in introducing South Africa to the Far East.
A culture of sharing
South Africans often get criticized for being incapable of working together. In the wine industry I have seen the opposite. At a recent session on wine intelligence hosted by WOSA, the industry again shared insights – from how to successfully use WeChat to what descriptors to use on your back label!
One of the insights from this session echoes the sentiment of both Starbucks and James Suckling. Quality is non-negotiable. It does not have to be Pétrus, but it has to be good. With or without free trade agreements, South African wine has no reason to go to China at an entry-level price point. The quality is there and we can export packaged product rather than bulk to ensure China gets to know South African wine as a quality product and a way to celebrate with family and friends or to open at the dinner table.