15 August 2019

Top tactics to take a British brand to China

Award-winning Pickering’s Gin has had huge success in the UK and US markets, but it chose China to launch its first gin bar. The company’s founders explain their tactics for entering this growing market and how they tackled China’s unique challenges.

1. Explore China as an alternative to saturated western markets

Gin and tonic is not a popular drink in China. “Chinese palates are different – they don’t really like the bitterness of a gin and tonic,” says Matt Gammell, co-founder of Pickering’s Gin.

On the face of it, then, the Edinburgh-based brand’s choice of Beijing as the location for its first gin bar is a counter-intuitive one.

However, Gammell and co-founder Marcus Pickering identified China from the start as a market they wanted to explore.

“Gin is an incredibly crowded market, and the barriers to entry have reduced even since we launched five years ago,” Gammell explains. “We dismissed markets like Spain, which we felt were already saturated.

“In China there’s an awful lot of people who are interested in western culture in drinks, food and clothing. The gin market is in its infancy there, so there’s a lot of potential for growth.”

To try to do anything in China, you need to have a direct avenue to fluent Chinese speakers and cultural understanding.

Matt Gammell, Co-founder, Pickering's Gin

2. Adapt to Chinese appetites

China’s affluent consumers have a growing taste for spirits, but for now the market is dominated by the traditional fiery baijiu.

To introduce the concept of gin, the drinks menu at Pickering’s Gin and Seafood Bar, which launched in Beijing in 2018, has a focus on bespoke cocktails. Favourites include a Distilled Negroni, infusing Pickering’s Navy Strength Gin with Sichuan pepper.

“The tactic is to put the product into our own bar and others in our partner’s network, so that people can experience and understand the product before we launch it in a retail presence,” says Pickering.

The bar is designed to offer an experience that customers will remember and relay to others. The 270 square metre venue includes a 120-cover restaurant, three bars and a live music stage.

3. Push Brand Britain

To underline the Scottish connection, the bar’s food menu majors on Scottish seafood, including oysters served with a Pickering’s Gin and celery foam.

This capitalises on an often-quoted love that China’s consumers have for British-sourced products. However, the Pickering’s team have learned not to assume too much awareness of Scotland in Chinese marketing.

“In reality, London is often the point of reference. They may recognise certain aspects, such as tartan and bagpipes, but the geographical difference blurs,” says Gammell.

Awareness is already spreading, however. “We get Chinese visitors to our Edinburgh distillery, to the point where we’re now exploring the possibility of tours in Mandarin,” says Pickering.

4. Find a culturally-aware partner

The gin bar was developed in collaboration with Chinese craft beer brand Panda Brew – an obvious choice because of its established beer distribution network and its chain of whisky bars in the country.

“We gave them our brand guidelines and discussed how to interpret them in a way that was appropriate to China,” says Pickering.

The Pickering’s founders invested a lot of time in China to establish the partnership: “It’s imperative to go to the market and understand the people you’re doing business with. The last thing you want is to find your super-premium product being discount-retailed.”

Gammell emphasises that the differences between Chinese and western culture make it imperative to find a trusted local partner: “To try to do anything in China, you need to have a direct avenue to fluent Chinese speakers and cultural understanding.”

5. Get to grips with Chinese tech and marketing

Pickering’s has discovered that traditional marketing counts for little in China. People meeting brands for the first time might research them online to check their provenance, says Pickering, but recommendations from friends are the most powerful motivator. For that reason, the gin bar works with local ‘influencers’ who attended its launch and continue to raise its profile.

It’s also critical to master the ubiquitous digital platforms. “The entire Chinese world works off popular apps such as WeChat and WePay,” Pickering says. “People can book a cab, travel to a restaurant, enjoy a meal and pay for everything through apps, without having to speak.

“While you can get western variations of these apps, a lot of them are restricted unless you have a Chinese bank account. We’ve had to learn a huge amount about how they operate.”

While Chinese sales make up only 5% of turnover at present, the business expects this proportion to grow rapidly. It is considering a second bar launch in Shanghai. “The population is enormous and the potential for growth is huge,” Gammell concludes.

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