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Oreo Redux: Another Kind of Fortune Cookie

by Harley Spiller

Personal Perspectives

Winter Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(4) page(s): 31

I thought I was being subversive by slipping an article about Oreos into this magazine focused exclusively on Chinese food, so you can imagine my surprise when on May Day, 2008, The Wall Street Journal published an article about Kraft Food's efforts to popularize the iconic cookie in China.

Kraft Reformulates Oreo, Scores in China, headlines the article by Julie Jargon. It tells of how Oreos, oft-neglected by billions of Chinese people, have become a best seller. It is a tale of crossing cultures, says it is entrepreneurial transformation, and the newfound flexibility of a giant corporation like Kraft, which relies more these days on input from business units around the world, than on decrees issued exclusively from its Illinois headquarters.

As alluring as China's huge population is for profiteers, the Middle Kingdom is not an easy sell for products from America. Campbell's ready-to eat soups, for example, may wow consumers in the United States, but they flopped upon introduction to China in the early 1990's. Try as it might, Budweiser has yet to make substantive inroads. It can be done, though, and Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) has had great success by tailoring its products to Chinese palates. KFC is now the largest fast food chain in China, partly because its menus offer rice porridge and other multi-cultural food like the Dragon Twister, a wrap filled with chicken, plum sauce, cucumbers and scallions, items traditionally paired with Peking Duck. Nestle's also stays in the game by selling snack wafers in flavors familiar to the Chinese like sesame and red bean.

Long the top-selling cookie in the United States, Oreo's were first sold in 1912. They were not introduced in China until 1996, the last Year of the Rat. Had Kraft done due diligence with their market research, they might have learned that while Chinese people love wafers and other dry snacks with tea, they are not known for their consumption of sweet cookies. A walk down the snack aisle of any Chinese supermarket reveals shelf after shelf of biscuits and wafers, but there is rarely a bona-fide chocolate chip in sight.

Modern Chinese bakeries do sell versions of strawberry shortcake, Napoleons, and other European desserts, but these Asian spin-offs are invariably less sweet than the Western originals. Chinese meals traditionally conclude with fresh fruit, or perhaps egg custard, coconut jelly, or pudding, and only Bitter Melon Balls, green spheres of fried dough filled with red bean paste, come close to evoking the richness of America's chocolate goodies like blackout or molten chocolate cakes, or any number of high-power desserts tagged 'Death by Chocolate.'

After nearly a decade of flat sales, a makeover effort began in 2005. Kraft then developed twenty prototypes of reduced-sugar Oreo's to test with Chinese consumers. Some locals still found them too sweet, but China's growing thirst for milk kept hopes alive. Kraft then launched a grassroots marketing campaign aimed at educating Chinese consumers about the American tradition of pairing milk with cookies.

Some six thousand Chinese students at thirty universities responded to calls for what was called: The Oreo apprentice program. Three hundred lucky applicants were selected and trained to become Oreo Ambassadors. These newly-annointed cookie kings and queens were soon riding around Beijing on bicycles with wheels that looked like Oreos. They were promoting special basketball games to reinforce the idea of dunking cookies in milk. The campaign also featured television commercials showing happy kids twisting open Oreos, licking the cream centers, and dipping the chocolate disks into milk.

The new Chinese Oreo cookies do not look or taste like the original round sandwich cookie. The re-tooled models are long and thin with four crispy wafers layered with vanilla and chocolate cream, and covered in chocolate. Kraft had also learned that the original packages of fourteen Oreos for seventy-two cents were too expensive for ordinary consumers, so they introduced packs with fewer Oreos at only twenty-nine cents. Designed to withstand the huge variety of temperature and weather conditions across the broad expanse of China, the new Oreo 'wafer sticks' became China's best-selling biscuit in 2006, out-pacing the previous leader, Hao Chi Dian biscuits from the Dali corporation.

Oreo wafer sticks continue to outsell traditional Oreos in China, and Kraft is finding the wafer sticks to be profitable elsewhere in Asia, as well as in Australia and Canada. In 2007-08, Oreo revenues in China doubled, and Kraft's total revenues for foods, have for the very first time, topped one billion dollars world-wide.
Harley Spiller saves more than Chinese restaurant menus--a selection of his collection of over one thousand spoons is currently on display at Kitchen Arts and Letters, the renowned culinary bookstore run by Nach Waxman on Lexington Avenue and 94th Street in Manhattan.

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