Wahaha…t a Brand!

The Wahaha brand is one of the most famous in China. Its bottled water can be found in every grocery store and pushcart, and it’s because of that ubiquity—and the catchy name—that foreign travelers have long regarded Wahaha as their water of choice on hot days spent sightseeing or for seemingly endless train rides. The Wahaha brand, and the story behind it, goes far beyond water, however, as I learned in a visit to its headquarters in an industrial park on the outskirts of Hangzhou early one Saturday morning.

I pulled up to the front entrance, ducked through the autumn drizzle, and was met by Frances Song, the English Assistant to the General Manager. She had come to work on the weekend solely to lead me on a tour of the showrooms and bottling plant, but despite the inconvenience she seemed eager to show me around. We began in the coolest room of all—basically it was a private convenience store stocked solely with Wahaha products—refrigerated cases wrapped around half the room, displays on the history of the company decorated the other walls, and in the center was a macro-sized monument to Wahaha’s best known product other than water: Future Cola (or, in Chinese, Feichang Kele, which translates literally to Extreme Cola).

Future Cola was the result of an attempt by Wahaha in the 1998 to compete with the world-dominating brands we know and love (or hate) as Coke and Pepsi. Over the past almost-decade, the Chinese upstart has performed admirably, although it still places third to these two American brands throughout most of China. In rural areas, unsurprisingly, it is much more popular than in the cities, where the cachet of a foreign label can carry products quite far.

Even more intriguing than the story of Future Cola, however, is the story of the Wahaha company itself—and of its founder, Zong Qinghong. In 1987, Zong, along with two retired schoolteachers, began selling milk products and popsicles at a school store, having received a government loan to fund its start-up operations. The group soon decided to produce and sell nutritional drinks as a way of benefiting the students’ health. The company’s success and its lofty health-minded motives resulted in its first big expansion four years later: with Hangzhou government support, they acquired the bulky, state-owned Hangzhou Canned Food Product Company and changed its name to the Hangzhou Wahaha Group. Wahaha itself is an onomatopoetic representation of a baby’s laughter, as mimicked in a children’s folk song.

By 1996, Wahaha had attained such heights that the French multinational Group Danone agreed to form subsidiaries with Wahaha without requiring the use of its own brand; this partnership is still in effect, and Danone controls 30% of the entire company. In 2003, Wahaha’s income totaled ¥10.23 billion (USD1.24 billion), accounting for 15.6% of China’s total beverage production. Today, Wahaha products are on sale in France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States.

Still, all these new facts I learned at the factory didn’t intrigue me as much as the chance to visit the bottling plant itself. From a windowed hallway that runs the length of the hangar-sized floor, I watched bottles of red tea whizzing by on conveyor belts and in various ingenious contraptions. There really is nothing like a factory tour to get a girl thinking about China’s economic prowess and future potential for world domination. If reverse-globalization means Wahaha instead of Poland Springs for sale back in New York, I’m all for it. Still, I think I’ll keep my Diet Coke.

Posted by on February 14th, 2006

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