The coffee market in China

Coffee in China

The coffee market in China: everything goes through Branding

Chinese are traditional tea drinkers.  Most of them do not like coffee that much. However, the food industry tries to build a new trend. Today we will discover the opportunities offered by the coffee market in China and focus on the “best practices” in order to push coffee consumption there.

Status quo of the coffee market worldwide

Coffee is a very important sector in the food and beverage market. In 2012 the average growth of the coffee market in the world was barely 2%. It is a mature market.  Coffee is the most consumed beverage in the world after water. In addition, the coffee market is the second largest market in value after oil.

Status quo of the coffee market in China

Conversely to this trend, the coffee market in China’s growth is 15% per year. According to the International Coffee Association, the coffee market in China has reached 1000 billion yuan, nearly 116 billion euros in only 10 years. Regarding such statistics, China may be seen as the brand-new El Dorado for Western brands of coffee. We will try to have a deeper look at it.

The coffee market in China is still young

When it comes to coffee in China, the leading industrial group is Nestlé (leading brand: Nescafe) with 75% of the share of the market in 2011.

Examples of some coffee brands’ communication in China


This brand is the leader in China when it comes to instant coffee. The brand belongs to the Nestlé Group. Nescafé’s main target is made of consumers from the middle class and young professionals. To target them Nescafé used an advertising campaign with an ambassador of choice namely the famous blogger and so-called dissident Han Han.

Through this ad, Nescafé encourages young Chinese to believe in their dreams and to make them become true. Nescafé is using Western codes with characters with strong personalities. With Han Han  who is a rally driver, a professional blogger, a bestselling author and a singer Nescafé launched its campaign “Live your audacity.”

The TV spot shows Han Han the favorite star blogger of generation 80’s enjoying a road trip in China. The idea is to show someone with a lot of passion living an exciting life and doing their best to never miss an opportunity to discover something new.

The campaign “Live your audacity! ‘’ was relayed on Weibo
Nescafé Han han


Via the Sina weibo platform Nescafé implemented a communication strategy in order to engage Chinese consumers. The weibo page is like a travel book where people can easily identify themselves with Han Han or the other characters he encounters.

Starbucks in China

If some Chinese discovered the taste of coffee it is often thanks to Starbucks.  Starbucks is everywhere in China. The coffee service leader is for the younger Chinese generation a stylish and comfortable place.

How to explain this tremendous success? There are three main reasons :

1)   Starbucks has pretty well identified its main target

Starbucks is well aware that taste should not be seen as the main factor to explain why more and more Chinese will drink coffee rather than tea. Indeed in China, the coffee drinker is often an urban upper-class person eager to adopt a Western lifestyle to display his social success. Another specific target is young girls who would like to have the same quality of life and leisure as in the West.

To strengthen the proximity feeling of its customers Starbucks launched an ad campaign named “Coffee for Lue.” The young Lue we see in this ad is the symbol of the Chinese consumer. This campaign was very good regarding one segment of the coffee market made of young urban upper-class people who have been traveling with their parents in European countries and who want to find in China the same sensations they had when discovering small coffee bars in Europe.

2)   Starbucks has adapted its products to the tastes of Chinese consumers

Chinese tend to stay longer in Starbucks coffee in order to discuss with friends than their western counterparts in Europe. Then Starbucks changed the layout of the tables in its stores in China and also expanded spaces. Regarding the products offered Starbucks also expanded its offering to a wider range of teas. More recently Starbucks also launched a shop with a traditional Chinese architecture in wood and bricks.



The new Starbucks in Fuzhou

This environmentally responsible architecture is also a part of the strategy of Starbucks in terms of “green communications”. It is aimed at meeting the Chinese public expectations regarding “harmonious development”. Starbucks begins to be part of the Chinese landscape and is positioned as a luxury brand that provides spaces for relaxation after people leave their offices. We don’t know yet the result of such a strategy which could be confusing considering the global brand positioning of Starbucks.

3)   An innovative digital communication

It is based mainly on the use of smartphone applications.

The « magic » Cups

The application allows you to see through your smartphone camera animations on each Starbucks cup. It’s funny (we want to see if it works) and it gives the consumer a sense of exclusivity that he wishes to share with his family or friends.  This campaign is a good example of viral marketing that takes into account the fact that Chinese consumers are more than European mobile internet users. Contextual media are definitely on the verge of becoming the culmination of social media.

But the most successful communication campaign carried out by Starbucks in China was “Let’s Merry! ” in 2011.

Christmas is purely commercial in China and is merely nothing compared to the Chinese New Year. But for many young Westernized Chinese Christmas is an opportunity for showing how successful they are.

The campaign “Let’s Merry! “is featuring a young couple who finds themselves at Starbucks through the use of their smartphone apps. This is a good strategy because in China Christmas is becoming a one-second valentine’s day and is less stressful than the Chinese New Year for many young people. Through mobile applications such as Weico, which provides access to Jiepang or Sina Weibo, those who reported their presence near Starbucks were given price reductions or samples.

In addition, those who did it near giant posters of Starbucks will see the displays lighting up with Christmas greetings. More than a digital campaign it was almost a reality-augmented campaign!  

It is exactly this kind of campaign that should be a model for any company looking for building a strong relationship with its public and fostering a strong commitment to its brand.

But too much  innovation can be a threat:

With “Your personal” Starbucks has launched a smartphone application allowing the Chinese consumer to monitor his laptop via a connection between the application and the webcam of the laptop. The idea was to convey the message that Starbucks is not only a provider of coffee but also a provider of safety. This communication goes too far and does not pay enough attention to cultural differences.

Chinese are more pragmatic than western people and will bring their laptops with them no matter what application pretends to reduce the risk. Westerners could be more interested in such an application as they are more confident in monitoring innovations.

Starbucks also has a Chinese website which is perfectly designed. Indeed, it provides Chinese consumers with storytelling about the company and indicates many events to follow. It perfectly fits the expectations of the Chinese who enjoy pedagogical brands.

Starbucks website in chinese

Starbucks also has a very engaging Sina Weibo account where customers can make suggestions for recipes and feel like a part of the evolution of the brand.


 Starbucks also has a Kaixin account.


Despite the small audience Kaixin has today this choice could be explained because Kaixin was a social network that had a great influence on young professionals.  Nevertheless, a Kaixin account is useless today. Now Starbucks should focus only on WeChat.

Indeed Starbucks was one of the first global brands to create a partnership with WeChat. Only 1 week after they get an official account (called “verified account” on WeChat), they launched a campaign called “naturally awakening” for the promotion of a new beverage line of green coffee mixed with fruit flavor.

Starbucks sur WeChat

From August 28th to September 30th people could send an emoticon message to Starbucks and then get a link to a song fitting the mood of the emoticon.

For the Chinese New Year of snake, they just launched a new game spread via WeChat to users. The aim of the game is to use a snake to catch red envelopes and gain virtual wallpapers. On the Starbucks verified account users will receive on a daily basis reduction for Starbucks ‘ products.

starbuck WeChat marketing game


The success of a coffee brand in China relies on its brand image. The market is dominated by leaders who invested a lot in digital communication. Today other brands such as Costa Coffee have successfully followed the path of Starbucks.



You can also read our Strategic Guide to Export Food Brands in China


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