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Forget Luckin. Starbucks’ Most Interesting China Competitor is HeyTea:Beverage Marketing Strategy in China

  •   2 Aug 2019
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So Luckin Coffee has gone public and there are big questions about their revenue growth vs. operating losses. They are building an F&B business fast and aggressively against still unclear demand.

But HeyTea is the Starbucks challenger I am keeping an eye on. They have long been referred to as the “Starbucks of tea”. And they have a big tailwind that neither Starbucks nor Luckin has – the fact that Chinese consumers really love tea.

I recently visited a couple of HeyTea stores in Beijing and sat down with Joy Tan, an ex-Didi staffer who is now Chief of Staff at HeyTea. I came away with 6 reasons why HeyTea is worth following.

Reason #1: Chinese consumers like coffee but they love tea.

Krispy Kreme opened and closed pretty fast in China. Which was a shame because their stores had really fast wifi (and lots of empty seats). And while Yum! China has done great with KFC and Pizza Hut, their Taco Bell franchise is still at 1-2 outlets (Note: they are on their second attempt to launch in China).

It turns out Chinese consumers just don’t like sweet donuts much. And Mexican food is not that popular. In fact, Taco Bell China has rebranded itself as California cuisine, with pictures of surfboards on the walls.

F&B is hyper-competitive in China. And consumers liking your menu is not enough. You need them to love your menu.

Chinese consumers do like coffee. Overall, consumption is still small (5-6 cups per year per capita) but it is growing steadily. And it is doing well in first and second tier cities. But it is not a home run as a product. Consumers probably like the experience of going to Starbucks more than coffee as a product.

But Chinese consumers love tea (note: they also love hotpot and the NBA). So HeyTea has something that neither Starbucks nor Luckin has: big, proven and enthusiastic demand.

And against this demand, HeyTea was one of the first to position themselves upmarket (similar to Starbucks). They open nice locations in Grade A shopping malls. They use higher quality ingredients. And they price their drinks in the 20-35 rmb range, well above the 15-20 rmb of competitors Yi Dian Dian, Coco. Miguo and Happy Lemon.

This is pretty great market positioning overall. They offer an affordable luxury product for China’s rising middle class and their increasing disposable income.

Reason #2: HeyTea’s is focused on the basics: thrilling their customers and getting good locations.

So much of the Luckin vs. Starbucks story has been about Starbucks’ strength in real estate vs. Luckin’s digital-first business model. And this skips over the #1 question for F&B in China: do consumers love your products? Are you a consumer phenomenon?

Walk into any shopping mall in China and you will see 20-30 restaurants, cafes and desert outlets – all furiously competing. They will have menus with 50 pages of items. They will all have unique approaches – like hotpot vs. South Korean pop star focused vs. handmade noodles. They will have attractive young staff trying to grab you as you walk by. It’s a ruthless business. And your biggest strength is not digital or even location. It is your ability to continually thrill your customers so they keep coming in.

And HeyTea is good at this. They are known for cheese tea, which is really great. They have interesting fruit teas, that are continually changing. And they make their drinks look really compelling. A typical drink has different colors in multiple layers.
Their bakery is also interesting.
In one of the outlets I visited, they even had a bar-like area with alcoholic beverages. Note: most of their drinks are made with baijiu. They also offer ice cream with baijiu.
Constant new product introductions is standard for China F&B. But refreshing the menu and thrilling your customers is not the same thing. It’s a rare thing to actually pull off and I’m never quite sure why some companies can do it and some can’t.

One company that comes to mind in this regard is Xiaomi. When they’re not trying to convince investors they are an internet company, they are actually a really innovative consumer electronics company. They launch tons of new products that thrill their customers and keep them coming back. Every time I walk into one of their stores, it is filled with customers looking at their smart scooters, smart rice cookers, and even smart chopsticks.

Basically, F&B is really hard anywhere, but especially so in China. You had better thrill your customers or have them addicted to your products (hello caffeine). Anything else is a pretty brutal business.

Reason #3: They have lines out the door.

I met HeyTea Chief of Staff Joy Tan at a newer upscale shopping mall in Western Beijing. And as it was in the afternoon, most of the restaurants and cafes were mostly empty.
But arriving at the HeyTea outlet I could see a line out the door. And making an impression like that in F&B (that you are popular) is really important. The place was packed.
However, a quick caveat. Long cues in China don’t always mean what you think.

One of my standard questions to MBA students is what does it mean when you see one restaurant with a line out the door. The international students always say “well, that one is popular”. The Chinese students always say “they are paying people to stand there.” Both can be true.

  • A couple of years ago, it came out that movie studios in China were paying people to go to cinemas on opening weekend to boost their numbers.
  • Today, KOLs routinely buy online traffic to make themselves appear popular.
  • And don’t even get me started about all the clever ways Chinese tech companies are currently boosting their user and engagement numbers (especially before going public in the US).

Some of these tactics include just faking numbers and being dishonest. But a lot of it is about being perceived as popular in intensely competitive markets. And there is what Warren Buffett calls the “institutional imperative”. If your competitor is doing something like this, you have to as well. If a competing movie is launching the same weekend as yours and the press is reporting they are sold out (by filling seats), that is going  to impact your movie. So if I was running a restaurant in China (I have been involved in two restaurants in the past), I would be pulling every clever trick I could think of to get people in the door and to create the appearance of being popular.

Anyways, it’s something to keep in mind.

In the case of HeyTea, I went to three outlets in Beijing and it was definitely real demand. All three were packed with lines out the door. I even went to one in the Beijing airport at 8pm at night – and it was also packed.
HeyTea and high-priced, creative tea drinks are a consumer phenomenon in China. And speaking with Joy, she mentioned that most of their 220 stores are operating at capacity. People hold places in line for other people, which has resulted in the average order being three drinks (and about 80rmb). And managing their long cues is turning out to be a real challenge. Long lines can impact the consumer experience.

Reason #4: They are growing based on traffic – not investor capital.

HeyTea has around 220 outlets now and they are planning to double that this year. That’s great. And that is how successful retailers and F&B are supposed to grow. They open outlets, build traffic, get them to operating break-even and then open more. You pay close attention to same store sales.

And that is exactly how Starbucks, KFC and McDonalds grew in China. It took Starbucks twenty years to get to 3,300 outlets. And they routinely close stores based on profitability. Although their store closures in China have been much less than in the US.

In contrast, Luckin has grown like a tech company. They have used venture capital money to open +2,000 outlets in about a year. This could be them taking advantage of their more scalable business model (90% of their outlets are just for pick-up). Or it could be an exercise in financial engineering and B2VC. You build something that venture capitalists like, show big growth and go public. It’s a higher risk strategy but it also could work.

Anyways, I like the HeyTea approach. I like to see slow expansion based on foot traffic.

Reason #5: They are well-positioned to move into coffee or caffeine.

F&B is a difficult business, with fickle consumers, endless competition and few durable advantages. So how is Starbucks so dominant almost everywhere?

My simple answer is caffeine and sugar. They are not selling beverages. They are selling a stimulant. Caffeine is mildly addictive and it creates a daily habit. That is what gets you a stable core customer base that comes in every day. None of this happens with juices, milk and most other beverages. Starbucks, Coke, Red Bull and 5 Hour Energy are all in the stimulant business.

So what about doing this in tea?

Most green and black tea has very little caffeine or sugar in it. People like regular, fruit and bubble teas but they don’t get one first thing every morning. Personally, I think someone should offer a morning “energy tea” that is a popular Chinese tea loaded with caffeine.

Interestingly, HeyTea has started to coffee products. They now offer a matcha and brown sugar coffee (a cool name). I think they are experimenting in this regard. I think any movement towards coffee or caffeine could be really interesting.

Final Reason: HeyTea is set up to be acquired.

As mentioned, F&B in China is mostly about thrilling your customers.

The other part is getting the real estate right. Starbucks is awesome at this in China. They have great locations in first and second tier cities. They are always in the high traffic and high visibility locations. And their outlets are fantastic. Most are like modernized versions of traditional Chinese tea houses. Note: They are far better than the dingy Starbucks I used to go to in New York.

HeyTea has been copying Starbucks approach in both locations and quality design. They are going after good locations in Grade A shopping malls. You can find them literally next door in Starbucks in places like San Li Tun. And their interiors are also pretty good. They currently have three store concepts: black industrial retro, white and pink.

But real estate is a game of operational scale. It takes a long time to build a footprint of quality locations. And it is not really HeyTea’s core skill. There are good at creating popular products. There are lots of companies that are good at the blocking and tackling of China real estate. The next logical move is for HeyTea to find a partner to scale up on the real estate aspects.

If HeyTea continues on their current trajectory, I think they are set up to JV or be acquired. Perhaps by Yum! China or maybe even Starbucks. Or maybe by a large retailer or commercial developer with lots of locations and cash. That could get them to +1,000 locations much faster. And there are lots of real estate, supply chain and marketing benefits to scale. We’ll see.

That’s basically my take. If you couldn’t’ tell, I am pretty scared of this whole sector. I find it really difficult and success is rare. So this is a good company to watch. 

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Jeffrey Towson

Jeffrey Towson is a private equity investor, Peking University professor, best-selling author and keynote speaker. His writing and speaking are on digital China – and on Asia’s latest and most important technology trends.

Nicknamed China's "celebrity professor", Jeff is the #1 followed professor in China (+3M followers on LinkedIn). He was also the #1 LinkedIn Top Voice for Finance globally (2017) and #3 for China overall (2018). He was also named one of Alibaba's 15 “Global Influencers” (2017, 2018).

Jeff is a frequent speaker at companies, boards, conferences and universities around the world. He has been seen on CGTN, CBS News, ABC and other programs. Topics for writing / speaking include:

  • Asia’s latest and most important technology trends.
  • China’s digital giants – including Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, Toutiao, Meituan and others.
  • E-commerce / new retail – including Alibaba, JD, Pinduoduo, Xiaohongshu and others. And how this impacts consumer products and retail in China – including Starbucks, Walmart, Gome, Suning, McDonalds, Luckin and Yum!.
  • Mobililty / smart cities / autonomous vehicles – Mobike, Ofo, Didi, BYD and others. And how this impacts traditional industry.
  • Healthcare – including PingAn, Fosun, and Cigna.
  • Financial services – including Ant Financial and others.

For more works of Jeffrey Towson, please refer to his webpage: https://jefftowson.com/