This morning, I continued in a different battered taxi as far west as you can go in this part of China, to
the very small border town of Nabang, which is separated from Burma by a stream that is no more than a couple of yards wide.
Bizarrely, it seemed that more people were crossing between the two countries on planks of wood bridging this, than were crossing
at the official border just down the track. Things just seem to work differently in Nabang – as you might expect
from a place that is just a bit further away than the back of beyond.
If a foreign brand can make
it here of all remote places, then it’s a pretty good indication that they’ve cured one of the biggest headaches afflicting
foreign brands – distribution to “lower tier China”.
So, then, which brands have
actually passed the Nabang Test?
The first question I felt I had to answer is “what foreign-branded
chocolate bars are on the shelves?”.
This is an important consideration for me – and
I must declare a vested interest – because Dove chocolate is my staple diet on trips like this (it can add up to 10KM
to my daily walking range). I am in luck. Not only do they have a good stock of “in date” (important
to check) Dove, but there’s also a full box of Snickers (same Mars stable as Dove). My walks in the mountains are set
to be that bit more pleasurable (as well as longer).
There is Coke of course (one of the first foreign brands
to crack lower tier distribution in China); but there is also Pepsi (I’ve noticed that in recent years they have been
making serious in-roads into lower tier China). And, what’s this? There's also Red Bull?! As well as high
profile Formula One sponsorship they are clearly also investing in grass roots distribution management. Another surprise
is Nestle coffee, and its sister, Coffee-mate. I hadn’t noticed them on my trip here last year, so they may
well be newcomers to these parts. There’s also a good stock of big packs of Nestle chocolate wafer biscuits (a
bit too big for my rucksack alas).
In the detergent category, Proctor & Gamble (the masters of lower-tier
distribution) have managed to get an impressive stack of Tide onto the shelves (the only foreign representative in this category,
and sold in the smaller, cheaper bags).
Spending a bit more to look after your
clothes is one thing but, surveying the shelves, it’s clear that people here are prepared to spend a lot of money on
foreign brands when it comes to looking after themselves.
And, judging by their share of shelf, the brands that
are shining as brightly as the buyers' teeth, hair and skin are Colgate, and Crest (Proctor & Gamble) toothpastes;
Lux (Unilever), Rejoice and Pantene Pro-V (both Proctor & Gamble) shampoos; and Olay (you guessed it... Proctor and Gamble
again) and Avon skin care products. Both Olay and Avon have an incredibly wide range of products on display
and Avon have even managed to display several items of point-of-sale material – a rare thing in these parts.
I watched Ms Peng, a thirty-five year old mother of two, reading the boxes of various Olay products.
“Sorry, do you mind if I ask you a question,” I asked.
“Why do you like Olay?”
“I want to look after my skin, of course."
I thought I should probe further (!)... “But why
She spelled it out for me: “Everyone knows that Olay is a world famous brand
you can trust. When it comes to protecting my skin, I will pay more to get the best.”
“What about foreign shampoos? Do you ever use them?”
“I sometimes buy them,
but usually I buy local brands”.
In my discussion with Ms Peng, I learnt enough to confirm that she will
not compromise on skin care because the ultra-violet rays in these parts are thought to be particularly "lihai"
("aggressive") – I already have a sunburnt neck to prove the point. I also gleaned
that she thought that a foreign-brand shampoo was a “special treat”, as opposed to a “necessity”.
Talking of necessities, I purchased two bars of Dove chocolate and a Snickers bar for my hike in the mountains tomorrow.
Which is, I hasten to add, one bar of Dove more than my normal daily intake (when walking long distances that is).
Then again, I am planning to walk an exceptionally long way tomorrow, perhaps more than 30KM (1.5KM
of which will be a climb in altitude), in search of Nabang's wildlife speciality... very rare and elusive hornbills.
You see, no matter where you are, when there’s so much at stake, only certain brands will do.