China's Bright Food loses its taste for Weetabix and sells it to the American Post Holdings: Where did it all go wrong?

Rob Wade
Weetabix has been sold to a US company (Source: Weetabix/Facebook)

It was announced yesterday that Chinese company Bright Food is to sell Weetabix to the American Post Holdings.

Bright Food acquired the British stalwart in 2012 with a view to introducing breakfast cereal to the lucrative Asian market, but recently put the brand up for sale when it became clear it had struggled to crack the Chinese market. So where did things go wrong?

When any brand launches in a new country, a thorough understanding of the consumer you’re trying to sell to is absolutely crucial. In the case of food or drink, if the product falls outside the usual eating habits of a country you may need to adapt to make any headway – think matcha-flavoured KitKats in Japan or McDonalds’ line of veggie burgers in India.

Elsewhere Weetabix has successfully adapted to how people shop, for example offering two-biscuit packs in Kenya where shopping tends to be little and often and 48 packs in Mexico where bulk buying is more common, but not how they actually eat. For those who remember the cereal’s ill-fated marketing ploy from earlier this year – which encouraged UK consumers to top Weetabix with ham, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce to create a ‘more nutritious’ eggs Benedict – this may not come as too much of a surprise.

Toppings on Weetabix can be controversial (Source: Weetabix/Facebook)

Although Bright Food has successfully doubled sales of Weetabix in China its largest market by far is still the UK, where the wheat biscuits are something of a tradition. By contrast, what Weetabix came up against in China was a very different breakfast experience. Chinese people tend to favour hot, rice-based dishes for breakfast, and the brand didn’t manage to persuade enough of them that cold cereal was a better option.

The key when introducing an unfamiliar product is asking people to shift their behaviour only very slightly to make room in their diet. For Weetabix, that could have meant marketing its cereal as something which can also be consumed hot, and perhaps even suggesting savoury flavour combinations to make its consumption at breakfast less of a stretch for Chinese shoppers.

Given the size of the challenge, there is even an argument that Weetabix should have developed an entirely new product for the Chinese market. Perhaps a rice-based option – similar to Oatibix, the brand’s oat-based line – could have presented an innovative solution.

So what can other brands learn from Weetabix’s foray into China? One lesson is clear: understanding your consumer’s needs and how they interact with established patterns of behaviour, then being willing to adapt both your product and your marketing strategy accordingly, is vital to success.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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