In China people usually eat warm foods (e.g. hot soup, tea, steamed food…) since cold food has often been perceived as unhealthy by traditional Chinese medicine. Well, this was before the ice cream invasion!
The #1 ice cream market in the world
Since discovering ice cream, China has surpassed the United States in becoming the world’s largest market, even though the ice cream consumption per capita is 4 times lower than in the US. This data gives you an idea of the vast potential of the Chinese ice cream market in the years to come.
In 2018, Chinese consulting firm DAXUE, stated that the scale of the ice cream industry in China had reached 124.3bn yuan (approx. $19bn USD) and is forecast to grow to 223bn yuan ($35.5bn USD) by 2025, confirming both an increase in consumption per capita as well as a wider reach, since 22% of Chinese people are still not consuming ice cream.
Setting up its own trends & flavours
While Western brands like UNILEVER, NESTLÉ or GENERAL MILLS (with Haagen Dazs) have been at the forefront of this ice cream boom by importing premium products and locally producing their flagship products based on Western standards and tastes, the Chinese market has certainly evolved over the last few years with their own domestic brands.
To start with, Chinese dairy companies invested heavily and took a leadership role in the market, with YILI and MENGNIU now part of the TOP 3 manufacturers (in $ sales) in China, with only UNILEVER keeping pace with both. In response, Western brands have localised their recipes to adapt to local tastes and consumption habits, focusing on the premium segments.
A primary example of this localisation of Western brands is the success of HAAGEN DAZS' ice cream mooncakes, a local alternative to the traditional mooncakes - a biscuit with a sweet filling inside - traditionally offered during the Chinese mid-autumn festival.
As mentioned, domestic brand popularity has been growing and they are developing their own ice cream innovations by incorporating more authentic Chinese flavours and traditional tastes into their products, while surfing on key trends:
Healthier food (low fat, low sugar, superfood ingredients…)
Fun & Surprising (“Instagram-able experiences”)
From healthier ice cream...
A good example of a domestic brand that has taken off is CHICECREAM, a relatively new premium low-sugar and low-fat ice cream bar which caters to the growing Chinese consumer preference for healthy and nutritious options. It is one of the many newly emerging Chinese consumer brands that are challenging the more established Western food and beverage giants by emphasising their Chinese origins through the shape of the product, which resembles a Chinese roof tile.
Mintel research revealed that 43% of dessert consumers in China would be keen to try ice cream that included superfoods such as chia, hempseed, or avocado in the recipe. Proving this research, an Avocado & Sea Salt product by GEMICE (Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group) was a finalist at SIAL China in 2019.
Health and wellness is becoming more mainstream in China’s urban centres and this can be seen in some of the ice cream launches in recent years including this mung bean ice cream stick brought out by Chinese ice cream brand, MENGNIU. Mung bean is said to be highly nutritious and full of antioxidant so the ice cream is marketed as “mood-enhancing”.
Aesthetics is important in China when it comes to novelty foods so brands have to make a special effort to stand out in such a creative marketplace. A great example of this in play is Deshi’s Beer ice cream which launched in January 2020. Shaped like a beer bottle, the rye ice cream is coated with chocolate & black beer coatings, with a 1% alcohol lava centre per stick. The launch was a perfect example of how Chinese brands are learning to leverage localised versions of popular Western products like beer.
Some ice cream parlours in China are also paying attention to the ‘Instagram-able’ trend and have created a “glitter” ice cream, which is made by scooping ice-cream onto the top of a jar of sparkling, flavoured soda water. Other places have also served ice cream inside two macarons, instead of the more commonly used wafer seen in Western trends.
Chinese consumers are not afraid to try new flavours or flavour combinations. Some of the most unusual flavours and ingredients in the Chinese ice cream market often make for great viral trends on social media, but are usually considered one-taste-wonders. For example, this Calamari ice cream stick with bits of dried calamari incorporated throughout the ice cream.
Last, a quick glimpse at the latest trend in China during these summer months: Cultural highlights ice cream! A brilliant idea to bring back the younger generations to museums: buy your ice cream shaped as a famous work of art, take a picture with the original by the side and send it to your friends! Just brilliant! And a great way to fund our cultural heritage.
With so many exciting and innovative products coming from the Chinese ice cream market, will it be a matter of time before China’s ice cream favorites begin making an appearance in Western markets as well? Time will tell!
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