23 million members of the Chinese population will have money to spend on indulging themselves for the first time this year – and the vast majority of this newly disposable income will be spent on enjoying new types and new quantities of food and drink. For food and beverage brands, no greater opportunity exists on earth.

One of the most immediate changes for those leaving poverty is that food ceases to be simply a means of warding off hunger; it becomes a lifestyle choice. To take advantage of this opportunity that China represents, brands must understand the drivers behind these lifestyle choices.

Food is a hugely important social activity in China – and has always been closely associated with personal status. The ability to eat more – and to lay on indulgent amounts of food for others at impressive banquets – represents an opportunity to display increased disposable income publicly. And it is one that increasing numbers of Chinese take with relish. The social context for eating is an important part of the pleasure that emerging middle class consumers derive from it.

Food expresses status not just through the eating habits of adults, but through the ability of parents to indulge their children. Parents and grandparents with memories of their own personal privations often appear to overcompensate when it comes to ‘feeding up’ today’s children, and the result is that much of the increase in Chinese obesity rates is found amongst the young.

Yet the urge to eat more is not solely driven by social and cultural influences. Where traditional lifestyles have been gradually disrupted – and new forms of sedentary workplace stress increasingly introduced – the urge to consume high-energy foods such as lard and sucrose may well be a physiological response. Research at the University of California suggests that (amongst rats at least) the metabolic signal impeding the stress signal comes directly from fat deposits, offering a route to “turning off” the experience of stress through “comfort food”.

To take advantage of the immense opportunity amongst food and beverage consumers in China, brands must look beyond the simple means and opportunity to eat more. Understanding the deeper motivations and cultural contexts influencing Chinese consumers as their income increases, is the key to crafting brand propositions that can satisfy emotional needs at the same time as tantalising tastebuds.

Key action points for marketers:

  • Deliver flavours and taste experiences that match the precise needs of food-led self-actualisation. Health and nutrition are far less powerful drivers of choice amongst emerging middle class consumers than convenience and multi-sensory enjoyment.
  • Key category opportunities include chocolate, cookies, instant noodles, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, juices, smoothies and energy drinks.
  • Match cues around reward, indulgence and self-definition with the specifics of Chinese palettes. The vast majority of increased food and beverage consumption in China takes the form of traditional cuisine.
  • Comfort food products may well be less comforting if they come with unfamiliar packaging, routines or surroundings. Brands must get their cultural cues right.
  • The associations between food and status become more complex and nuanced in the upper reaches of the middle class. Here consumer trends increasingly define health as the new wealth, often in conscious contrast to excessive banquets associated with corruption.
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