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Giving the Market a Shot: China’s Growing Coffee Culture

In China, the motherland of tea, coffee is rapidly gaining in popularity. Although the market faces some cultural and societal hurdles, China is waking up and smelling the coffee – starting China’s Coffee Culture.

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In China, the motherland of tea, coffee is rapidly gaining in popularity. China’s booming coffee culture is also visible on social media, where coffee companies and netizens collectively discuss and share pictures of their perfect brew. Although the market still faces some cultural and societal hurdles, China is waking up and smelling the coffee.

Whether you are a fan of the beverage or not, it is hard to argue against the fact that the majority of the world is starting to love coffee. Every day millions of people gulp down a cup before running to the office, warm their hands on a hot mug during the chilly winter months, and, now more than ever, photograph, blog and filter their cafe experience until it is primed for the rest of the world to see. Even in the United Kingdom, one of the world’s most prolific tea-drinking nations, coffeehouses far outnumber traditional tea rooms. However in China, the motherland of tea-consumption, coffee is still sprouting as a relatively new and foreign luxury.

 

“Starbucks and Costa are selling the ‘coffee experience’ to Chinese audiences.”

 

Despite China’s long history of tea-drinking, the presence of international coffee chains such as Starbucks and Costa is increasing year on year. The American coffee company Starbucks opened its first China branch in Beijing in 1999. Google maps now lists 35 branches of Starbucks in central Shanghai alone, and even more remote Chinese cities such as Urumqi in Xinjiang province are home to three of the chain’s stores. Starbucks has over 1700 stores in 90 Chinese cities, and plans to expand to 3000 stores by 2019. British coffeehouse Costa has 344 branches in China, and is arranging to have opened a total of 900 stores by 2020.

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Large international coffee chains such as Costa and Starbucks have adapted their menus to China’s tastes. This, for example, means that coffee is often served at a warm rather than scalding temperature. They also sell products that are specifically appealing to Chinese consumers, such as green tea-flavoured latte or red bean scones.

The design and operations of the cafes are almost indistinguishable from US and European branches. Internationally famous coffeehouses such as Costa and Starbucks sell the ‘coffee experience’ to Chinese audiences, without the need for too much re-packaging.

 

“What you buy in a Korean cafe isn’t coffee, it’s the film-like romance.”

 

The growing popularity of coffee in Chinese society is also reflected in social media. Starbucks has attracted a large social media following in China. The chain has acquired the loving nickname “Papa Star” (星爸爸) on Sina Weibo. On the official Weibo page of Starbucks Xiamen, the moniker was recently used in a marketing post for the chain’s new spring line: “We invite you to get your friends together and come and get to know Papa Star!”

Aside from American and European branches, South Korean chains have also become big players in China’s coffee market. Names such as Cafe Bene, Maan Coffee and Tous les Jours are becoming a staple in China’s shopping districts. South Korean brands, in particular, boast a unique and whimsical style of interior decoration unlike that of Western chains. Usual hallmarks include large, comfortable chairs, bookshelves lined with reading material, and indoor trees. This style is even replicated in domestic independent cafes.

The booming market for South Korean chains largely stems from the success of Korean pop culture in China. Fans of Korean music, film and television seek to recreate the glamour of Seoul by visiting the same chains as their idols, as well as replicating the supposed Seoul lifestyle, almost to the point of ‘Korean’ becoming synonymous with modernity and luxury. As one netizen writes on Weibo: “What you buy in a Korean cafe isn’t coffee, it’s the film-like romance.”

cofee cool

US, UK and Korean coffeehouses have succeeded in making coffee ‘cool’ in China. Netizens on Weibo collectively post pictures of their cup of coffee or of themselves sipping it. The coffee brand is often visible, together with a fashionable smartphone or expensive shopping bag- turning ‘coffee drinking’ in a symbol of a trendy lifestyle.

 

“Hefei is full of cafes, yet 80 per cent of the city’s population is made up of rural villagers who have just stepped foot inside the city – here lies your problem.”

 

Despite the success of foreign coffee chains, China is not shying away from home-grown coffee brands. Anhui province in Eastern China is home to numerous branches of Habitat Coffee (栖巢咖啡), a company that offers the comforts of Korean coffee chains but with a menu and playlist more suited to Chinese consumers.

Other brands closer to home have not fared so well in the past. A recent Weibo post by user ‘Coffee and Book‘ discussed the closure of one of the Hong Kong Pacific Coffee chain stores: “Pacific Coffee, known as Hong Kong’s best-tasting coffee, has fallen under Starbucks’s shadow, and up until now hasn’t enjoyed much success in Hefei city.”

Chinacofee

One of the reasons China’s coffee market is still budding is the prevalence of cafes in urban cities in comparison to their absence in rural areas of China. Location and subsequent exposure to international brands and flavors affect the tastes and preferences of people within the Chinese coffee market. Many people from China’s rural areas are simply still unfamiliar with coffee. In response to Pacific Coffee’s poor performance in Hefei, one netizen writes: “Hefei is full of cafes, yet 80 percent of the city’s population is made up of rural villagers who have just stepped foot inside the city…here lies your problem.”

 

“The price of a single cup of coffee in China is equal to a month’s worth of home broadband internet.”

 

A long history of tea-drinking may not be the only obstacle for coffeehouses longing for popularity in China. With the average prices ranging between 18 and 40RMB (±3-6US$), the price of a single cup of coffee in China is equal to an entire takeout meal or a month’s worth of home broadband internet – a price many can seldom afford to fit into their daily routines.

Aside from the price of the coffee itself, branded products such as flasks, mugs and cups are all heavily marketed online and on social media, further promoting the luxurious and expensive lifestyle that comes hand in hand with visiting the stores.

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Despite cultural and societal hurdles, further growth of China’s coffee culture is unstoppable. It is expected that competition for the nation’s top spot between brands and individual establishments will only become more fierce and multi-faceted. With some chains opting for high prices, others appealing to local tastes and domestic salaries, and a growing desire for a more authentic experience involving traditional brewing, the challenge for brands is to decide which road they will take in their quest to win over the Chinese market.

By Cat Hanson

©2015 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Cat Hanson is a U.K. graduate of Chinese Studies now teaching and living in China. She swapped Beijing for Anhui, and runs her own blog on China life: Putong Press.

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China Food & Drinks

Would You Like Coffee with Your Sneakers? Chinese Sports Brand Li-Ning Registers Its ‘Ning Coffee’ Brand

Li-Ning enters the coffee market: “Will they sell sneaker-flavored coffee?”

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An unexpected competitor is joining China’s coffee market. With over 7000 stores in the country, Li-Ning has the potential to become the biggest athletic coffee chain yet.

Another player is joining mainland China’s growing coffee market. It’s not an American coffee giant, nor a coffee house chain from Hong Kong – it is China’s leading sportswear brand Li-Ning Sports (李宁体育).

Li-Ning registered its coffee brand under the ‘NING COFFEE’ trademark. As reported in an article written by ‘Investment Group’ (@投资界) and published by Toutiao News (@头条新闻), Li-Ning has confirmed on May 6 that it will provide in-store coffee services to enhance customers’ shopping experiences in the near future.

The move means that Li-Ning could potentially become a big player in China’s coffee market, competing with major brands such as Starbucks, Luckin Coffee, Costa and Pacific. If the in-store coffee cafes would roll out in most of its shops, there could be over 7000 Ning Coffee cafes in China in the future. By the end of 2021, Li-Ning Sports had a total of 7,137 stores in China.

Starbucks has 5,400 stores in China. Leading domestic coffee chain Luckin Coffee expanded to over 6000 stores last year. Costa Coffee, although closing some of its China stores in 2021, announced that it aims to have a total of 1,200 stores open in China later this year. Looking at Li-Ning’s presence across China, its in-store coffee cafes could be serious competition for the leading coffee chains in the country.

Over the past few years, various Chinese sportswear brands, including Anta Sports and Erke, have seen a rise in popularity, but Li-Ning is still China’s most famous brand name for athletic apparel and shoes. The company was founded in the early 1990s by Chinese Olympic gymnast and business entrepreneur Li Ning (1963) and was generally seen as a Nike copycat – the original logo was even similar to the Nike swoosh. Although Li-Ning looked like Nike, the brand is more appealing to many Chinese consumers due to the fact that it is cheaper and made in China.

Li-Ning markets itself as being “deeply and uniquely Chinese” (Li Ning official website 2022), which has made it more popular in an era of “proudly made in China” (read more about that here). Moreover, it also promises to offer high-quality sportwear at a price that is cheaper than the American Nike or German Adidas.

Li-Ning’s success is also owed to its marketing strategies. Besides being the official marketing partner of many major sports events, including the NBA in China, the brand has also contracted with many household athletes and famous global ambassadors.

Over a decade ago, marketing observers already noted that despite the remarkable success of Li-Ning in China, the brand still had a long way to go in order to strengthen its image as a long-term brand, recommending Li-Ning to “create excitement around the brand” by building more associations related to lifestyle and coolness to better resonate with younger Chinese customers (Bell 2008, 81; Roll 2006, 170).

With its latest move into the coffee market, it is clear that Li-Ning is moving its brand positioning more toward the direction of lifestyle, trendiness, and luxury. Although purchasing a coffee at Starbucks or Luckin is part of the everyday routine for many urban millennials, coffee is still viewed as a trendy luxury product for many, relating to both cultural factors as well as economic reasons. As noted by Cat Hanson in 2015, the price of a single cup of coffee was equal to a month’s worth of home broadband internet (read more).

Previously, other fashion brands have also opened up coffee stores in China. As reported by Jing Daily, international luxury brands Prada, Louis Vuitton, and FENDI also opened up coffee cafes in mainland China.

Another unexpected coffee cafe is that of China Post, which opened its first in-store ‘Post Coffee’ in Xiamen earlier this year. On social media, many netizens commented that the brand image of the national post service clashed with that of a fairly expensive coffee house (coffee prices starting at 22 yuan / $3,3).

“The postal services are located in cities and in the countryside and are often used by migrant workers, and generally this demographic isn’t buying coffee,” one person commented, with another netizen writing: “This does not suit the taste of ordinary people, it would’ve been better if they sold milk tea.”

Post Coffee, via Jiemian Official.

On Weibo, Li-Ning’s journey into the competitive coffee market was discussed using the hashtags “Li-Ning Enters the Coffee Race” (#李宁入局咖啡赛道#) and “Li-Ning Starts Selling Coffee” (##李宁开始卖咖啡##).

Like with China Post, many commenters say the combination of sportswear and coffee is not something they immediately find logical. “Will they also sell sneaker-flavored coffee?” one person wondered, with others thinking selling coffee – seen as a product from western countries – does not exactly match with Li-Ning as a ‘proudly made-in-China’ brand.

“How would you feel about trying on some clothes at Li-Ning while sipping on Li-Ning coffee? I understand Li-Ning is jumping on what’s popular, and this time it’s coffee,” one Weibo user writes, with others also writing: “I think it has potential.”

“I’m willing to try it out,” various commenters write. For others, they want to see the menu first: “It all depends on the price.”

For more about the coffee and tea market in China, check our other articles here.

By Manya Koetse

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

References

Bell, Sandra. 2008. International Brand Management of Chinese Companies. Heidelberg: Physia-Verlag.

Roll, Martin. 2006. Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China and Covid19

Weibo Has Still Blocked ‘Shanghai Buy Groceries’ Hashtag

“It’s easier to get a Shanghai license plate than groceries around here.”

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While Shanghai is promising to improve food supplies for locked-down residents, many households are still struggling to get their groceries and complain about high prices for basic food items. Over the past week, Weibo has blocked a hashtag page about the issue.

On April 8, during the seventh day of Shanghai’s phased citywide lockdown, the Chinese social media platform Weibo removed the ‘Shanghai Buy Food’ or ‘Shanghai Groceries’ (#上海买菜#) hashtag while many in the city were facing difficulties in getting food delivered to their house and were venting their anger online. Getting daily necessities has become a problem for millions of residents not allowed to leave their homes due to the city’s coronavirus prevention measures.

The hashtag censorship coincided with state media news reports about Shanghai ensuring life supplies for residents and improving delivery capacities at a time when most stores, restaurants, supermarkets, and wet markets have shut down normal operations. Shanghai has registered over 253,000 Covid-19 infections since March 1st of this year, reporting another daily record of 26,330 confirmed cases on Wednesday.

Some joked that just censoring the problem was also a way of dealing with it. “Oh great, they solved the grocery shopping problem,” popped up as a recurring joke on Weibo after the hashtag page was removed.

The hashtag ‘Shanghai Buy Groceries’ first started trending on Chinese social media on March 23, when Shanghai residents started worrying about an impending lockdown amid spiking Covid19 cases.

Although Chinese state media reported on March 24 that Shanghai health authorities reiterated they had no plans to impose a citywide lockdown – and two people accused of spreading rumors about an alleged citywide lockdown were even placed under police investigation -, the city announced its phased lockdowns three days later and scenes of panic buying at local supermarkets ensued.

But around April 8, the moment when the hashtag’s popularity surged, many residents faced food shortages as their home supplies ran out and grocery orders did not come through. While some residents started receiving food boxes issued by the local government, most compounds and buildings also set up their own community WeChat group to place bulk orders at certain food vendors which then deliver the group purchase to the community, where it is distributed by volunteers or property management employees.

Earlier this week, Shanghai implemented a new measure that divides residential units into three risk categories depending on whether or not there have been any cases of Covid in their communities for a stretch of two weeks. For at least 15 million residents, their locked-down status remains unchanged – and for those in the ‘precautionary’ communities, their status could also be downgraded to the ‘locked down’ level the moment a positive case pops up again.

E-commerce and food delivery platforms such as Ele.me and JD have been sending more staff to Shanghai from other parts of China to help ensure quicker and smoother sorting and delivery processes. On April 13, many households also received their first (free) food boxes.

By Wednesday, hashtags such as “Shanghai Residents Are One by One Receiving Supplies” (#上海市民陆续收到物资#) and “Delivery Drivers Increased to Help Shanghai” (#多地快递小哥增援上海#) were circulating on social media. But on Weibo, the hashtag page for “Shanghai Groceries” still comes up with no results.

For some Shanghai residents, the pace of food delivery, even with improved delivery logistics, hasn’t been quick enough to alleviate their current food shortages. Others are also complaining about the costs of their ordered groceries, some spending 285 yuan ($45) or more on some basic groceries including noodles and vegetables.

One Weibo user asks: “Please, where can I buy reasonably priced meat, eggs, and green onions?”

“It’s easier to get a Shanghai license plate than groceries around here,” another netizen complained.

For some, doing online groceries has become an Olympic game; netizens are posting videos of setting a 5AM alarm clock, jumping out of bed, and entering their online orders as fast as they can. One video showed a wife cheering on her husband while his thumb was going as fast as possible to place grocery orders via his smartphone e e-commerce app.

“If I have to keep grabbing groceries like this, I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown,” one thirty-something lady from Shanghai wrote on Weibo: “I really hope the situation in Shanghai gets better soon. What happened to the city I grew up in?”

For more articles on the Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse

Get the story behind the hashtag. Subscribe to What’s on Weibo here to receive our weekly newsletter and get access to our latest articles:

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2022 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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