The increasing popularity of high-priced yoghurt in China has become a saviour for the country’s biggest dairies, with revenues of the fermented dairy product set to overtake milk sales for the first time.
China’s dairy market, which generates $55bn in annual sales, is the world’s second biggest after the US, according to consultancy Euromonitor. But dairies have been struggling with slowing milk demand growth and reduced prices since 2013 because of oversupply — a situation that contributed to the stock-price implosion this year of Hong Kong-listed Huishan Dairy.
Enter high-profit yoghurt products, the sale of which have salvaged dairy groups’ sales and profits in recent years.
Moreover, the success of China’s three dairy giants in selling yoghurt in the country underlines how skilled Chinese groups have become at marketing, often outmanoeuvring bigger western groups. The three companies control about 70 per cent of China’s yoghurt market.
“Yoghurt is an area where foreign brands should have had the advantage,” said Mark Tanner, of China Skinny, a marketing agency that works with dairy companies in China. “But they [offshore groups] were slow to react to the market trend.”
Chinese milk sales will grow just 4 per cent in 2017 compared with last year, while yoghurt sales will rise 18 per cent to almost Rmb122bn ($17bn), surpassing plain milk sales for the first time, Euromonitor projects.
China’s three dominant dairies, state-run Bright Dairy and private competitors Mengniu and Yili, have been able to charge higher prices for yoghurt because of perceptions that it is more nutritious than milk and can be slimming. Income growth has also enabled Chinese consumers to “upgrade” to higher-end brands.
“I drink a lot of yoghurt, about a bottle each day,” said Cooky Mi, who is in her 20s and works at a tech company in Shenzhen. Yili’s yoghurts are among her favourites and her daily habit is aimed at “keeping thin and healthy”, she said.
Profit margins for yoghurt in China are about 40 per cent — double those for plain milk, according to independent dairy analyst Song Liang. As a result yoghurt has been making an “increasingly large contribution to revenue growth at the three large dairies, and an even larger contribution to profit growth”, he said.
Bright Dairy took the initiative in 2012, launching the Momchilovtsi brand made with bacteria imported from Bulgaria, but has since lost market share to rivals. “The other giants caught up and better used their national distribution networks to expand,” said Robin Yuen, an analyst at RHB Investment Bank in Hong Kong.
Yili’s net profit rose 4.5 per cent over the first half of 2017 compared with the same period last year, to Rmb3.37bn. Sales of the group’s flagship Greek-style “Ambrosial” yoghurt — developed with the Greek Academy of Agricultural Sciences — increased about 31 per cent over the period, it said.
Mengniu’s net profit over the same period rose 4.7 per cent to Rmb1.13bn, with premium yoghurt products its two biggest revenue growth contributors during the period, it said. The company partnered with French dairy group Danone — which owns 10 per cent of Mengniu — to improve its yoghurt technology.
Source: The Financial Times