Time-honored White Rabbit candy a sign of the old and new in Shanghai's innovation

To some extent, the candy is an icon of Shanghai itself, or rather, a symbol of an enduring love affair with what Shanghai used to offer in terms of the country's best merchandise.

To many Chinese people, the silky, creamy taste of White Rabbit candy is their first romantic encounter with “Made in Shanghai.” 

ASK a Shanghainese to name indigenous Shanghai brands, he or she will probably blurt out the White Rabbit milk candies.

The candies, named after the cute bunny wrapping they come in, sparked an unlikely merchandising bonanza during the shopping spree in the run-up to the recent Spring Festival holiday.

According to a report from Shanghai Observer, a mobile news app operated by Jiefang Daily, a 4-square-meter stall within the First Food Market on Nanjing Road E. sold 50 percent more White Rabbit products than in the same period of last year, with daily turnover topping 30,000 yuan (US$4,720) on average.

Many shoppers were seen carrying a tin of White Rabbit while ambling down the pedestrian mall, says the report.

In an era of plenty when consumer tastes are fickle, to say the least, we cannot but wonder why people are still in thrall to a candy brand that was born in 1959?

To some extent, the candy is an icon of Shanghai itself, or rather, a symbol of an enduring love affair with what Shanghai used to offer in terms of the country’s best merchandise.

During the planned economy years, White Rabbit was a treat to be had only on special occasions like weddings or family get-togethers.

To many Shanghainese and people in other parts of China, the silky, creamy taste of White Rabbit candy was their first romantic encounter with “Made in Shanghai,” and the sweet childhood memories of relishing this treat with friends and family certainly have lived on.

Avid consumption of the candies nowadays is attributed, in large part, to the collective memories they conjure up.

Nonetheless, the White Rabbit craze would not have been possible had the brand chosen to capitalize only on memories.

As any experienced brand expert will tell you, brand loyalty has to be earned. Brands stay connected to customers only when they keep up with the times.

The secret of the White Rabbit’s ever-lasting popularity is no exception. Two years ago, collaboration with agnès b., a French fashion house, breathed new life into its products by presenting them in stylish gift bags.

Besides, over the past couple of years, the bunny’s legendary fame in the confectionery business has been perpetuated by a series of dabbling with innovative packaging.

Candies were canned in “milk bottles,” exquisitely-embellished tins, and most recently, plastic cylinders in the shape of super-sized candies.

Timeless charms

In short, the brand has been innovating all along. And both continuity and innovation have contributed to its timeless charms.

Candies and cars may seem worlds apart, but actually parallels can be drawn between the success of White Rabbit and that of Roewe, a local car brand owned by the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp.

In fact, the gene of innovation may matter more amid cut-throat competition in the Chinese car market, now teeming with formidable joint ventures that hold an unmistakable edge in brand power, quality and design.

But the rise of a handful of local brands, led by Roewe, has increasingly challenged the position of joint venture car companies.

The aforementioned Shanghai Observer story says that Roewe has kept posting high growth in revenue over the past few years.

For example, in January, a usual peak season for car sales, the SAIC reported a stunning year-on-year increase of 80 percent in sales in its passenger car segment, which includes brands such as Roewe, Maxus and MG.

More interestingly, in the five days preceding and following the Spring Festival holiday, trips made by so-called Internet-enabled cars jointly developed by SAIC and IT giant Alibaba reportedly totaled 400,000 nationwide.

Just two years ago, what was dismissed as a mere concept has rolled off the SAIC’s assembly line and provided new mobility solutions for thousands of households.

And this spirit of entrepreneurship stands in sharp contrast to the fact that a few domestic brands tend to imitate or copy the designs of foreign luxury carmakers.

To be fair, Roewe’s success in the Chinese car market is partially reliant on the official policy designed to promote use of electric cars, as some of its models are powered by hybrid or electric motors. But the brand’s efforts to achieve success through research and innovation deserve plaudits anyway.

Continuous innovation has earned the White Rabbit its status as a “time-honored brand,” and the same may be said, in 50 years perhaps, of Roewe, too.

The same combination of entrepreneurship and innovation has come to define other renowned Shanghai brands, such as the skin care products from Jahwa, or the Warrior sneakers that have been given a new lease on life thanks to ingenuous design and marketing gimmicks.

We can expect the twin forces of tradition and innovation to continue to underline the success stories of many time-honored Shanghai brands, and new, cherished brands will keep coming forth from the ranks of today’s startups. We are seeing the beginning of a new enduring love affair with “Made in Shanghai.”