Everyone knows what an Oreo cookie is supposed to be like. It's round, black and white, and intensely sweet. Has been for 100 years. But sometimes, in order to succeed in the world, even the most iconic product has to adapt.
In China, that meant totally reconsidering what gives an Oreo its Oreoness.
At first, though, Kraft Foods thought that the Chinese would love the Oreo. Who doesn't? The company launched the product there in 1996 as a clone of the American version.
Lorna Davis, who is in charge of the global biscuit division at Kraft, says the Oreo did OK. But it wasn't a hit. It was almost pulled out of China.
But before the cookie was declared a failure, Kraft thought that maybe a little research was in order. And so a decade after it was introduced, Kraft finally asked the right question of Chinese consumers. A question unthinkable in the United States:
What's the problem with an Oreo cookie?
The answer was surprising. Chinese consumers liked the contrast between the bitter cookie and the sugary cream, but, "they said it was a little bit too sweet and a little bit too bitter," Davis explained.
It turns out that if you didn't grow up with Oreos and develop an emotional attachment to the cookie, it can be a weird-tasting little thing. And this started a whole process in the Chinese division of Kraft of rethinking what the essence of an Oreo really is.
Kraft changed the recipe and made the cookie more chocolatey. The cream less cloying.
"So they said this is a better balance," Davis said.
And it started to sell. But once the Kraft team began to tinker with the classic features of an Oreo, why not go all the way?
They started to ask other provocative questions.
Why does an Oreo have to be black and white? Davis sent us an Oreo with green tea filling. Another had a bright orange center divided between mango and orange flavor.
And why should an Oreo be round? They developed Oreos shaped like straws. In China, you can buy a long rectangular Oreo wafer, the length of your index finger.
Impossible to twist apart, but Davis points out that it makes it easier to dunk in milk.
It almost became a philosophical question.
If an Oreo isn't round and black and white and crazy sweet, is it still an Oreo? What is the essence of Oreoness?
What the Chinese team at Kraft figured out is that an Oreo is an experience. You pry it apart, scrape out the filling with your teeth and plop it into a glass of milk. Their shorthand for the concept: "Twist, Lick, Dunk." All the wild new shapes and flavors of Oreo wouldn't work in China, unless they could somehow share that same experience.
"In the early days people said there's no way that Chinese would twist, lick, and dunk because that's a strangely American habit," says Davis.
But luckily for the Oreo team, the Chinese consumer was just starting to respond to emotional advertising. Oreo launched a series of TV ads where cute children demonstrate to their parents and other adults how to eat an Oreo cookie in the American style.
Davis says they saw sales of Oreos double in China, then double again, and again. Its now the best-selling cookie in China. But more important, Davis says they learned a lesson about global business.
"Any foreign company that comes to China and says, 'There's 1 1/2 billion people here, goody goody, and I only need 1 percent of that' ... [is] going to get into trouble. You have to understand how the consumer operates at a really detailed level."
Sometimes the results surprise you. That rectangular wafer Oreo is no longer just in China. You can buy it in Canada and Australia. By the time the Oreo finishes its world travels and come back home, Americans might not recognize it.
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The U.S. is filled with Chinese-made products but the reverse is not true, yet. U.S. companies have had a hard time getting Chinese consumers to buy American. There are lots of complicated reasons involving currency and saving rates. But there's also a simple reason - sometimes American products need a little help translating.
Robert Smith of NPR's Planet Money Team has the story of how one iconic American brand struggled in China.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: I hold in my hand a normal Oreo cookie.
LORNA DAVIS: Do you mean an American Oreo cookie?
SMITH: Yeah, I guess I do. There was a day when all Oreos were American. But Lorna Davis works in a very different world.
DAVIS: I'm in cookie land.
SMITH: And cookie land these days spans the globe. Davis was born in South Africa, ran the Oreo cookie brand in China and is now calling from a biscuit conference in India, which is why I have to be very specific about which kind of Oreo I'm holding. It is round...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SMITH: ...black and white. And the taste? Well, this is where it gets complicated.
DAVIS: There are 135 components of an Oreo cookie. So, there's bitterness and there's roastedness, burntness...
SMITH: And then there's the white stuff. I just scrapped some off with my bottom teeth.
DAVIS: Exactly. And that is generally quite sweet and quite creamy.
SMITH: And it has been for 100 years. So, no one gave the recipe much thought when Kraft Foods introduced the Oreo cookie to China in the 1990s. Slap a Chinese label on there and you're good to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF AN OREO COOKIE AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, bright ideas and an Oreo cookie. It's a bright...
SMITH: Lorna Davis says Oreo did okay in China. But it wasn't huge. I know it seems crazy but it wasn't until a decade later, when Kraft started to really ask the Chinese consumer what they thought of the Oreo.
DAVIS: They said it a little bit too sweet and it's a little bit too bitter.
SMITH: And it turns out that if you didn't grow up with Oreos and all that emotional attachment, it's a weird tasting little thing. And this started a whole process in the Chinese division of Kraft of rethinking what the essence of an Oreo cookie really is. They changed the recipe and made the cookie more chocolaty, the cream less intensely sweet.
DAVIS: So they said this is a better balance.
SMITH: And then it started to sell. But the amazing thing was that once Davis' team began to tinker with the classic features of an Oreo, why not go all the way. Why does it have to be black and white?
I have here a green one? This is green tea?
DAVIS: Green teas ice cream.
SMITH: Why does an Oreo even need to be round? Kraft sent me a rectangular Oreo, about the length of my index finger. It's kind of difficult to twist open in the traditional manner.
I feel like I've never eaten an Oreo before in my life because it's falling all over the place.
DAVIS: But it dunks pretty well.
SMITH: So it almost becomes a philosophical question. What is an Oreo if it isn't round, black and crazy sweet? What is the essential Oreo-ness?
What the Chinese team at Kraft figured out is that an Oreo is an experience. Their shorthand for it: twist, lick and dunk. All their crazy new shapes and flavors of Oreo wouldn't work in China, unless they could somehow build up that same emotional resonance that Americans feel about the cookie.
DAVIS: In the early days, people said there's no way that Chinese consumers will twist, lick and dunk, because that's a very strangely American habit.
SMITH: But luckily for the Oreo team, the Chinese consumer was just starting to respond to American-style emotional advertising. Oreo launched a series of TV ads in China where cute children demonstrate to their parents and other adults how to eat an Oreo cookie in the Americans style. Here's a cute kid with basketball star Yao Ming getting instruction.
(SOUNDBITE OF AN OREO CHINESE AD)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)
YAO MING: (Foreign language spoken)
DAVIS: And to see a father humbling listening to his child explained this new ritual seemed to really connect with Chinese consumers.
SMITH: Davis says they saw sales of Oreos double in China, then double again and again. It's now the bestselling cookie there. And there's a lesson.
DAVIS: Any foreign company that comes to China and says, oh, goody-goody, there's, you know, one and half billion people here and I only need one present of that - and I've heard that from so many people - you're going to get into trouble because you have to understand the way the consumers operate.
SMITH: And sometimes the results surprise you. That rectangular wafer Oreo is no longer just in China. You can now buy it in Canada and in Australia. And perhaps someday it will come home to the United States for the first time.
Robert Smith, NPR News New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.