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Unifood International:
Milking e-commerce success in China

Unifood International: Milking e-commerce success in China

Mr Loh Jwee Poh, the managing director of Unifood International is so fervent about soya bean that he is bent on sharing the super bean's goodness with the world. "My wish is to build a soya bean kingdom," quips Mr Loh.

And he is well on the way, beginning with the ubiquitous Mr Bean and its fresh soya beverages and food. Twenty years ago, an advertisement for a soya bean milk maker called out to Mr Loh's entrepreneurial streak, enticing him to found Mr Bean, the well-liked chain of fresh soya bean drink.

Then, about a decade ago, he went one step further, creating Unisoy, the country's first instant soya bean milk drink that can be drunk anywhere. What's more, its nutritional value is upped with the use of top-grade, non-GMO organic soya beans.

Find a niche and fill it
Within six months, Unisoy Instant Organic Soya Milk hit the local market. That was 10 years ago - the product was so new that consumers had to be educated on benefits of the new drink. "For food sales to go up, the most important thing is to get people to try. We promoted our product intensively through direct encounters with customers."

If they like it, they'll go to the supermarket to buy it," Mr Loh explains his awareness-building strategy.

Make sure people experience your brand
In the first two years, Unifood International was aggressively exhibiting at food trade events and consumer roadshows, handing out samples. The massive promotional efforts catalysed the milk beverage's popularity, reckons Mr Loh.

These days, instant soya bean milk mixes are commonplace, as more brands have jumped on the bandwagon. Despite the competition, Mr Loh is nonchalant. "Our original flavour, no cane sugar, is still number one. Basically, this is a good product. This is the core," he says, making a reference to NTUC's most recent sales updates.

Holding on to the top position comes at a heavy price. These days, Unifood International pumps in an annual six-figure sum into marketing for Unisoy. But Mr Loh feels the money is well-spent as brand recognition remains high among consumers.

Unifood International

Expand your success to new markets
Now, he hopes to replicate his Singapore success in China. With funding from IE Singapore, Unifood International broke into China about a year ago via e-commerce. Its products can be found in the country's most popular online marketplaces like Taobao.

There, it competes with other brands of powdered soya bean milk, and is consistently ranked among the top three in consumer sales for the product segment.

"The conventional way to enter China would have been just too expensive. Listing fees in China are extremely high, much higher than in Singapore, and we weren't prepared to pay those rates. E-commerce was the most economical way."

"The conventional way to enter China would have been just too expensive. Listing fees in China are extremely high, much higher than in Singapore, and we weren't prepared to pay those rates. E-commerce was the most economical way," explains Mr Loh on his choice of entry.

He notes that Chinese consumers are an extremely web-savvy bunch. Online shopping is a way of life for them. The figures say it all: China is now the undisputed e-commerce market leader, reeling in US$458 billion (S$649.8 billion) in 2014, according to Kantar Retail. The second-placed US trailed with US$297 billion.

Besides the obvious potential, Mr Loh has a cultural reason to target China. "About 70 per cent of Asia's population drink soya milk, and the Chinese are already very familiar with soya bean - they drink soya milk like how we drink coffee.

"I'm not going to teach the Westerners to drink soya bean milk. To do so will be hen fei xin (Chinese for uphill battle)," he says with a chuckle.

Unifood International's presence in China has taken two years to reach fruition - a reasonable amount of time, Mr Loh surmises. He will continue to direct energy into topping his FMCG category.

"We have a dedicated a three-member team in Shanghai to manage our e-commerce business. They take care of the entire e-commerce workflow, and also how to direct customers to our own website."

Pay close attention to how consumers react to your brand
And what do Chinese consumers say about Unisoy products? "They say Unisoy is good!" replies Mr Loh emphatically.

"The Singapore name helps. People think of reliability and good quality when they hear 'Singapore'."

Residents of Shanghai appear to be the brand's biggest fans, contributing to about 20 per cent of online sales in China.

Mr Loh talks excitedly about the analytics provided by the marketplaces and how he is able to 'spy' on his competitors as well as monitor his sales.

His enthusiasm for the vibrant e-commerce environment in China is high. Is it not a challenging environment? Never mind that. "China is an effective market size. It's very big. We have to go." The resolute set of his jaw affirms his single-mindedness.

While investment in the Chinese market shows burgeoning results, Mr Loh is quick to point out that it is still too soon to talk about projections and expected sales. His response brims with cautious optimism and confidence.

Somehow, you just know that Mr Loh is one step closer to forging the soya bean milk empire he talked about. We'll drink to that - a glass of Unisoy instant soya bean milk with no cane sugar, no less.

IE's GCP grant can help companies defray up to 70% of eligible cost for developing e-commerce strategy for overseas expansion

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