THIS sultry summer in Shanghai, a humble brand of popsicle is melting the hearts of consumers with its distinctive flavor, unpretentious packaging and low price.
It’s called Dongbei Daban, which means “northeastern big brick” in Chinese. Translation woes aside, this unheralded paddle pop, wrapped in simple plastic, has become a hot seller at newspaper kiosks and grocery stalls across the city.
The ice-lolly is made by Red Ruby Ice Cream Co in the city of Daqing in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. It sells for 3 yuan (48 US cents), compared with 5 yuan or more for high-profile ice cream brands. It comes in four flavors: strawberry, chocolate, milky and one called “plain,” which seems to evoke happy childhood memories among older buyers who taste it.
On Weihai Road, one newspaper kiosk owner told Shanghai Daily that he’s been selling an average 100 Big Bricks a day. The vendor pays a wholesale price of 2.50 yuan per popsicle. Sales representatives provided him with a small freezer on a six-year repayment plan costing the vendor 260 yuan a year. They also pay him a monthly 60 yuan for the electricity to keep the freezer running.
“People who work in nearby office buildings drop by during lunch break to buy the popsicles,” the vendor said. “The freezer is rather small, so I have to replenish my supply every day or two.”
How did such an unassuming product achieve such pop status? Many consumers who buy Big Bricks say they are tired of the fancy ice creams sold by multinational food companies like Unilever and Nestle and local dairy firms like Mengniu and Yili. It’s fun to find something new. It’s also fun to rediscover old flavors.
Big Bricks aren’t showing up in market research, which tends to track sizeable family purchases of big brands in larger supermarkets. But they are showing up on the Internet, where netizens praise the popsicle as an enjoyable moment shared by friends.
Word-of-mouth online is a powerful selling force.
“Chinese web users are massive content creators,” said Vincent Digonnet, executive chairman for Asia-Pacific at e-commerce consultancy and media agency Razorfish, a unit of French advertising group Publicis Groupe.
“They are much more willing to share product information with friends on social networks, compared with their counterparts in the US and Europe.”
According to his observation, as high as 30 percent of Chinese web users are active original content creators, and 50 percent are actively commenting or reposting other people’s comments. In the West, only about 10 percent of Internet users often post original content.
This summer, the buzz is Big Brick.
“I tried one myself after I saw my friend post a picture of the popsicle on her ‘Moments’ on WeChat,” said a young Shanghai office worker named Sherry Ye. “Nice taste. I liked it.”
“Moments” is a function within Tencent’s popular smartphone chatting application WeChat. It allows users to post photos, links and short comments — similar to Facebook’s “Timeline.”
“Products that strike a chord with mass consumers are bound to become popular,” Xu Shang, director of the Shanghai Society Administration for Industry and Commerce, wrote in an online commentary.
“We usually think that the younger generation, born after 1985 or even after 1990, are not so fond of traditional stuff, but that’s not the case, and the popularity of Big Brick is a good example,” said Xiao Mingchao, an independent market observer who focuses on business trends and consumer goods.
He added: “Big Brick found its way into a niche group of consumers — those who are aged between 25 and 35, who don’t always chase big brand names and who want something new and more personal. The special flavor and even the simple, somewhat old-fashioned style of packaging evoke nostalgia in people feeling lost in modern society.”
Xiao said Big Brick’s market is likely to stay rather limited because getting into national supermarket supply lines involves fees too high for such a regional brand. Still, the popsicle’s success shows there is still room for smaller brands if they can manage to click with consumers.
The question remains: Can Big Brick survive after summer’s heat turns to winter chill and netizens find some new phenomenon to whet their appetites?