Living in Taiwan means being a customer in Taiwan. We’re all diners in restaurants and cafes, shoppers in local markets and department stores, and riders in taxis and public transport.
But live here long enough and you’ll realize that spending money here is not always a positive experience. Unfortunately, businesses of all types consistently drop the ball when it comes to being original, creative and innovative.
Here are five ways Taiwan’s businesses disappoint.
1. Hey, it’s good enough!
Can you guess the three-word phrase that Taiwanese businesses love to say the most? No, it’s not “I love you”, you romantic fool. It’s 差不多 or cha bu duo, and it means “almost” or “good enough”.
Take Kavalan whisky, the award-winning homegrown whisky brand owned by King Car, which also owns Mr. Brown Coffee.
Kavalan has a fantastic product, there’s no doubt about it. But have you ever stepped inside a Kavalan retail store? Or visited the Kavalan distillery in Yilan? There’s very little that’s “world-class” about either experience.
At a now-closed Kavalan storefront on Xinhai Rd — currently a Mr. Brown cafe — they sold the parent company’s frozen fish in freezers just a couple of feet away from the Kavalan whisky display. Likewise, you can find Kavalan sold at many Mr. Brown cafes throughout the city. Imagine this page on their website as a retail space.
And if you’ve been to the Kavalan distillery in Yilan, compare it with the Yamazaki distillery in Osaka. I’ve been to both. It’s hard to imagine Yamazaki with a year-round Christmas tree — complete with flashing lights — in their tasting room like Kavalan has.
We have to assume the company simply doesn’t care about its physical stores. There’s no in-store strategy protecting the Kavalan brand, and there’s definitely no allocated budget for merchandising. You wonder, what’s so hard about giving a crap? But apparently for many Taiwanese companies, cha bu duo translates to hakuna matata.
The promising news is there are a few Taiwanese companies that actually strive for excellence. SunnyHills is a great example. Everything about how the SunnyHills business is run, to how you feel when you step inside their stores in Minsheng Community and overseas simply oozes quality and care.
Another is Gogoro. Their mission isn’t to steal incremental market share from Taiwan’s legacy scooter brands. They actually want to change the way people travel and make a positive impact as a company. So it’s been fantastic to see more of their shiny experience centers popping up around town this past year, and even more of their scooters on the streets.
2. Shameless copycats.
Speaking of SunnyHills, the majority of Taiwan’s pineapple cake brands now make a pineapple cake that’s 100% pineapple. Just like SunnyHills does. Previously, they used wintermelon. And they’ve also adopted the chunky brick shape SunnyHills made famous. Coincidence?
Shameless copycatting is a sad part of Taiwan’s business landscape. When one business strikes it rich, you can count on its clones to come out of the woodwork with logos that look uncomfortably similar. In a market as small as Taiwan’s, I guess you have to take it as a compliment.
A recent example is the niche category of parenting cafes, or cafes that cater to young families. When Moooon Spring Cafe & Play opened in Neihu in 2013, there was nary a parenting cafe in Taipei. Less than two years later, there were more than 50. You’d think it was gold rush season. But all that happened was one business started doing exceptionally well, so other people wanted to strike it rich too.
The funny thing is all of these cafes are vying for the exact same market — parents in Taipei with children under six. And the birth rate in Taiwan is still one of the lowest in the world. With such an over-saturated market, Moooon Spring & Play made the decision to close shop a few months ago. No doubt more than a few of its copycats will be following suit.
Considering this deeply ingrained clone culture, props need to be given to Taiwanese companies with genuinely original concepts. One success story is Cama Cafe, a local coffee franchise that’s doing its own thing and killing it. How? When a dozen competitors were busying copying Starbucks, the creators of Cama had the confidence to look the other way.
3. Hideous design.
I could call out a dozen more Taiwanese companies that desperately need to be reminded it’s 2016 — not 1996.
4. Unwillingness to adapt.
One of the things I love doing on this site is interviewing young Taiwanese designers and sharing their work. But a couple of times, I’ve wondered to myself, are they still going to be in business in 12 or 18 months? The reason: they don’t know how to sell.
No, I don’t mean go door-to-door. I mean set up an online store, have a pricing strategy, figure out inventory, fulfillment and customer service. I can think of two small businesses featured on this site who at the time of publication, didn’t have a way for people to purchase their items online. When asked, “how much does it cost and where do people buy it?” one business didn’t respond. The other said, “tell people to email us”.
What could be the reason for this? Is it resistance to change? Unwillingness to venture outside of their comfort zone? Or flat-out denial that there’s room for improvement?
I’m reminded of the traditional Chinese medicine shops in Dadaocheng that haven’t changed a bit in over 100 years. While the times have changed, their customers have changed, and the area where they’re located has changed — they’ve stubbornly stayed the same.
How do they plan to survive for another year, let alone another 100? It looks like this renovated medicine shop in Wenshan District is the only one with a plan. Perhaps now other medicine shops will copy and renovate too.
5. Employees don’t come first.
Din Tai Fung. Love it or hate it, it’s the king of Taiwanese brands. What I mean by that is it has a name, business and product that’s widely recognized, universally respected and replicated to perfection throughout Taiwan and overseas.
CEO Warren Yang visits all six Taipei stores daily, and the company spends about half of its annual revenues on salaries and benefits for his 1,000-strong team. Why? He says, “if you want happy customers you need to have happy staff.”
Other Taiwan businesses? Not so much. No one is fighting Din Tai Fung for the title of Best Taiwanese Company to Work For. Taipei’s workforce is typically considered to be underpaid, overworked and miserable.
It all funnels up to the problem of brand. At the base, there’s the product. Then there’s the experience. And at the top, the brand. When the base layers are strong, you have a brand that’s set up for long-term success. When they’re weak, the brand stagnates.
But above all else, brands are only as good as the leaders who run them. If there’s no vision, no long-term strategy, no respect for the employees who keep the business humming…it’s all meaningless.
If Taiwanese businesses want consumers’ respect, they need to earn it. We’re all rooting for them to succeed. But playing it cheap and chanting cha bu duo has never worked, and it never will.
Photo credit: Cae Lundell