How Harbin Beer Has Won Millennials in the Chinese Beverage Market

It’s not news in China that every brand is chasing the millennial woman, held up as the uber-customer, the golden target that will make or break your brand. But what about the men? And what about the millennials? A Chinese company has recently cracked the code.

Men, sports and beer are a trio as old as brewing. But when Harbin Beer, owned by AB InBev since 2004, found in a 2015 study that in China, that triumvirate is more accurately men, e-sports, and beer, they were surprised and at first, hesitant. This was a new and untested track for marketing in the Chinese beverage market.

Chinese Beverage Market
Nonetheless, the company went all in, sponsoring teams, running ads and events, live-streaming competition and creating its own well-regarded e-sports competition team, the Harbin Beer E-sports Legion in 2016.

It was a bold choice, one that saw the brand eschew a re-branding campaign in exchange for embracing an emerging but extremely popular gaming segment in China in order to win the millennial market. The e-sports market was worth $280 million in 2016 in marketing terms and is predicted to break the $1 billion barrier in the next five years. Some accounts say that e-sports may even become an Olympic category at the 2024 Olympics.

That strategy comes against a generally contracting beer market in China, with sales falling for the first time in 2016 and turning stagnant in 2017. For ABInBev, that hasn’t seemed to matter, as they’ve snapped up the younger generation in just two years.

According to Joseph Lee, senior marketing director of mainstream brands for AB InBev APAC North, the company realized almost immediately after the study that they would need to be the first mover in the e-sports arena if they were going to successfully win the millennial male consumer. Their first move was a sponsored one-hour live stream of an eSports event, with free giveaways to consumers. The company returned the following year with a bigger investment by sponsoring one of the eSports teams at Dota, a global competition.

China beverage market

Says Lee, “It was amazing. We saw our volumes increase by ten times more than normal so we could see it was doing well.”

In 2017, Harbin sponsored the entire China Team for the TI7, the World Cup for eSports, and upped their sponsorship for the Harbin E-sports Legion to five teams. That coincided with the brand hitting a historic high on their metrics in 24 cities in China.

Interestingly, it’s taken ABInBev to breathe life into a new brand, and to take an objective look at what millennials are truly passionate about, in order to create a unique and successful marketing campaign. Harbin Beer has been the first mover in this category and is reaping the rewards, as other beverage brands are slow to embrace the change and to go where their research is telling them to go, even if it’s unfamiliar.

Lee says, “We are the first beer brand that is 100% devoted to targeting young people. We spare no efforts in targeting people who have different interests, whether it is music or eSports. We believe young people no longer focus on boring TV commercials, as many are not watching TV any longer.”


At TSI, we are always happy to hear about local brands who are innovating and even outflanking the international competition, a necessity in a market that is ruthlessly competitive, with new brands entering, existing brands upgrading, and older brands searching for ways to revitalize themselves. Harbin’s story stands out for how an entrenched brand was able to jump to the front of the line with a novel and winning strategy, by doing deep research and following through on what customers say. This process is a core value of TSI, and part of our Space Definer and Brand Builder solutions which help you refresh target consumer changes in attitude and behavior and pivot to new messaging directions for your brand.

Need help understanding your target customers to achieve a win like Harbin Beer did? Contact us today.