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The New ‘FronTier’ – How These Domestic Companies Have Achieved Success Beyond China’s First Tier

Joel on September 6, 2010 - 6:58 pm in Archive, Companies to Observe

“What is the best way to approach China’s many markets?” “How do I effectively identify and build relationships with local distributors to gain access to markets outside of China’s central hubs?” These questions resonate from the offices of the vast majority of foreign executives charged with selling consumer goods in the Greater China region. Multinational companies that have successfully imported their international brand to China’s major metropolises are struggling to understand what it will take to reach the next tier of Chinese consumers. The China Observer has previously written about this topic and has spoken with fellow China consumer insiders such as Oxford’s Karl Gerth and McKinsey’s Vinay Dixit to gain additional perspective into what approach foreign multinational companies should adopt to succeed in China’s next tier.


While there is no standardized approach, the following examples demonstrate how selected domestic firms have been able to achieve success in more remote Chinese markets.


Li Ning – Athletic Apparel

Li Ning, founded in 1990 by a former Chinese Olympic gymnast of the same name, has turned up the competition against top foreign multinationals like Nike and Adidas in higher-end markets. However, much of Li Ning’s success to date can be attributed to its operations outside of tier one cities. Tom Doctoroff explains in this article, that “Li Ning and Anta are not competing directly with Adidas and Nike, but the pie they are eating is growing larger and larger, while Adidas’ and Nike’s pie is not growing at the same rate.” Doctoroff is referring to the fact that Li Ning’s strength in China’s smaller cities is propelling it forward much faster than competitors in tier one cities which are not seeing the same rate of growth which led to their initial success in China.


Lenovo – Consumer Electronics

Lenovo is best known for its expanded international presence after it acquired IBM’s ThinkPad line of notebooks for roughly $1.75 billion in 2005. Lenovo is increasingly focusing on what it defines as China’s ‘emerging markets.’ Since early 2009, desktop sales in the emerging markets cluster has increased from 45 percent to 70 percent of Lenovo’s total desktop sales. Over the same period of time, notebook computer sales in these markets increased from 30 percent to roughly 50 percent of total notebook sales. It has been just 5 years, since Lenovo first began to focus on China’s rural markets, but the company will likely continue to move forward in this direction as China is expected to become the world’s largest PC market in the next year.


CR Snow – Food & Beverage

When outside observers hear that China is the world’s largest beer market, they often assume the top selling beer is Tsingtao. Even those of us in China find it surprising that the top beer in China is Snow beer. The case of Snow beer differs slightly from the two previously discussed here, because CR Snow is a joint venture between China Resources Enterprise Ltd and South Africa’s SABMiller. However, the key to CR Snow’s success has been its focus on lower tiered cities in China’s regionalized beer market. CR Snow implemented a Greenfield expansion program in 2006 through successive acquisitions of breweries in Dongguan, Lanzhou, Harbin, Yanjiao, Nanjing, Anhui, Lioaning and other locations.


As executives at companies like Li Ning, Lenovo, CR Snow and even Haier will tell you, the market opportunity presented by China’s next tier of consumers is too big to pass up. Yet, these markets tend to be quite regionalized with fierce local competition, and there is no set methodology to win. It will be up to each company to come up with their own distinct strategy to expand beyond China’s first and second tier to realize the opportunities presented in this next ‘frontier.’



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