When the sweet firm Big White Rabbit was launched in Shanghai in 1943 its packaging featured a Mickey Mouse-like image. It later dropped the Disney lookalike – indeed the nougat-like milk candy, wrapped in edible rice paper, soon became emblematic of how China was ridding itself of foreign influences, particularly after it was nationalised in 1949 with the establishment of the People’s Republic. It was a favourite of Premier Zhou Enlai and it was widely distributed to the public to celebrate the PRC’s 10th anniversary.
Big White Rabbit tapped into the nationalist mood again this month amid the ongoing trade tensions between China and the US. Patriotic consumers queued in droves to sample the launch of a new limited edition milk tea in Shanghai. “We just want to show our support for local brands at a time when the US government is plotting to undermine China’s economic development,” said Wang Xiaoliang, ones of those who braved the wait. Some less inclined to queue paid scalpers an incredible Rmb500 per cup.
But nationalism only goes so far. Take Tianqi Toothpaste, a household name for decades in China. The once cherished brand lost market share to foreign rivals owned by P&G and Unilever, and its parent Guangxi-based Aoqili ran into financial trouble in 2014. That led a local court to put its assets – including the Tianqi brand – up for sale on Alibaba’s ‘judicial auction’ platform last week. The result? Underwhelming, with only two bids for the toothpaste firm’s 57 trademarks, real estate assets and production equipment. However, neither met the minimum ‘ask’ of Rmb163 million ($23.6 million) so the auction lapsed.
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