Cheese, known as “奶酪” or “芝士” in China, has seen astonishing growth over the years. It is hard to believe how the market was able to evolve between 2017 when the per capita consumption of cheese was still less than 0.1 kg, and 2020 when it has doubled to 0.23 kg. Thanks to a general increase in wages as well as food globalization encouraging people to try and purchase new things, the cheese market seems to be one of the most lucrative industries in the foreign food sector. As of May 2021, China’s cheese imports have increased by 66.4% year on year, showing exponential growth. Now considered as one of the major dairy food for Chinese consumers looking for healthy and natural products, the cheese sector in China will be a staple for any foreign company looking to expand its activities in the world’s most populous country. In this article, we will present the cheese market in China, its opportunities for foreign sellers, and some tips to tap into the Chinese market.
Cheese: A Very Promising and Growing Market in China
There’s no denying that there has been an uptick in Chinese people craving for dairy products like never before – as demonstrated by the recent craze over ice cream, milk products, yogurt, chocolate, and of course, cheese. However, it is clear that China is still far behind in terms of production and consumption of cheese.
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If we look at the leading countries in terms of cheese production, European countries rank first, followed by the United States and Russia. China only ranks 10th despite being the world’s most populous country, with a production of 283 thousand metric tons of cheese.
On the other hand, when looking at the market value of cheese worldwide, the market is expected to maintain sustainable growth in the years to come, with a market value of $69.7 billion in 2019, to $105.93 billion in 2026, thanks to emerging countries that are slowing learning to purchase cheese and eat it on a daily basis.
As matter of fact, when looking at the annual consumption of cheese worldwide in 2020, the EU is still dominating the market, followed by the U.S and Russia, but China was able to rank 8th, even before Japan or Australia.
Now if we look at the leading exporters of cheese worldwide, Germany was the world’s largest exporter of cheese, with exports reaching over 4 billion U.S dollars’ worth. It was then followed by the Netherlands with 4.2 billion dollars and Italy with 3.6 billion dollars. We can also look at the following graphic to see the percentage in terms of value share from the leading cheese exporters.
Overview of the Cheese Market in China
cheese is not part of China’s culinary tradition, except for some ethnic minorities living near the borders, like the Mongols and Tibetans. In fact, a few decades ago, the biggest consumers and producers of cheese were located in Inner Mongolia. At that time, it was common to travel and purchase cheese as a souvenir to take back home. But other than that, cheese was still considered as rare in China.
Moreover, China’s population is characterized by having a large proportion of people who are lactose intolerant, thus contributing back then to the fact that they didn’t want to eat cheese. Thankfully, people are now aware that the fermentation process removes most of the lactose contained in the cheese.
Compared to the long history and the deeper culture of cheese in other countries, China’s cheese market is still developing as 4/5 of the most popular cheese brands in China are foreign brands. Indeed, the cheese market is ushering in the “golden period” of development in China, thanks to dairy products that are gaining popularity among Chinese consumers.
Cheese is the top-selling product of China’s dairy products category, as its compound annual growth rate sales between 2019 and 2024 are expected to reach 11.5%.
Moreover, by 2025, the projected cheese consumption in China is expected to reach 307.2 thousand metric tons, compared to 276 thousand metric tons back in 2018.
Then recently, the 12th China Dairy Industry Conference and the 2021 China Dairy Industry Exhibition Summit were held in Hefei have attracted a lot of attention from professionals as the dairy industry is on the rise in Asia. Discussion on how to make this success sustainable for years to come was at the core of the debate. This shows that China understands the potential of the cheese market, and its willingness to seize the opportunities it has to increase the consumption of cheese.
What are the most popular kinds of cheese among Chinese consumers?
In China, more and more parents are seeking out cheese products for their children. This trend is mostly due to the younger generation (born between 1980-1990) becoming parents themselves and wanting to find new ways to feed their offspring healthier and natural products. That’s why in China, cheese targeted to children is the most popular and lucrative for cheese brands. And brands know how to catch Chinese people’s eyes: their products are either shaped like sticks or come with stickers labeled “high in calcium and proteins”, attracting both children and parents. It is expected that children’s cheese will reach more than 10 billion yuan by the end of 2021, and will double in the following years.
On the other hand, even though Chinese consumers had the opportunity to travel more, including in Europe for example, to discover new culinary tastes, stinky cheese is still quite rare in China and was even forbidden by the Chinese government till 2017, because of bacteria problems. Chinese consumers tend to prefer soft and mild cheese instead of more pungent varieties. For example, the consumption of Mozarella over the last 2 years has skyrocketed to more than 180% in China.
Moreover, it is also important to know that, unlike other countries where people are referring to different sorts of cheese by their respective names (Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Emmental, Brie, Camembert, etc), most of the Chinese consumers are just using the word ‘cheese’ for everything.
Who are the biggest players in terms of cheese in China?
Some of the biggest players in the cheese market in China are:
- The Laughing Cow
Why is cheese getting more popular in China?
When looking back at China’s food history, some people might be wondering how cheese brands were able to conquer the Chinese market. In fact, cheese has some attributes that turned into silver linings for Chinese consumers, and that’s what we are now going to see.
First of all, as the majority of foreign food products, Chinese consumers will think that they are safer to eat. When in 2008 the milk scandal was making headlines in China, Chinese consumers no longer wanted to trust domestic brands and thus turned to foreign brands instead. In terms of food safety, foreign countries are still on the top in China.
On top of that, foreign products are appreciated because it conveys of a certain image of people who can afford to buy it and know how to cook and eat it. Even Chinese President Xi Jinping enjoying a Swiss cheese fondue during his visit to Switzerland.
On the other hand, cheese can be found easily in supermarkets, as well as on e-commerce websites, which drastically benefits this sector.
Finally, cheese is part of very popular dishes in China, such as in fast-food restaurants, with pizzas, Mozza sticks, burgers, etc.
Cheese: A Nutritious Dairy Product Full of Calcium
Viewed as nutritious food, cheese has gained popularity in China in a few years, with 32% of the Chinese population trying to increase its consumption of nutritious dairy products (according to Global Data). On top of that as mentioned earlier, Chinese parents are more involved and cautious than before when it comes to dairy products for their children. As cheese is a natural source of calcium and protein, parents know that it can benefit their children in terms of health, weight, and muscle growth.
As we can see according to the cheese brand ‘Kiri”s website, the cheese brand is depicted as providing quality products of certified origin, as well as ‘nutritional benefits. We can also see some healthy recipes using Kiri as part of their ingredients.
But cheese is not only for children. In 2018, the National Institute for Nutrition and Health’s report on the Chinese citizens’ needed to consume more dairy products is a great way of getting nutrients: “Our country has been facing an increased rate of calcium deficiency”. Cheese is now seen as an essential product for children and elders.
The increase can be attributed to two factors: less consumption of milk-based foods such as yogurt or cheese, which means that people are not eating enough protein; secondly, many young adults suffer from lactose intolerance preferring soybeans during infancy instead of breastmilk or formula. To fight this issue, some experts have been encouraging Chinese citizens who have trouble digesting dairy products to adopt a healthier lifestyle by incorporating different types of cheeses into their daily habits and eating at least 300 grams of dairy products per day (in 2016, people were eating on average 100 grams per day of dairy products).
Food Globalization: An phenomenon in China
As well as in other countries that remain very attached to their tradition and culinary tastes, the Chinese population is quite attached to its traditional dishes and flavors. However, because of globalization and the increasing number of tourists and expatriates, western culture and cuisine have spread all across China, especially in the biggest cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou. Becoming some sort of melting pot of culinary dishes, many starred chefs were able to promote their culinary heritage to Chinese consumers. That’s why Chinese consumers are increasingly trying new culinary tastes, eating both local and foreign specialties, and ready to discover all kinds of cheese.
It is also important to note that cheese was greatly democratized thanks to sandwiches and other dishes (both fast-foods and gourmet restaurants). Most Chinese consumers had their first approach with cheese in pizzas, cheesecakes, cupcakes, etc, or for children. Others have discovered cheese during their journey abroad when studying, traveling, and visiting their friends.
Restaurants like Dominos pizza of Pizza Hut, for example, are attracting more and more customers over the years, looking for affordable and “different” kinds of food. However today many brands, many Chinese and international brands, seek to bring the cheese to the table of Chinese families, incorporated into traditional dishes as well.
Gastronomic restaurants are not at least, as despite being more expensive than fast food, they are indeed seen as more refined, tastier, and most importantly, healthier.
The evolution of the cheese industry in China
As mentioned earlier, China’s cheese consumption was almost inexistent a few decades ago. Only the upper class of the society who was able to travel and go to gourmet restaurants was able to enjoy eating cheese after their main course. On the other hand, cheese brands were not convinced yet that China would be a promising market as cheese was not part of their daily habits. However, food globalization played a determinant role in the rise of the cheese industry, encouraging consumers to slowly increase their consumption.
Nowadays, some of the most popular recipes and everyday food contain cheese, whether original cheese or cheese derivatives.
For example, Chinese consumers are fond of cheesecakes, that can be found in almost all bakeries, but of beverages such as the famous bubble tea brand ‘Hey Tea’ known as 喜 茶, with one of its best-sellers ‘芝芝’, China’s most popular cheese tea, which has become popular thanks to its “cheese milk cap”. This was all possible because Chinese consumers love the combination of fruits and sugar with cheese and other dairy products
Snacks with cheese are also popular in China, and Chinese citizens like to consume some snacks or want to buy them for their children. Cheese snacks are seen as healthier compared to chips for example, or other high calories snacks.
Another popular trend in China is vegan cheese, which is seen as healthier and low calory compared to other traditional cheeses. Indeed, the forecasted market value of vegan cheese worldwide is expected to reach $3,906 million in 2024, compared to its $2,060 million in 2015.
Therefore, it can be extremely interesting for cheese brands specialized in vegan cheese to expand their activities in China.
Exporters should also take into consideration that for most Chinese people, cheese is still considered a strange delicacy that is hard to implement in recipes. That’s why some Chinese chefs are regularly going abroad to learn how to use and cook the cheese.
China: A Digitalized Market that Cheese Producers can’t ignore anymore
The Chinese people are always looking for new tastes and products to experience. For foreign companies, it is a challenge to educate the consumers about their food products. That’s why adapting your product line to meet market demands by introducing tailored goods according to China’s taste preferences is key. Using the most popular sales channels is also crucial if you want to increase your ROI and visibility online.
How to sell cheese in China?
Choosing the best entry strategy is the most important key to consider when looking to export your cheese to China. It will depend on your budget, the audience targeted, your goals, the timing you have, etc. Considering the fact that China is an extremely digitalized country, you can have more impact online than offline depending on your approach, that’s why comparing all the possibilities you have is crucial.
Selling Cheese in Chinese & Internationnal Supermarkets Chains
For a long time, selling cheese through supermarkets chains in china, was the best way for a brand to be visible and attract customers. Even though e-commerce platforms have gained popularity, supermarkets are still extremely useful for brands looking to export their cheese in China.
Selling cheese in supermarkets is a great way to display your products physically to a wide audience. In this way, they will be able to directly discover and look at your products. Supermarkets have the infrastructure you need for selling, as your products can be seen by regular consumers doing their shopping. If you want to sell your cheese in Chinese supermarkets, you can book an appointment with us here.
Selling cheese via distributors in China
It is never easy to get your products into China as you will need certifications, but distributors can help make the process easier. By partnering with them and letting them handle all of the certifications for you, it will be possible to save money on shipping costs while also saving time since their team will already have done most of the work.
Therefore, it can be more advantageous to work with distributors in China, as they are well connected and know exactly what the Chinese market is like and how to meet Chinese consumers’ standards when it comes to cheese. Moreover, it is recommended not to try something on your own: if you get stuck or if things don’t go according to plan, then no one will be there for you. If you want to find reliable distributors in China, you can contact us. Our distributors have been selected based on their reliability, performance, partners, etc. so that we can guarantee the quality of their services.
You can also read our full guide: The Strategic Guide to Export Food to China
E-commerce platforms: A good way to sell cheese in China
- What are the most popular e-commerce platforms to sell cheese in China?
Tmall, Jd.com, Taobao, and Pinduoduo are among the top e-commerce platforms for cheese brands. In fact, China’s tech-savvy population is always connected online, and with the possibility to purchase online their grocery products and get them delivered directly at home, it is now essential for any brand to use e-commerce platforms.
How to increase sales in China and attract Chinese consumers?
Online presence is crucial in China: Especially for food brands
Your products must be presented and viewed enough by Chinese consumers indeed, especially on the internet. The Chinese are increasingly hunted for information online and this is an opportunity for brands to make themselves known and trusted. For this, it is important to ensure your visibility and reputation online.
- For cheese producers, having a Chinese website will reassure Chinese consumers
It is useful to highlight the benefits that cheeses bring. Some brands play on the nutritional benefits of cheese for consumer’s health. In addition, the origin and story-telling around the brand and its products can also offer a considerable competitive advantage, by catching consumer’s interest.
For this, having your website in Chinese is important. As a communication platform but also as an image of the quality and authenticity of your brand. On the other hand, as Baidu is the leading search engine in China, it is important to properly reference your brand or product in related searches. Again, to ensure your visibility, your brand must be sufficiently “popular” and Chinese customers need to find it easily with keywords. Thus, word of mouth and brand reputation are important things.
- Social media are determinant for your success in China
Having a WeChat and Weibo account is essential if you want to target and reach Chinese consumers. As the two most popular social media reuniting with more than 980 million active users, it is crucial for brands to create an official account on these social media apps. If you want to promote and market your cheese in China, this will be your main platform of communication.
- Xiaohongshu (aka Little Red Book)
Little Red Book is the new favorite tool of marketers in China. It is a social network that encourages its users to share their daily lives, discoveries, and experiences with others. 780 million topics are created daily in a community of more than 70 million active users. LRB is also an e-commerce platform. Brands make a request to enter the platform and can then market their product.
Promotion is mainly done through posting and user sharing. Some quality articles have the chance to appear on the home page of LRB (in this case, it is the jackpot). This can significantly boost the exposure and therefore the sale of your products. However, this often requires putting money on the table.
Although LRB is mainly used in the field of fashion and cosmetics, let’s not forget that it is also an excellent sharing application where users are looking for new discovering. Incorporated into recipes, during aperitifs with friends, in French restaurants, there are many topics in which we can promote cheese.
Most Importantly: Adapting to Chinese Consumers
Bongrain SA is one of the market leaders today in the Chinese cheese market, with almost 20% market share. This company entered the Chinese market in 1997, by establishing its first plant in Tianjin.
However, Bongrain noticed that Chinese consumers didn’t appreciate a lot of the naturally salty taste of cheese (things are changing nowadays). Thus, the company has worked to better meet the needs of its Chinese clientele, changing some of its recipes. Chinese consumers likely prefer creamy and soft cheeses. (This type of cheese represents 80% of sales in the market). Therefore as seen with this case, it is clear that Chinese consumers have different expectations and tastes when it comes to cheese. If you want to attract them and sell your cheese in China, you will have to adapt to their culinary habits and expectations.
Contact us if you want to sell your cheese in China
With China being an extremely promising market and the world’s second-largest economy, it can be extremely rewarding for you to export your cheese in China. The cheese market is indeed still flourishing, as we have seen in this article, and has a lot of opportunities for brands that are willing to invest themselves in order to adapt to the Chinese market and to Chinese consumers.
Collaborating with an agency specialized in the Chinese market is the best way to achieve your goal and increase your Return On Investment. As all companies are different, the marketing and advertising strategy must be tailored according to their needs and within their financial means. Proud of the success of the companies we have helped over the years, we know exactly the needs of each company and the strategies that must be tailored to them in order to get the best of the Chinese market.
For more information about our services and projects, do not hesitate to browse our website or contact one of our experts who will be happy to answer your questions and inquiries.