This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
As China’s regulation of foreign brands sold through e-commerce evolves, there’s concern among Australian investors that some consumer goods companies are overexposed in the vast and growing market. However, China remains a huge opportunity for Australian companies that is unlikely to go away anytime soon. When the Chinese think of Australia, it isn’t only kangaroos and koalas that come to mind. They also envision nutritious food and a healthy population. Indeed, Australia is one of the world’s healthiest countries, according to the United Nations, the World Bank and the World Health Organization. That’s why Chinese consumers, concerned about the safety of food and other goods produced in their own nation, have generated massive demand—and a thriving market—for Australian products sold on China’s booming e-commerce platforms, in retail shops and through networks of daigou, the tens of thousands of mom-and-pop exporters who ship goods to families and friends in China, or to online sellers, for resale to health-conscious consumers.
When Bain & Company recently interviewed 2,000 cross-border shoppers in China, they were 1.6 times more likely to associate Australia with health and nutrition than the US, Germany, Japan and South Korea. Another impressive fact: Even with China’s decelerating GDP, each year’s growth in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sales is almost the size of Australia’s entire FMCG market.
Some brands have already enjoyed the benefits of China’s demand for Australian goods. Among the well-known winners are Swisse Wellness, whose revenues soared from around A$390 million to A$690 million over the 12 months ending in June 2016, based largely on Chinese sales. Revenue growth for the vitamins and supplements company “slowed” to 60% in a recent quarter, but with a nearly ﬁvefold increase in proﬁts. Proﬁtability in China, along with other developing markets in Asia, matches and sometimes exceeds global levels. Capilano and Comvita Honey, for example, enjoyed nearly 70% proﬁt growth in a recent 12-month period.
But while many Australian brands have benefited from this huge opportunity, there are clearly risks to consider and manage. For many companies entering China, one of the biggest risks involves regulations. But the regulatory changes so far have been focused on protecting Chinese consumers, rather than protectionist measures aimed at limiting foreign goods. The regulatory landscape will continue to evolve, highlighting the importance of setting the right China strategy and remaining nimble to changing market dynamics. Based on Bain & Company experience, we see four steps that Australian brands take to win in China.
First, when selling to China, it’s crucial to have a brand that has ﬁrst achieved consumer credibility in Australia. Without this, “Brand Australia” just doesn’t work. There have been a number of less successful attempts to launch an adjacent product, even from brands whose core product offering resonates strongly in China. But unless a product has made it ﬁrst in Australia, it will very likely be viewed as a “made for China” knockoff.
Second, you need to be thoughtful about how you seek to win the hearts and minds of Chinese consumers. Consumer-to-consumer (C2C) platforms can represent up to 60% of online sales for a product. Depending on the product category, the daigou account for as much as 20% of C2C sales—and can be a very useful contributor to sales and brand building. Success with the daigou usually requires “seeding” the product within Chinese-centric communities in Australia. One way companies achieve this is by targeting the top 20 postcodes with Chinese nationals in Australia and arming them with the right marketing collateral to build brand awareness.
Third, companies need to create push with the right retail channels and distributors. China now ranks as the world leader in e-commerce, which accounts for 12% of all Chinese retail sales and is set to nearly triple in the next ﬁve years. Through e-commerce, even niche Australian brands with less than 1% of the domestic market can reach consumers at a proﬁt, challenging the very paradigm of scale economics.
But the most successful Australian brands will be those that carefully choreograph their moves. They’ll build both awareness and penetration in C2C platforms, through Alibaba’s Taobao, and increasingly through WeChat, the Twitter equivalent that offers a wallet function and maintains a staggering 93% penetration in Tier-1 cities. One method for broadening reach on C2C platforms: creating the right economics for the daigou. A proven option is promotional activities to ensure the product is at least as attractive as the competition. When A2 Milk began offering 10% to 20% promotions on its infant milk formula, it saw a sixfold increase in sales to daigou, which reaped higher margins when they resold the products online.
After gaining traction on C2C platforms, the best brands advance to business-to-consumer (B2C) platforms such as JD.com, VIP.com, Kaola.com and the top Tmall resellers, with the goal of selling directly on Tmall Global and JD. Success on B2C platforms can position a consumer goods company to move into brick-and-mortar retail with limited additional investment (subject to meeting any local regulation requirements).
While the digital marketplace is a great leveler for consumer goods companies competing in China, it’s important to recognize that there are many paths to success. Treasury Wine Estates and others have won by selling their products in China’s brick-and-mortar stores before transitioning to online sales.
Finally, winning in China means tailoring a company’s approach on a city-tier and regional basis. For example, companies have to adapt the brand messaging for Chinese consumers at the local level. In the early stages of growth, companies need to remain agile and make measured bets, using China as an opportunity to systematically test and learn.
For consumer goods companies seeking proﬁtable growth, now is the time to lay out a strategy for winning in China. But it takes thoughtful attention to four critical steps: making the brand credible in Australia ﬁrst, creating demand with China’s consumers, choreographing a channel and distributor strategy, and building the right capabilities to support growth. That’s what it takes to make it as an Australian brand in China.
Yngve Andresen is a partner and Raymond Hass is a principal in Bain & Company’s Melbourne ofﬁce. Both are members of the ﬁrm’s Consumer Products practice.