With its Snickers-packed convenience stores, and chocolate theme parks so extravagant they make Willy Wonka’s factory look like a diabetic ward, you’d think China would consume tons of chocolate, right? Apparently not:
China’s increasingly wealthy shoppers have enthusiastically embraced global trends, from coffee to Hollywood films to smartphones, and have become the world’s largest market for goods, from beer to cars.
Yet, when it comes to chocolate, the average Chinese – having little sweet tooth or familiarity with it – consumes only 100g a year, the equivalent of two Snickers bars.
By comparison, the Japanese eat 11 times more chocolate, Americans, 44 times, and Germans, 82 times as much, market-research firm Euromonitor said in a report in November.
“The chocolate market is in its infancy and it’s still there even 30 years” after the country opened up to the world, said industry expert Lawrence Allen, adding that “it was totally foreign to the palate of the people at the time”.
Overall retail sales in China have risen an average 17 per cent annually for the past five years and the fast-growing country’s luxury market is projected to grow 20 per cent a year for the next decade.
That makes the expansion in chocolate sales – projected at 10 per cent through 2015 – look torpid by comparison.
To circumvent this, chocolate companies like Ferrero Rocher have tried appealing to Chinese brand-consciousness by marketing their chocolate as a luxury good. You even see this in Shanghai’s chocolate dream park, which features a chocolate Eiffel Tower and other chocolate monuments to help Chinese consumers associate chocolate with wealth and advancement. And who can forget that infamous chocolate fashion show where models sported designs made from cocoa beans (a chocoholic’s wet dream!).
These methods have seen some success, but as the champagne debacle shows, the Chinese aren’t as easily wooed by luxury foodstuffs as they are by luxury cars, clothes, watches etc. Stubborn taste buds honed by a food culture over 5,000-years-old have a lot to do with this.
In fact, the most successful brands have adapted chocolate to specific traditions and beliefs. Belgian chocolatier, Godiva, devised gift sets for Chinese holidays to tap into the Chinese custom of gift-exchange while others have advertised it as the ultimate aphrodisiac. (“Chocolate. Cheaper and easier to swallow than tiger penis.”)
It’s probably not a bad idea either for companies to go the Starbucks route and tweak chocolate flavors for the Chinese market. Well, as long as we’re talking flavors like green tea and red bean, and not stinky tofu or fish sauce.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].