What global FMCG brands can learn from Weetabix's Chinese flop

The failure of Weetabix's attempt to crack China offers a number of lessons for marketers, says Rob Wade, consumer insight director at Europanel.

Global relevance is the holy grail for brands. After all, it’s appealing to the widest possible variety of consumers which allows brands to grow and flourish, and new markets can present an incredibly lucrative opportunity. But when the choices consumers make are so keenly defined by their cultural context, transferring an unfamiliar product to an entirely new audience is not without its risks.

Earlier this week, it was announced that Chinese company Bright Food is to sell Weetabix to a US company, Post Holdings. Bright Food acquired the British stalwart in 2012 with grand plans to introduce the breakfast cereal to the growing Asian market, but put the brand up for sale when it became clear it had struggled to crack China.

Weetabix has successfully adapted to how people shop eat – for example offering two-biscuit packs in Kenya where shopping is more little and often and 48 packs in Mexico where bulk buying is more common

Bright Food was evidently hopeful that the brand currency Weetabix had built up in the UK would pave the way for its success elsewhere, but things did not go exactly to plan. Although it did manage to double sales of Weetabix in China from a low base, the cereal’s largest market remains the UK – by some margin. There are numerous examples of FMCG brands with global currency and the sales to match, so where did Weetabix go wrong?

By offering cereal for breakfast, Weetabix was hoping to cater to what it saw as a growing appetite for Western brands – and, by extension, Western eating habits – from an emerging Chinese middle class. This approach was not entirely misguided. As a British institution Weetabix may carry some weight with aspirational Chinese shoppers, but it fell far short of the mark largely because the brand completely underestimated the strength of Chinese breakfast tradition. In Asia breakfast tends to be a far cry from cold cereal, with people opting for hot and savoury rice-based dishes most of the time.

All over the world when global brands expand successfully into new markets, we see meaningful changes – from marketing to NPD – to suit the new environment.  In India, McDonalds introduced a spiced veggie burger made out of mashed potatoes and peas, creating a familiar taste for Indian customers.  Pricing the burger at just 20 rupees allowed McDonalds to compete with its lower cost, more traditional competitors – street vendors.  

In Africa, Guinness changed its recipe to include local ingredients, which fostered a sense of localism for the brand, created a unique taste and also made the product more suited to the budgets of the local population.  In largely-Muslim Indonesia, Sunsilk created a product specifically for hijabs – Hijab Recharge – which was immensely popular in a community where the majority of women wear the hijab.

It therefore becomes clear where Weetabix went wrong: it transferred its breakfast cereal to Chinese supermarkets without first adapting the product to suit local tastes

Elsewhere, Weetabix has successfully adapted to how people shop eat – for example offering two-biscuit packs in Kenya where shopping is more little and often and 48 packs in Mexico where bulk buying is more common.

A couple of directions may have been more effective for Weetabix in China. The first would be trying to minimise the level of change it was asking from consumers when incorporating cereal into their diets.  That could have meant marketing Weetabix as something which can also be consumed hot, and perhaps even suggesting savoury flavour combinations to make its consumption at breakfast less of a stretch for Chinese shoppers.

Another option would have been to maintain the strong branding identity that comes with Weetabix while developing an entirely new product for the Chinese market.  Perhaps a rice-based option – similar to Oatibix, the brand’s oat-based line – could have presented an innovative solution."

So how do brands ensure they can carry their currency with them worldwide? What’s vital is avoiding complacency – what works well in one country often won’t travel, so take the time to understand your new customer base and then be prepared to adapt and innovate based on what you find.

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