Nearly 1.5 billion Chinese people can?t be wrong. Nor can a healing tradition that predates the Common Era, and possibly the historical record. At least that?s what proponents of Chinese medicine say.
TCM, or traditional Chinese medicine, is known to most through acupuncture, a modality that received a fair amount of press after National Institutes of Health trials in the late 1990s declared it efficacious for nausea and dental pain, and hinted at favorable outcomes for other conditions.
Chinese herbal therapy is another branch of Chinese medicine that may be more recognizable, because of the increased popularity of medicinal mushrooms and the herb astragalus. But is TCM as a whole ready to boom for the natural products industry?
Robert McGraw, president of Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.-based Longjiang River Health Products LLC, said the answer is clear. ?China, itself, is more accessible to worldwide consumers. Institutions such as the World Health Organization have identified TCM as the high-value, high-return health-care delivery model of the future.?
And according to Dennis Hoth, sales and marketing manager for Woodbine, Iowa-based Phyto-Technologies Inc. and Earth Power, TCM?s star is beginning to shine brighter. ?Over the last four years, TCM has been out there, but it hasn?t really gotten its claim to fame. And so I think we?re just scratching at it, and in the next few years it?s really going to explode. In the European market, TCM is really beginning to explode. ? Europe has stepped ahead [of the United States] in marketing the concept, the philosophy and the products.?
Albert Yeung, founder and president of Phyto-Technologies and Earth Power, said this trend will continue. ?It?s like a vitamin formula supplying you with certain natural plant nutrients for your system. Some of them we only recently found out that we need. As time goes by, more and more, we?ll find out that indeed some of the Chinese tonics and other herbs provide a lot of goodies that we previously missed, which will enable us to be able to live in this modern stressful, polluted environment.?
Hoth said his company has two marketing goals for Earth Power?s new tonic. ?Number one is, obviously, to spread the word about Earth Power and Earth Power products. Second, though, is to modernize TCM, and in doing that [we?re] educating the trade in what TCM is, because there?s a huge misunderstanding—and really [not knowing]—about what TCM is.?
McGraw agreed that updating the Chinese healing tradition is a two-pronged job—education and marketing. ?Our assumption is that greater understanding of this thousands-of-years-old tradition will lead to greater consumer acceptance and loyalty,? he said. ?Our interest is in making these products more accessible to Western consumers, and packaging is an important element in that process.?
And while TCM may be ready to hit the big time—with its marketing image beginning to touch Western sensibilities—an image of lack of quality control may be hindering its growth. But companies are getting that message and taking it to heart. Wilson Lau, marketing consultant for Nuherbs Co., maker of the Jade Dragon line of Chinese formulas, said while an updated image is great, consumers are increasingly demanding clean, quality products. ?I think whenever any product in a category improves, it helps the category, because it pushes your competitors to think about their own products and what they can do to make their products better,? he said.
?What we consider our better qualities and attributes aren?t necessarily with the labeling, but more with being produced at a GMP factory, having opaque labeling—stating exactly [what?s in the product] ? we think those things are very important to the consumer. Sure, cool names and easy-to-remember names are great, but what we really want to do is empower the customers who buy our products.? It?s this form of updating that Lau said will lift the whole category, not just his brand.
Peter Brodhead, owner of Brighter Day Market in Savannah, Ga., said updating TCM is a promising tactic. ?I think you could do very well with a Westernized approach.? For now, he sticks to brands and formulas he personally trusts, even if they lack the marketing pizzazz to fly off the shelves on their own. But, he said, a user-friendly approach could help get people interested in Chinese healing, encouraging them to try the products and starting them on the road to increased interest.
?I think there?s room to grow. It?s a huge system of healing; I think it could be a real, real big [sales growth] area,? he said. ?The user-friendly approach would be a great way to go to get more people introduced to it. Otherwise, it?s always going to grow slowly—and there are so many great ways to market Chinese medicine.?
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 6/p. 54-55