A close connection between the millennia old secrets of Chinese medicine and 21st century marketing techniques like brand development and targeted sales campaigns might not seem immediately obvious. However, look anywhere in Hong Kong nowadays and it is hard to miss the billboards, TV advertisements and in-store displays drawing attention to the health-giving properties of Chinese herbal remedies and to the companies that produce them.
As consumers turn increasingly to more natural cures, which complement or replace the use of pharmaceuticals, a modern-day approach is being adopted towards the sales, packaging and global market potential of these most traditional products.
Jeannie Liu, marketing director for PuraPharm International (H.K.) Ltd, possesses in-depth expertise in both fields. She is responsible for selling a range of medicines and health products to chain stores, pharmacies and Chinese medical practitioners and for overseeing the company's broader strategy for international brand building.
"I get the chance to hear how our products have changed people's lives"
"People are now much more health conscious, especially after SARS," explains Ms Liu. "They are looking for different products, not just vitamins or slimming treatments. They want to take better care of their general health and to use herbs and other ingredients of guaranteed quality." As a result, the local market has seen annual growth of over 20 percent in the last two years. Further expansion is confidently forecast and overseas sales are starting to see a similar increase.
"Lingzhi is really hot now," says Ms Liu, referring to sales of a product derived from a fungus found mainly in Western China. "In former times, it was used by Chinese emperors for rejuvenation and it is known to promote overall well-being." With modern technological advances, manufacturers can now produce a more convenient capsule form which suits busy contemporary lifestyles. As one of PuraPharm's 15 over the counter (OTC) items it is sold not only through retail outlets but also on the Internet, a rapidly growing source of sales to customers worldwide.
"Our aim now is to think about brand positioning and the continuous quality improvement of our products," says Ms Liu. "Competition will become more intense so we need to try different tactics to promote the brand and find the best ways to communicate with customers."
With a background in advertising and PR, Ms Liu knows exactly what is required. After taking a first degree in social science, she worked for a major advertising firm and gained experience in the fundamentals of brand management and promotion. Moving on to a multinational consumer goods company, she picked up additional marketing skills in her five years there and learned about building sales of a range of products for longer-term results before taking up her current post two years ago.
There will be a number of new challenges in 2004. "We plan to strengthen our brand position and expand the product portfolio," Ms Liu notes, "so we will be looking for more marketing and sales professionals with a strong market sense." Prior knowledge of the industry is not essential and can be taught during the one-month induction period, but a degree and at least one year's solid work experience are required. "Commitment, being prepared to work smart and the ability to handle pressure are qualities we look for," she adds.
General prospects for the industry appear to be unlimited. It is set to benefit from government efforts to promote traditional Chinese medicine and from a tighter regulatory environment.
For Ms Liu, however, achieving success in business is not the only thing that brings job satisfaction. "It also comes from really helping people to have better health," she says. "Sometimes, when I answer customer enquiries, I get the chance to hear how our products have changed people's lives. That gives a different kind of satisfaction which is not related to profits or commercial targets."
The move towards generally healthier lifestyles and the use of Chinese medicines and health products has been identified as a global trend. Paradoxically, there is also more widespread acceptance in China and this should gradually provide more job opportunities.
Manufacturers are collaborating with universities and institutes for research and development into the medicinal properties of many herbs and their commercial potential. This may lead to more R&D positions and companies with plans to expand their sales and distribution networks on the mainland are likely to give Hong Kong-trained executives the chance for transfers or secondments to China offices.
The CEPA agreement, with its favourable provision for tax benefits for Hong Kong exporters, will help in developing new markets across the border. According to Ms Liu, "It is noticeable that Chinese consumers still have more confidence in the quality of health products made in Hong Kong."