In 1848 John B. Curtis from Maine developed the first commercial chewing gum, inspired by American Indians who chewed resin made from the sap of spruce trees. The product innovation soon became popular across the USA and beyond.
Already in 1890, we find a first mention of chewing gum being available for Christmas season in the International Settlement of Shanghai from American trading firm Mustard & Co. But it took another 20 years before mass-marketing to a wider Chinese audience would begin, spearheaded by the most well-known company associated with chewing gum to this day:
The Wrigley Company was founded in Chicago in 1891 by William Wrigley Jr. Initially the business sold soap, then baking powder and used chewing gum only as a free give-away. Once William realized that the gum was actually more popular than the baking powder itself, he pivoted the business to manufacturing chewing gum only. The classic Spearmint brand was launched in 1893 and soon marketed around the world for dental hygiene, releasing tension and stimulating appetite.
In a 1919 article titled “The Chewing Question in the Orient” William Wrigley Jr. retells the story on how the company started to “preach the gospel of the gum” in the Far East: while on vacation in 1913 William observed how, similar to the Indians in the US chewing resin, the natives in South East Asia frequently used betel nut. This made him realize the market potential in Asia and already by 1916 Wrigley’s had established agencies in among others Shanghai, Peking, Tientsin (Tianjin) and Hong Kong. Like in the US, Wrigley used modern American advertising methods: "brass bands were hired, banner carriers commandeered, lecturers employed, and the propaganda started. After several months of hard, fast work through the medium of hawkers, billboards and newspaper advertising the demand came, but in a manner strange indeed to the Wrigley people."
“At first the coolie swallowed it, but soon…”
In a retrospective 1928 article titled “Booming the China Trade”, Julius Klein, Director of the U.S. Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce writes how messaging and iconography had to be adapted for the Chinese market: “The famous trademark of Wrigley’s gum is a spear and at the time was shown together with the company’s mascot – a gnome-like character. The superstitious Chinese showed an aversion at first to the figure and feared it “bad joss”, or bad luck imp. But by mass-media advertising this attitude was gradually overcome and the little goblin is since then looked upon with favor”. The Wrigley’s company representative also speculated that the pointy look of the mascot “coincided with the peculiar peaked architecture of the Chinese”.
Another realization by Wrigley’s and their distributor in China, Getz Bros & Company, was that traditionally no word for chewing gum nor spear mint existed in Chinese. Apparently, the locals referred to the product as “Loo-lay-sha-ya-dong”, which interpreters translated to the American management as “the lily sweet with the medicine taste”. Mr. Wrigley hearing the poetic and euphonious synonym for Spearmint, ordered to it being immediately used on all Chinese advertising. Although the authenticity of this origin story is debatable, liú lán xiāng tang (留兰香糖) indeed to this day is the Chinese word for spear mint. Also a surprise to the Wrigley company in China was that, local consumers treasured the product so much, that merchants would cut up the chewing gum strips with scissors into 3 pieces and sell them separately.
In regards to distribution channels another curiosity peculiar to China, according to Carl Crow in his seminal book “400 Million Customers”, was that when his agency “handled a fair sized chewing gum campaign”, the most successful sales outlets were “every Cantonese sweetmeat shop in town”. This seemingly though was not so much within expectations of Wrigley’s as the best matching channel and soon the account was taken over by C.P. Lings China Commercial Advertising Agency (C.C.A.A.) who drove most of the brands advertising efforts during the late 1920s and 1930s.
Either way, the aggressive American marketing tactics soon bore fruits. Lewis S. Gannett in a China Weekly Review article from September 1926 titled “Is China Being Americanized?”, boasts how “you can buy Standard Oil kerosene in any village in China and British-American cigarettes and if any third foreign product is on sale in the village it may well be Wrigley’s chewing gum. I saw Spearmint gum on sale in the streets of Urga, the capital of Mongolia, 700 miles across the Gobi Desert from the most accessible railroad.”
Along similar lines, the North-China Herald reports in 1928 that “in a normal year 150,000 Taels (measure of standardized silver currency weighing 40 grams) worth of chewing gum enter China from the USA and 400,000 Taels worth from Japan”. Converted and adjusted to purchasing power this would be today’s equivalent to approx. 3mil USD from the US and 9mil USD from Japan estimating the total Chinese chewing gum market size in 1928 at approx. 12mil USD.
By 1935 The China Weekly Review reports that the figure had almost doubled when writing “China is now consuming well over a million dollars’ worth of chewing-gum annually” – more than 20 million USD in today’s value. Wrigley’s with its Spearmint, Double-Mint and Juicy Fruit brands was still the uncontested market leader in China during the mid-1930s but was increasingly under pressure from other American producers. Unlike Wrigley, which continued to manufacture chewing-gum in the USA and imported it to China, the Henningsen Produce Company, famous for its Hazelwood ice cream, set up a separate factory in Shanghai just for the production of their “Sweetie” (甜心牌) and “Rose” chewing gum brands. Likewise, Sweets Federal Inc. USA, a subsidiary of Sweets Laboratories, Inc. headquartered in Washington and New York established a Shanghai factory to manufacture their “Bubble-Gum” (泡泡糖) brand.
With the category booming Wrigley’s was also faced with numerous Chinese copy-cat brands, the more notorious ones being Swann’s spearmint chewing gum as well as Grena’s Spearmint dental cream, the latter which copied Wrigley’s Spearmint brand design almost to the dot, albeit in a slightly different category. With increasing enforcement of trade mark laws in the 1930s and supported by legendary “Shanghai Lawyer” Norwood Allman, both these Chinese brands and many others were eventually forced to cease marketing their imitations.
The outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War caused increasing restrictions on the availability of imported goods. This gave the local producers such as Henningsen for their Hazelwood and Sweetie brands a significant advantage in terms of costs: the Zung Lee & Co. grocery shop price list from February 1941 shows how a pack of imported Wrigley's gum cost 0.60 (yuan) cents vs. Hazelwood's chewing gum only set you back for 0.25 (yuan) cents at less than half the price.
After WWII chewing-gum, repopularized by American G.I.’s, flourished again in China but after the Communist Revolution in 1949, all foreign brands soon vanished from the market for close to 40 years: Only in 1989 Wrigley's re-entered China in a big way, when it built its first wholly owned chewing gum factory in Guangzhou.
Since 1999, China has become Wrigley's second-largest market after the US and in China, just as in the rest of the world, the company is once again the largest maker and marketer of chewing gum.
More importantly the lessons learnt by William Wrigley Jr. in China ring true to this day, not only for gum but any consumer-packaged good brand that wants to conquer the Chinese market. In 1919 he was quoted saying:
“I believe it is one of the greatest opportunities in history for the American manufacturer. But selling goods in Europe is a picnic compared to the Far East. Above all, inform yourself of your market and keep in constant, intimate touch with it. To start a business in the Fat East one needs “big” money and it may be out from six to nine months without any appreciable return: Patience and perseverance are the two big words in the Orient.”