As China gets fatter, a market also expands

global obesity

Obesity is a worldwide problem. The latest confirmation comes from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which conducted a study in 188 countries that found one-third of the global adult population and one-fourth of all children are overweight or obese. That includes no fewer than 671 million people who fall into the obese category.

While the United States still has the largest obese population at 78 million, China and India follow with 46 million and 30 million, respectively.

In business terms, of course, crisis creates opportunities. There are several companies in the Chinese market that help people with weight loss, but almost none have created a successful model. The main reason appears to be that these firms’ focus is on helping customers look better rather than be healthier.

The typical example is Weight Watchers, the American company offering services and products for weight loss. After its entry in China in 2008, the company’s business showed meager growth. By 2012, its stores had all packed up.

In retrospect, Weight Watchers’ fatal decision was to target urban, white-collar women with marketing that made fashion and appearance the driving motive of their purchasing decisions. Yet this demographic is typically not obese, per se, just overweight, and it does not urgently require help.

The huge potential market for weight loss businesses is in fact among people who urgently need to lose weight to be healthier. This group of people is mostly under 40, and is urban office workers who have adopted very bad lifestyles, including constant overeating. Even more critical is that health problems such as hypertension, hyperglycemia and sleep disorders, or other chronic diseases caused by obesity, are already manifesting among them.

For this group of people, losing weight is an urgent matter, not just for aesthetic reasons. These customers need a program for improving their health.

There are four core issues to be addressed by this market.

First, the business should make health a central focus, instead of purely beauty considerations. It also should not be aimed at women only, but also to men in their 40s.

Second, even more critical is that these health management agencies ought to cooperate closely with hospitals and doctors. Not only should professional weight-loss advisors provide a set of exercise and diet programs, but even more importantly, they ought to work together with hospitals and specialists to provide regular assessments for those plagued with chronic weight problems.

Third is the interaction and interdependence of both online and offline services. Many of these health companies, and in particular Chinese start-ups, are all rushing to launch apps and wearable devices. But users must be able to translate these tests into beneficial health guidance, and should remember that they are only tools that cannot replace face-to-face consultations with a specialist.

Finally, there is the huge market potential for child obesity. Due to the improvement of family living standards, doting parents, a blind worship of Western food and a lack of physical exercise, China has seen a rapid increase of obese children. As diabetes in children becomes more prevalent, parents are increasingly conscious of the need to change their children’s habits. Thus, the demand for weight control and health guidance is only bound to keep growing.

*The article was first posted at health industry and technology information blog site

**Image by Dung Hoang



About the Author

The Corner
The Corner has a team of on-the-ground reporters in capital cities ranging from New York to Beijing. Their stories are edited by the teams at the Spanish magazine Consejeros (for members of companies’ boards of directors) and at the stock market news site Consenso Del Mercado (market consensus). They have worked in economics and communication for over 25 years.

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