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Retailing

China has a tea habit – and it means big business

  • China’s ready-to-drink tea market was worth US$11.7 billion by the end of 2015
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 9:21pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 11:04pm

From delicate kung fu tea ceremonies to trendy cheese-topped bubble milk tea, China boasts a vibrant tea drinking culture that has also translated into big business opportunities. According to the China Tea Marketing Association, as many as 500 million people were drinking tea-related beverages in 2017 – and most of the new converts were young people.

The market for ready-to-drink tea products reported double-digit growth annually from 2006 to 2011, and continues to grow as more people shift to healthy, natural drinks, according to market research company Mintel Group. It was worth 81 billion yuan (US$11.7 billion) by the end of 2015, according to market research company GroupM Knowledge Center.

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Shares in Hong Kong soy milk and lemon tea maker Vitasoy, for instance, soared by about 50 per cent in 2018, riding the fast expansion of its mainland China business.

But Vitasoy is hardly a big fish in the highly competitive red ocean that is China’s tea market, where drink makers are racing to develop new tea drinks and more exciting flavours such as sparkling tea.

One of the most successful tea brands in China is Master Kong Iced Black Tea. A household name and a leading player, Master Kong produces a wide range of instant noodle and drink products.

Its iconic iced black tea became a national hit after its launch in 1996. Together with its Taiwanese counterpart, Uni-President, Master Kong helped iced tea become one of the most popular drinks categories in mainland China over the next decade.

It enjoyed 48 per cent market share of the ready-to-drink tea sector in China as of the third quarter last year, making it the top player, according to research group Nielsen.

The brand is owned by Hong Kong-listed Tingyi (Cayman Islands) Holding, which is headquartered in the northern city of Tianjin. It has formed partnerships with global peers PepsiCo and Starbucks to aid their expansion in China.

Uni-President, the Taiwan-based food conglomerate and rival of Master Kong, first introduced iced black tea in 1995. It gained popularity partially thanks to endorsements by Singaporean singer Stefanie Sun and Canadian entertainer Avril Lavigne, who were popular among Chinese youth at the time.

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A decade later, in 2015, Uni-President launched a new tea drink called “Classmate Xiaoming” to attract younger customers. Its colourful packaging, which featured the cartoon of a cheerful boy, won the hearts of school pupils and millennials alike.

Together with another new fruit-flavoured drink, Classmate Xiaoming contributed to more than a tenth of the company’s revenue of 22 billion yuan in 2015.

Uni-President had a 25 per cent share of the tea drinks market in 2015, according to an annual report. It posted a 1 per cent increase in its tea products revenue in 2017 – which stood at 6 billion yuan – from the year before.

Domestic bottled water giant Nongfu Spring has followed in the footsteps of Uni-President to develop tea products with a young and fun vibe.

Its Tea Pai, with flavours such as peach oolong, citrus green tea and lemon black tea, reported sales of more than 1 billion yuan in the three quarters following its launch in 2016, becoming one of the most popular tea drinks in China.

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Nongfu Spring announced in July it would introduce a sparkling tea drink – a carbonated, fruit-flavoured tea. It also said in December 2018 that Chinese-Canadian actor, singer, and model Kris Wu will endorse Tea Pai.

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