Suancai on the Market: Instant Noodle Makers Fight With Ferments

Over the past few weeks, Master Kong’s instant noodle advertisements began appearing across Beijing. The ads prominently feature the new addition of shelf-stable sausages.

First they added suancai. Now this? I was suspicious.

Make your crazy face.
Make your crazy face

A few years back, I began noticing suancai making its way into junk food (in these noodles, the suancai is a variety of fermented mustard greens, see post on suancai here). First, there was a commercial featuring the Chinese actress Yao Chen eating suancai noodles on an airplane. Sometime the same year, either in anticipation or response, their competitor Tong Yi came out with their own ad.  This ad included a celebrity endorsement by Wang Han: “There are people who try to look like me and people who even try to copy my noodles! No matter how much they try, its not Tong Yi Old Crock Suancai Beef Noodles!” Wang Han is clearly angry. “Somebody” is copying his noodles.

But the suancai ad war predates celebrity endorsements. Tong Yi is the major instant noodle company in Taiwan, they entered the mainland market after Master Kong. At present, Master Kong’s share of the mainland market remains substantially larger than Tongyi’s. Master Kong made profits of 24.592 billion CNY in 2012, whereas Tong Yi’s were 7.269 billion. In 2008, Tong Yi began a nationwide campaign featuring suancai noodles. In the intervening years, Tong Yi’s noodle sales grew from 150 million units to 3.5 billion, much of the growth attributed to adding fermented mustard greens to instant noodles and marketing it well. As of 2012, 60% of all suancai noodles in the PRC are Tong Yi brand and 55% of Tong Yi’s profits come from these noodles.

I do not know how much the ads swayed me, if at all. Early on, the ads were not high budget (Tong Yi in 2009Master Kong in ’09 and ’10), and I have no memory of seeing them. The Yao Chen and Wang Yong ads were clearly the most heavily invested and left an impression. As I alluded to above, I think the current ad campaign is ridiculous and desperate, both on its own and in comparison with the older ads. So what captured my imagination?

I think the story of suancai propelling a company from latecomer to contender is compelling.

So, after five years of ads and developing a full time interest in fermentation, I finally caved. Looking for a quick, hot meal the other day, I walked into a 7-11 planning to buy a bowl of suancai instant noodles. I asked a person in the store, “What’s better, Tong Yi or Master Kong?” She responded, “Instant noodles are bad for you, you shouldn’t eat them.” Good advice.

The bowl of noodles, not as pictured in advertisements:

Pickle, paste and powder
Pickle, paste and powder. (Meat chunks not included).
Shuanghui's "Instant Noodle Ham Sausage"
Shuanghui’s “Instant Noodle Ham Sausage”
Fermented mustard greens packet
An Old Crock Suancai Pack

Instant noodles are embedded in the rhythm of modern Chinese life. There is free boiled water in airports, train stations, and even the national library bag check room. People are highly mobile and a 5 CNY meal is rare thing. TThis all makes a market for a quick, cheap hot meal— that at least smells and tastes like meat and vegetables were used its production— possible. Had I not developed a pounding headache and unquenchable thirst, I would eat the suancai noodles again.

But back to the original question. Why the eye-catching ads and meat sticks? Identical sausages– Shuanghui brand– are found in both Master Kong and Tong Yi suancai noodle packets, so neither has any competitive advantage in terms of product. Shuanghui is getting more exposurein this deal, but the instant noodle companies? According to this CBN article, this market has entered a period of  restricted growth, leading to a zero-sum game for producers. This could explain the continued focus on ads and the recent spat of sausage promotions. There’s no new noodle turf; competition for existing market share is fierce.

These instant noodle makers have made a fortune off of a 10 gram packet of pickles, but market saturation is bringing that era to a close. Unable to endorse suancai noodles from either company, check out this quick homemade noodle recipe from the Teczcape’s blog. This dish uses preserved xuelihong to make a tasty  noodle soup, meat sticks optional. 15 minutes of labor and a small amount of money can get you a lot further than a trademarked bowl of Old Crock Suancai Beef Noodles. If you don’t salt-cure or ferment your own leafy greens, a packet of xuelihong or suancai will make excellent substitutes.

“Yes to the appeal of speed and flavors.”

But not to instant noodles.

Advice for those in Beijing:
There is a Chaozhou Speciality Store  just south of the Zhichunli Primary School that sells southern Chinese fermented mustard greens. Most Beijing wet markets carry  salt-cured xuelihong and suan baicai.