When President Xi Jinping visited Germany last year he proposed to make 2015 the “year of innovation cooperation between Germany and China.” Back then no one could have foreseen that China would be facing a deepening economic crisis in 2015 but in highlighting innovation I feel that China’s president has highlighted a factor that will be pivotal to the success of German companies over the coming years when it comes to increasing profit and market strategies for China. This applies equally to producers of branded food items and consumer goods and mechanical engineering sector companies.
There are now around 5,000 German companies active in the Chinese market. And innovation can become their new USP. It’s no longer enough for German companies to “just” convince with their quality and experience. For a great deal has also changed in China in recent years – Chinese companies are no longer production service providers and manufacturers of cheap mass products. They have learnt from Europe and the West, copied a great deal in impressively painstaking detail and are ultimately producing at a substantially lower cost. In terms of price and product, more and more Chinese companies are becoming serious rivals. In order to avoid ceding pole position to forward-looking Chinese companies, German firms must strike out in new directions. And be prepared to develop new business models. In this context, unexpected moves are increasingly being considered, including “out-of-the-box” expansion and innovation – some of these are extremely audacious moves that do not even provide synergies with the company’s core business but which are demanded in China.
For example, a company is prepared to add a completely new product to its portfolio that doesn’t yet exist in this form but is perfectly tailored to the needs of consumers in the Chinese market.
Such as the “lunchbox for women.” This was designed for an entirely new type of woman in China – the “woman@work” target group. The modern Chinese woman is proud to work and illustrates this with a trendy insulated mini handbag in which pretty little nutrition snacks in eye-catching packaging and a mini cola light bottle are carried to the office. This product not only satisfies young Chinese women’s need for a fashionable accessory but also ticks the calorie awareness and healthy eating boxes. For part of the box is also a healthy muesli bar for the office. So the manufacturer of this box has done everything correctly: they have recognised the trend and the fact that millions of working, fashion- and figure-conscious women regard such a stylish, low-calorie accessory as a must-have.
The Chinese are often ahead of us in consumer research and are faster to reconsider their position and strike out in pioneering new directions: for example, the Chinese domestic appliance manufacturer Haier recognised that China’s most important food, potatoes (for some time now China has accounted for one in four potatoes grown worldwide), must be washed prior to sale in the local market if they are to sate the hunger of 1.3 billion people. Some farmers had been doing this in their washing machines. Haier spotted the gap in the market and reacted quickly. In western China a market for washing potatoes AND clothing was launched, sales of which swiftly hit the million mark. An example of an innovative approach by a Chinese company which illustrates how easy it is to offer alternatives to what is currently on offer by identifying the market’s needs. When a company conducts consumer-oriented research, this is perfectly executed application innovation.
Another Chinese company achieved similar success with the marketing of a “portable cooking station” – for what could be more obvious than offering China’s estimated 350 million migrant workers the opportunity to prepare meals whilst on the go. A prime example of target group innovation and the perfect demonstration of how a company can successfully innovate in its own country. “Disruptive ideas” is the name given to such pioneering and ultimately profitable concepts which bring innovative ideas to fruition.
However, German companies should also be seeking niches in sectors in which the Chinese have long been market leaders such as wind energy. China may be in the process of becoming world champion in the production of offshore wind power but it has huge maintenance needs – and this is precisely where German companies can take advantage: by identifying where China has technology gaps and helping to fill them. When major companies pinpoint the potential in maintenance and technical support, a German company can swiftly become an indispensable knowledge partner. Do the Chinese have modern helicopters and offshore vessels for maintaining their installed capacity offshore? Definitely not. And these are precisely the interfaces where action must be taken and innovative approaches adopted to create new, successful business models.
The boss of a German consumer goods company remains relaxed in the face of China’s economic woes, stating recently: “China is and will remain the engine room of the global economy.” The company’s cosmetics unit is continuing to achieve double-digit growth rates in China. But here again inventiveness is required and a reconsideration of the purchasing behaviour of Chinese consumers. In China cosmetic products are increasingly being bought online rather than in supermarkets or pharmacies. And naturally the needs of the digital consumer are completely different to those of the customer in a store. How do you reach the “digital native consumer”, who until now has been able to smell the shampoo bottles in a store or test hand creams and body lotions for consistency and fragrance? Here a great deal will depend on brand presence and packaging – both need to be so effective and convincing that the online buyer feels no need to test it.
This is where the empathy and know-how of package designers and marketing pros really come to the fore while trends and patterns in China must also be constantly taken into account and approaches adapted in order to fully satisfy the needs of the Chinese online consumer and increase sales. The European cosmetics company will then be well placed to achieve its sales goals.
In addition to product innovation and opportunities for differentiation from the Chinese competition, local requirements must naturally also be taken into account in operational execution – particular characteristics in the Chinese R&D departments of German companies but also the demands of Chinese companies with regard to localisation.
The balance between “innovation as a USP” and the commitment to “R&D localisation” needs to be maintained and stable. This will ultimately determine whether German companies enjoy long-term success in China.
About our guest author: For more than 20 years Daniela Bartscher-Herold, EAC Consulting, is advising German companies in China. Her lecture at the “International Roadshow China” (Serviceplan, Munich – 17. November 2015) will deepen your knowledge about the value of innovation for German companies acting in China.