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August 25, 2021updated 01 Feb 2022 12:11pm

Are China’s female consumers holding more than their half of the sky?

Just Food's China market columnist Peter Peverelli weighs up the influence of female consumers - and their spending power - on the Chinese food market.

By Peter Peverelli

Mao Zedong once stated that ‘women are holding up half the sky’. This was meant to establish that women are a resource that ought to be deployed outside of the homes into science and industry.

The maxim has worked out more than well for women in China. Women not only lived up to the expectation but seem to have outperformed men in several fields. Already in 2017, 63% of the world’s self-made female billionaires were Chinese.

And it’s not only as billionaires where Chinese women are catching up with men. Although men have been better paid than women in the same jobs, the ratio of women in the highest salary brackets has been rising rapidly. A news report from February 2020, citing Chinese tech giant Tencent, showed the proportion of men born after 1975 with a monthly income of more than CNY20,000 is 1.5% higher than that of women, while the figure is only 0.1% for the generation born since 1995.

With the improvement of women’s education, the income gap between men and women has narrowed gradually and more and more women have achieved economic independence. According to the China Daily newspaper, the value of consumption by the nearly 400 million Chinese women aged 20 to 60 in 2020 stood at CNY4.8trillion. Female consumers are especially strong in the field of e-commerce, as they comprise 70% to 80% of all online shoppers.

This trend is also noticeable in the food sector. The impact of female consumers in this market has become so strong that marketeers in China have coined the term ta shipin – ‘Her Food’ – for food products specially formulated for women.

The term is an analogy of ta jingji, or ‘Her Economy’, for all products designed for women. ‘Her Food’ focuses on health and beauty (such as detoxification, anti-ageing, fat burning, weight management, etc.), which is in line with modern women’s consumption and dieting concepts. Online market researcher Mobtech reports the total value of health foods purchased by China’s female consumers could reach CNY221.3bn in 2021 and CNY237.9bn in 2022.

Tencent further lists the main criteria on which female consumers buy their foods. In order of relevance, the report states: functional ingredients (Chinese women like to study ingredients lists on the packaging); quality; user experience; how a product looks, including its packaging; and convenience. Female consumers are also more aware than their male counterparts of the ‘three lows’: low salt, low fat and low sugar.

An ingredient category that shows the strongest influence of female consumers is that of various gels that are attributed cosmetic properties: donkey hide gelatin (ejiao), peach gum, fish maw, etc. These are traditional Chinese medicinal materials that have become regular food ingredients. The value of the ejiao market grew from CNY6.4bn in 2008 to CNY38bn in 2018 (Tencent, 15/5/2020). This growth is entirely attributable to demand from female consumers. An opportunity for international players could be to offer snack foods containing collagen, an emerging product area in some western markets. Collagen is a more familiar ingredient with similar cosmetic functionality.

Chinese search engine Baidu reports 60% of the searches about meat snacks are from women. From my personal experience, I can suggest that Chinese women snack very differently to men. They love to work or read with an opened pack of snack food next to them, filled with small individually packed chunks. Every now and then they take a piece, more often than not until the pack is empty. Men snack less frequently, but on larger pieces, like energy bars. Women take a bite from a bar and put it away for a while. I am sure Chinese women would appreciate the same bars much more when available in smaller, one-bite, sizes.

Another effect of the growing influence of female consumers is the rapid growth in the consumption of frozen convenience foods. Although a considerable number of Chinese men participate in cooking, the woman of the house is still the primary cook.

However, as women start to rise to executive positions, they spend less time in the kitchen and buy more (semi-)prepared foods, analysts at Intelligent Research Group point out.

Some multinationals that have long been active in China have already adapted the positioning of some of their products. Unilever has tailored its Knorr instant bouillon in China in two ways: adding more Chinese flavours, and making TV ads showing that even a man can cook with such ready-to-use products. One ad shows a man making noodles with a cup of Knorr bouillon, while in the background his son is bragging that his dad is such a great cook. Mother is noticeably not present, being still in the office, in the gym, or out with the girls.

When overseas suppliers want to cash in on this trend, it is not always sufficient to offer low-fat versions of your product or add cosmetic ingredients. Women’s lib in China does not always mean women are doing away with habits or likings that are perceived as typically feminine. Most liberated Chinese women do not want to be like men and still often emphasise feminine behaviour and preferences.

An example is a preference for trinkets or small ornaments or a mix of colours. China-based confectioner Amos Sweets has launched ‘musical lollipops’. They are colourful lollipops that make sounds that you can hear when you plug your ears.

A similar western product that comes to mind is Nestlé’s ice cream with Smarties. The Smarties add colour, as well as crunch, to the generic ice cream. You could also add popping candy. In China, that would not only appeal to children, but consumers of any age, and particularly to women.

Finally, Chinese women like combinations of textures. If you want to make a simple madeleine cake more attractive to China’s female consumers, you can add a soft creamy filling, or small chunks of preserved fruits. The simple cake gives a singular mouthfeel, but what Chinese women love is the transition from dry to liquid produced by the cream, or from soft to tough(er) in case of adding fruit parts. Building up a series of sensations is what makes a food attractive. Make sure that most of your ingredients are ‘natural’.

There are, then, various opportunities food companies can grasp as they look to tap into the power of female consumption in China.

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