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The Nabang Test 

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Two brands from Mars that have made it to one of the far corners of China

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 Olay?”

 

  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.

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The Nabang border post and beyond it, Burma