Thursday, November 13, 2014

Hungry City: The Bao in the East Village

It’s a perilous moment, lifting a soup dumpling from its basket, hoping it won’t tear and spill its beautiful guts. This one’s skin is delicate but does not break, at least not yet, not under the tongs’ little teeth. The dumpling lands in the spoon intact, plump but not sagging, buoyant as a ball gown. Take a bite, gently, from the top; watch the steam flee; sip the broth inside, just enough to taste; then down it whole.

At the Bao, which opened in the East Village in July, the soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, are near perfect. (The menu calls this achievement “kung fu,” using the term in its original sense, as mastery acquired through practice and discipline.) Other specimens in town tend to the thick, to prevent leaks; here the dough is ultrathin, less armor than envelope for the broth — pork-stock jelly, which melts into soup as the dumplings steam — and the ball of minced pork at the center, loose and yielding, as if itself in midmelt. I did wish the soup were more flagrantly meaty, but this far from Shanghai, I’m just grateful.

 The Bao is an outpost of Kung Fu Xiao Long Bao, which the owner, Hong Bao, opened two and a half years ago in Flushing, Queens. She oversees the dim sum at both locations, but beyond the classic varieties of soup dumpling — pork and notably briny pork and crab — the restaurants diverge. East Village innovations include xiao long bao jacked up on chile, anticipating the bravado of the young and the drunk, and others spiked with wasabi, a gesture toward the neighborhood’s Japanese expats.

The rest of the menu is greatest-hits Chinese, corralling flamethrowers from Sichuan and Hunan with old-school Cantonese and Taiwanese specialties. Much of this is delicious: a garlicky confetti of chives, with pork nubs and dark pops of salt from fermented black beans; pressed, dense tofu ruddied from steeping in five spice; pickled string beans chopped into tiny rings and bobbing in a sour rice noodle soup; strips of featherweight fried chicken, almost outnumbered by dried red chiles; noodles alchemized by an age-old calculus of soy, sesame oil and sugar; and shrimp dashed with Shaoxing (rice wine) and engulfed in barely set scrambled eggs that slip through the chopsticks. (I ate the leftovers, still slippery, out of the box when I got home.)

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Thursday, November 06, 2014

Catching the Eye of the Chinese Shopper

Photo by Darcy Holdorf
For consumer brands in China, a major battleground is the country's growing hypermarket segment. And the frontline troops are armed with mini-dresses and microphones.

Visit any Chinese Walmart, Carrefour or Tesco on a weekend, and there will be more than 100 promoters in the store dispensing samples and sales pitches. Their role reflects the shopping habits of middle-class Chinese, who are notoriously fickle toward brands.

"Chinese consumers know the brand name through media, but when they go to the store, they want to feel the product and get a detailed understanding before they make a purchase decision," said Alick Ying, business director at Always Marketing Services, which employs 15,000 full-time promoters across China.

The Shanghai-based WPP field-marketing agency, whose clients include Unilever, Kimberly-Clark, Kraft and Johnson & Johnson, hosted Ad Age at a Tesco hypermarket in Shanghai one recent Saturday morning.

A U.S. store has as many as 20,000 stock-keeping units, but a Chinese one can have up to 35,000, Mr. Ying said. Pair this with the tendency of Chinese shoppers to make more than 50% of purchase decisions in-store, and it's clear why brands must work hard to break through the clutter.

Retail growth
China is the world's third-largest retail market, behind the U.S. and Japan. Retail sales in the country have grown at least 16% each year between 2007 and 2011, though sales per capita remain low, according to a report from Smollan Group, another WPP field-marketing agency.

Mom-and-pop stores dominate and most Chinese still buy food in traditional "wet" markets. But the hypermarket segment is growing quickly, and it's fiercely competitive, with major Western players as well as those from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Domestic retailers are also expanding.

In the U.S., promoters are often older women handing out sausage slices on toothpicks. Meanwhile, China's PGs -- for "promoter girls" or "push girls" -- sport eye-catching uniforms, many with short hemlines. They range from the Quaker Oats promoter's blue minidress with frilly apron to the Yili "Children's Growth Milk" promoter's gold satin dress and white pumps.

Surgical masks cover their faces beneath the microphones they wear, speakers slung across the hip. (The masks are for hygiene purposes, since the promoters often hand out food and drink.)

Sometimes there are four promoters or more in one aisle, an aural assault on passing shoppers. The amplification is necessary to overcome the chaos of a Chinese store, which makes a day-before-Thanksgiving American supermarket seem civilized. The Tesco that Ad Age visited has 51 checkout counters. "Western consumers don't enjoy shopping at the hypermarket. They hate it. They want to spend 30 minutes there after work, fill up the car and then leave. Chinese consumers will bring their kids and turn it into a weekend leisure activity," said Serene Tang, who until recently was senior category manager-health and beauty for Tesco in China and previously worked for Tesco in the U.K. and Malaysia.

Lots of Renao
Western consumers "have more entertainment options. They can go to a bar to have fun. Going to the hypermarket is for buying the basics -- food and other necessities," she said. "But Chinese don't feel this way."

A Chinese hypermarket is claustrophobic to Western sensibilities, but local consumers expect renao. (Pronounced "ruh-now," it is literally translated as "heat and noise" and refers to a lively atmosphere like that of a traditional market.) Retailers have tried to replicate renao inside their stores. If it's too sedate, consumers will suspect products aren't fresh or that the store has a bad reputation.

The promotions girls are an important element of the atmosphere. Their amplified sales pitches must win over shoppers who are generally drawn to hypermarkets by the fresh offerings -- vegetables and fruit, eggs sold by weight, meat ranging from unrefrigerated lamb carcasses dangling from hooks to live fish in tanks.

It's apparently a powerful strategy: promotional products (including sale items, bonus activities, sampling and so on) make up 30% of hypermarket sales in terms of value, Ms. Tang said.

At the Shanghai Tesco, a young woman promoting Yili's blended-milk drink called out to an older shopper: "This contains red beans and peanuts, it's good for your blood and especially good for seniors." She offered a sample in a paper cup and tried to entice the woman with an orange hand towel, free with purchase.

In the personal-care section, 21-year-old promoter Ruan Lingli is giving out folding shopping trollies to a steady stream of customers -- free with the purchase of $14 in Unilever shampoo and conditioners.

"For older people, I recommend Hazeline because it's a brand that they recognize. For women who have dyed or permed hair, I'll suggest Dove. And men tend to have oily hair or dandruff, so I tell them about Clear ," she said, speaking in the rapid-fire manner of someone who makes sales pitches for much of her 16-hour shift.

A stylish middle-aged woman stopped in front of the Colgate "Optic White" toothpaste display, then asked promoter Ge Yunxia: Is this the toothpaste being promoted on TV by (Taiwanese celebrity) Big S? What flavors does it come in? Is it new?

The woman inspected the box while Ms. Ge, 24, presented the benefits. "Other whitening toothpastes might work well, but using them constantly will harm your enamel. Our toothpaste works from the inside out. The results won't be as apparent immediately, but you'll notice your teeth whitening over time as you continue to use it," she said.

Satisfied after their three-minute exchange, the customer walked away with a tube of the $4 toothpaste.  |

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Chicken-and-Pepsi Chips in China

PepsiCo is taking its global Power of One program to jointly promote beverages and snacks a step further in China, with the marriage of two Pepsi brands in a single product: Pepsi-Cola chicken-flavor Lay's potato chips.

Cola chicken is a common recipe in China, with chicken wings tossed into a wok and caramelized in soy sauce, spices and cola. In potato-chip form, the flavor is vaguely similar to barbecue with a sugary aftertaste. If there's any hint of Pepsi, it's fleeting and lacks fizz.

Richard Lee, PepsiCo's chief marketing officer in China, said the idea came from a brainstorming session involving teams from marketing and R&D, as well as Pepsi ad agency BBDO, Shanghai. Lay's launches a new flavor every year, and this time the goal was fusion.

"We thought it would be really cool to have a cola combined with chicken. ... It's a very popular dish in China," said Mr. Lee, who in 2010 became the first person to be put in charge of marketing and portfolio management for both food and beverage brands in China. "Also it would be very cool to involve one of our most-iconic soft drinks," he added.

The launch, in August, was much bigger than for any previous Lay's flavor in China, which include such unusual flavors as lemon tea (subtle), cucumber (cloying) and hot-and-sour fish soup (fishy).

The TV ad campaign played a joke on viewers, starting out like a Pepsi ad, with a guy rushing out to buy cola for his girlfriend -- not to drink, it turned out, but to use to cook chicken.

The product's name is a sophisticated word play. String Pepsi's and Lay's Chinese brand names together, and you get a double meaning: "Anything can be happy" as well as "Pepsi can become Lay's."

Lay's overall brand message in China is about enjoying the small things in life, a theme that resonates in a market where people can be dogged about earning more money and getting ahead.

"We want to celebrate a philosophy [that says] you can find happiness all around you,'" Mr. Lee said.

PepsiCo, like Coca-Cola Co., is making big investments in China. In Shanghai in November, it opened its largest R&D center outside North America, part of a 2010 plan to invest $2.5 billion over three years. Coca-Cola's soft-drink brands outsell PepsiCo's, according to Euromonitor International, but PepsiCo's snack portfolio is an extra asset.

"Coke and Pepsi have both stalled out in terms of growth potential in China," said Ben Cavender, associate principal at the China Market Research Group. "It's important for them to be developing new products and driving into these growth categories. I think Pepsi is probably better-positioned with the packaged food that it has to really make some gains there."  |

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Can China Build a Car That Will Sell?

Qoros, a new automaker from China, is aiming to be the first Chinese car brand accepted on an international level. And it plans to do so by rethinking the traditional auto-marketing standard -- speed and open roads -- and creating a practical, more "social" vehicle suited to urban life. Unlike other Chinese car companies, typically known for substandard, unsafe vehicles, Qoros is a venture between Israel's richest man and state-owned Chinese automaker Chery Automobile. It employs European executives and designers who are veterans of companies like Volkswagen and BMW.

 "We are a Chinese company in the sense that we are born in China, one of our parents is Chinese," said Stefano Villanti, Qoros' head of sales, marketing and product strategy, speaking from his office overlooking Shanghai's Oriental Pearl Tower. "On the other hand, we make international-level product."

He said when Qoros launched in 2007, its execs considered that many cars are rooted in decades-old ideas of speed and the open road -- far from the reality of constant gridlock in so many cities. Qoros wanted to make a car better suited for modern urban life.

 "We thought there was an opportunity to create something different, where the balance is tilted more to comfort, sophistication, digital connectivity -- what we call a social car," Mr. Villanti said.

A digital ecosystem allows the car to connect with the owner's mobile devices via an app and features a touchscreen "infotainment" system. And its sedan model features shoe storage on the passenger side for on-the-go footwear changes and additional space to stow water bottles.

One of Qoros' biggest challenges is overcoming deeply-rooted stigmas against Made in China." Mr. Villanti notes that consumers in China, Qoros' primary market and the world's largest car market, are the most distrustful of Chinese auto brands.

"Someone has to be a game-changer, and maybe Qoros has the opportunity once and for all to change the perception of quality for "Made in China,'" said Arto Hampartsoumian, CEO of BBH China, Qoros' creative agency of record. "Something so visible as a car, if it does live up to the expectation ... then they will be able to change perceptions on a bigger scale."
Qoros' shops include the Shanghai offices of Mindshare (media) and Agenda (digital). The focus is on telling opinion leaders and consumers who it is and why it exists, Mr. Villanti said.

The company's tagline is "A New Drive." Outdoor ads for the Shanghai auto show, which kicked off this past weekend, show Qoros sedans on an assembly line. It poses the question: "Does the brand create quality, or does quality create the brand?"

The 3 sedan, priced from about $21,000 to $29,000, is scheduled to go on sale in China and Eastern Europe at the end of 2013. A hatchback model set for release in early 2014 will help pave entry into Western European markets.

Qoros' biggest problem may not be the product, but the market into which it's launching, with car sales flat in China and on the decline in Europe. "The concept is good. The timing, however, is unfortunate," said Bertel Schmitt, editor-in-chief of automotive website The Truth About Cars. So does the world really need another car company? "No," Mr. Vallanti said. " Just a different one."

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Michelle Phan, YouTube Maven

Adage lunched its 2014 Media Mavens list. Michelle Phan, YouTube-star, is one of them. She draw a lot of my attention after I watched her "Draw my life" at YouTube. It's very touching. I never thought the lovely girl had a very tough childhood.

Michelle Phan was a freshman design student at the Ringling College of Art and Design when she posted her first video makeup tutorial on YouTube in 2007. It got 40,000 views in a week.

By 2009, YouTube had approached her about joining its partner program, and after videos on "How to Get Lady Gaga's Eyes" brought her over a million subscribers, L'Oréal's Lancôme approached her about becoming the brand's official video artist. She quit school after her junior year.

Senior year was to be devoted to a capstone project, which was going to be creating her own makeup line. By 2013, she'd done that anyway, with Em by Michelle Phan through L'Oréal (and Ringling gave her a well-earned honorary degree).

She now has a YouTube channel with nearly 7 million subscribers, has starred in a Dr. Pepper commercial, started the multi-channel FAWN (For All Women Network) and is publishing a book in October.

But she's not giving up on makeup tutorials, which have become a genre dominated by bloggers like her rather than brands.

"Normal people, customers, just connect more to a person than a brand," Ms. Phan said. "A brand is a brand. You get great products, but you don't really connect to a brand. A lot of beauty brands are trying to crack the code, but I'll be honest, it's not a code you're supposed to crack. You have to go with the flow and let people like myself champion your brand and use the products in a more genuine and authentic way."

If you want to read her whole story, please go to Glamour.
Phan's new book: Make Up