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Post covid effects on the drinking occasion in China: Three emerging trends  

Jade Cullinane, Global Business Development China, Bord Bia 

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Although the lockdown measures in China in early 2020 were some of the strictest in the world, they were effective in curbing Covid-19, which has allowed for a positive economic rebound in 2021. Even though localised restrictions still occur infrequently and travel restrictions apply, Chinese consumers, for the most part have now returned to their pre-covid lifestyles. (Bord Bia, 2021) 

This has had a positive impact on the alcohol sector in China. Scotch whiskey and fresh cocktails have enjoyed double digit growth in first half of 2021 for example (IWSR, 2021). Whilst official 2021 figures have not yet been reported, IWSR predicts 4% growth for the alcohol sector in China this year (IWSR, 2021). 

Irish alcohol is performing well in China, in particular Irish whiskey. Bord Bia’s industry contacts are increasingly excited about the category. Again, while we await official export figures for 2021, all indications show that Irish whiskey exports to China will have significantly increased in 2021 compared to the previous year (Global Trade Atlas, 2021). 

Although many Chinese consumers have returned to their pre-covid lifestyles, the pandemic has naturally caused some habits to shift. This is particularly notable when looking at the drinking occasions in China. Innovative brands have adapted well to such changes, which we can all learn from. 

1. Rise of cocktail culture 

Cocktails are taking off in China. Younger consumers are eager to try new things and enjoy the easy to drink beverage. In a more recent trend, food bloggers and famous bartenders are taking to social media platforms such as Douyin or Xiaohongshu teaching people how to make cocktails (Mintel, 2020). Whilst cocktails are still frequently enjoyed in trendy bars in tier 1 and 2 cities, 2020 lockdowns saw an increase in consumers trying their hand at DIY cocktails, often following these cocktail tutorials. 

Liquor brands, as well as O2O retailers such as Hema Fresh, are offering DIY cocktail packages for home delivery (Mintel, 2020) 

Increased cocktail consumption bodes well for Irish whiskey in particular, thanks to its diversity and suitability to cocktails. In an effort to educate influential bartenders that Irish whiskey is an excellent addition to their cocktail kit, Bord Bia ran a series of masterclasses led by famous bartenders in Guangdong province earlier this year. 52 bartenders from 29 of Guangdong’s leading cocktail and whiskey bars attended. A similar event is planned in Shanghai in late December. 

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2. Drinking at home  

While there isn’t a strong culture of at home drinking in China, this shifted somewhat due to the harsh lockdowns of 2020. Mintel data found that more than three quarters of consumers said they drank Western spirits with family or friends over dinner at home in 2020 (Mintel, 2020). 

China is the most advanced nation when it comes to online alcohol sales with over 55% of Chinese consumers ordering alcohol online (Mersel and Luo, 2019). Certain categories including Japanese and Scotch whiskeys are recording year-on-year growth in off-trade sales volumes (Euromonitor, 2021). The ease at which alcohol can be ordered online and delivered makes it highly convenient for Chinese customers to enjoy a drink at home.  

 

Both local and international brands are taking advantage of the home drinking occasion. Rio, a local RTD brand, recently launched a new product with a campaign encouraging solo drinking at home, a contrast with the traditional drinking occasions at banquets or work-related social outings (IWSR, 2021). Rémy Cointreau Group announced a major deal with Tmall Group to boost its online presence (Euromonitor, 2021). Beer breweries have also taken the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate their digital transformation, with AB InBev for example expanding their cooperation with numerous e-commerce platforms (Euromonitor, 2021). All the big brands are also investing in live-streaming events on these platforms, connecting at-home drinkers with their favourite brands (IWSR, 2021).  

In recent years Bord Bia has run a number of promotions across key online platforms such as JD.com, Tmall.com and Hema Fresh. Brands with strong online presences have the potential to reach significant consumer bases across the country. Tmall.com for example reports a staggering 500 million monthly active users (Cosmo Holdings, 2021). 

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3. Unique experiences  

Chinese consumers have always been demanding in terms of unique experiences but the post Covid-19 climate has seen new trends emerge. When Chinese consumers emerged from harsh lockdowns that forced them almost entirely indoors, they moved to outdoor settings with a newfound appreciation for nature and their freedoms. This saw picnics become extremely popular and emerge as an off-trade drinking occasion (Xuejiao, 2020). 

In addition to being a chance to catch up with friends over snacks and drinks, many consumers saw it as an opportunity to share their picnic experiences on social media. Popular social media site Xiaohongshu, reported the number of picnic-related posts increasing 13.6 times year-on-year in 2020 (China Daily, 2020).  

Alcohol companies didn’t take long to capitalize on this trend. Zui E Niang (醉鹅娘), an ecommerce wine retailer, launched a wine bag designed for picnic occasions with an ‘instagramable’ design (Mintel, 2021). Irish cream liquor brand, Bailey’s collaborated with a local cosmetic brand in spring to offer both brand’s products in an attractive picnic box (Mintel, 2021). 

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Conclusion 

Implementing more informal occasions to celebrate spirits can be a way to leverage growth going forward (Mintel, 2021). Livestreaming events are gaining increased popularity and may be a strong opportunity for Irish brands to educate consumers on their brand attributes. Promoting the advantages of Irish spirits, a core cocktail ingredient will also be important in 2022 as cocktail culture continues to dominate the Chinese on trade scene. 

 

References: 

 

  • Bord Bia. (2021). China Imported Food Tracker (Wave 2). 

 

  • China Daily. (2020). Picnics soar in popularity in summer. Retrieved 5 December 2021, from https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202006/25/WS5ef41018a310834817255463.html. 

 

  • Cosmo Holdings. (2021). Cosmos Holdings to Open Flagship Store on Alibaba’s Tmall Global, World’s Largest Cross-Border E-Commerce Marketplace with 500M Monthly Active Users. Retrieved from https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2021/08/10/2278064/0/en/Cosmos-Holdings-to-Open-Flagship-Store-on-Alibaba-s-Tmall-Global-World-s-Largest-Cross-Border-E-Commerce-Marketplace-with-500M-Monthly-Active-Users.html 

 

  • Euromonitor. (2021). Alcoholic Drinks in China. 

 

  • China Customs Trade Statistics (accessed Dec 2020) 

 

  • IWSR. (2021). Australia and China underpin ongoing resilience for Asia Pacific beverage alcohol market. Retrieved from https://www.theiwsr.com/australia-and-china-underpin-ongoing-resilience-for-asia-pacific-beverage-alcohol-market/ 

 

  • IWSR. (2021). China October Update 2021. 

 

  • Mersel and Luo. (2019). Chinese Drinking Culture, Explained. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@mersolluo/chinese-drinking-culture-explained-c04a9ddba8fb 

 

  • Mintel. (2020). Western Spirts China, December 2020. 

 

  • Mintel. (2021). FEMALES: A GROWING MARKET FOR CHINESE ALCOHOL BRANDS. 

 

  • Xuejiao, C. (2020). From pandemic to picnic: China embraces life outdoors after lockdown. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/china-picnics-coronavirus-covid19-lockdown-outside-sunshine