A customer samples Mondelez's China-exclusive cookies, featuring six different flavors of traditional Chinese pastries. (Provided to China Daily)
Move to change attitudes on 'time-honored' products comes amid broader trend toward collaboration happening globally
Chinese tourists across the world are seeking out brands with historical pedigree, from Lancome to Lafayette. But paradoxically at home, they appear reluctant to spend on renowned local brands.
"Good wine needs no bush"－the once-predominant Chinese maxim isn't quite playing out in the modern shopping sphere, where flashy campaigns involving digitalization and gamification are redefining the rules of the retail game.
A joint study from consultancies Bain& Co and Kantar in December pointed to the rising discretion in the choice of brands among China's younger generation. Those aged between 19 to 28, which constitutes the consumption backbone, have openly expressed their preferences for novel experiences over exquisite craftsmanship.
With consumers projecting a clear digital flair, some companies have stepped up efforts to turn things around.
Shanghai-based pen and ink producer Hero, whose history can be traced back to 1931, has recently released an ink-themed cocktail through a tie-up with alcopop beverage brand Rio, a darling of the younger generation.
The pair have worked closely on product design and innovations on scent and flavor, according to Dong Wenbin, general manager of Shanghai Hero Pen Co.
Preorders were available from the middle of May exclusively on Tmall, China's largest online retailer. Some 3,000 sets of drinks were snapped up in one minute.
"The exciting yet vintage design aims to pique the interest of those born in the 1990s and after, which aligns with Hero's desire to appeal to a younger generation of customers who aspire to be trendsetters," said Dong.
Hero's attempts to keep the engine humming come at a time when tablets are fast replacing pen and paper. According to Dong, similar tie-ups such as collaborating with luxury house Cartier are in the pipeline.
But some brands aren't just commercial entities, they are also important vehicles for preserving Chinese culture. Imbued with cultural significance, these brands have histories going back hundreds of years and certain products, passed down through generations, are held in high esteem by Chinese society.
To this end, more than 1,100 Chinese "Time-Honored Brands" have been officially recognized by the Ministry of Commerce. Those making the grade are granted an official seal of approval of their status colloquially known as laozihao. Local governments even have their own parallel certification projects.
Nevertheless some of them are resting on their laurels. According to a report from People's Daily, only 20 to 30 percent of them are in the black.
Yu Mingyang, a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University who specializes in the study of brand management, said the history of these brands can both be an asset and a burden.
Having followed the development of dozens of time-honored brands for more than a decade, Yu pointed out that the biggest problem of these brands is that many of them are left with only "a halo, or an empty shell".
"The Chinese word for brand, pinpai, conveys two things－pin meaning product and pai meaning brand," he said. "However, many time-honored brands only have the second part now."