At a Tmall Global U.S. Workshop held March 9 in New York, Pfizer Consumer Healthcare Vice President Don Kerrigan spoke about the broad access to China’s consumers his company gains through Alibaba’s cross-border online marketplace.
Pfizer, the U.S.-based pharmaceuticals and consumer healthcare company, tapped into Tmall Global because “it gives us a great platform to quickly introduce new products from outside of the China market” and test consumer response, Kerrigan told a group of U.S. executives at the workshop.
During a break, Kerrigan sat down with Alizila to talk about how Pfizer Consumer Healthcare’s success on Tmall Global has helped shape the company’s e-commerce strategy not just in China but around the world.
Thank you for taking time to speak with us today Don. Could you tell us about your role at Pfizer?
Yes. I lead global commercial excellence and activation for Pfizer Consumer Healthcare. My team focuses on the platform functions that support all of our affiliates and businesses including global media, digital, and e-commerce.
Please tell us about Pfizer’s consumer business in China.
We’ve been in the China market for many years and it is our second-largest market, exceeded only by our U.S. business. We have two of the leading OTC brands in China, Caltrate and Centrum, which are among the top 10 OTC brands in the marketplace, and we continue to expand both in terms of offering new variations of those and in bringing new brands into the market. We serve about 200 million Chinese consumers today. Historically they’ve been from major urban areas, and slightly more affluent. But as the middle class continues to grow in China so does our population of consumers.
E-commerce has been critically important to our overall strategy. We’ve driven substantial growth over the last several years. We are outpacing the growth of healthcare in terms of e-commerce. And we are putting increased resources against it—not just in China, but also on a global basis in part because of the success and learnings we gained from our experience in China.
Pfizer has had a storefront on Tmall Global for about two and a half years now. Can you describe the advantage this gives you over, say, opening your own e-commerce site?
First of all, we aren’t experts in e-commerce per se; our expertise is around delivering solutions for consumers to help them manage their health and wellness. And Alibaba is the undisputed e-commerce leader in China, as it is responsible for 80% of the country’s online sales. So it makes sense to rely on Tmall’s reach and infrastructure—that’s where the customers are.
Second, Tmall has the all the assets a company would want in an e-commerce site. Storefronts are entirely customizable, so we have the ability to engage with consumers and deliver content to them any way we like.
What are you learning about your customers in China through e-commerce?
One key thing we’re learning is how we build out broader solutions. Nobody really looks at wellness and health as a “one-and-done.” They’re not using one product and then nothing else—they’re probably using it as part of a collection. And so I think, with an e-commerce platform like Tmall, you can access the data and exactly what else they’re buying, and get insight into how consumers are managing their health or their wellness.
Here is one example: In China, health and wellness products are often given as gifts. It’s a great way to send a message to someone that you want to take care of them or to be proactive about your own health. This insight told us that we had a great opportunity to sell gift sets on Tmall Global on 11.11 Singles Day
What are the challenges to doing business in China using Tmall Global in general?
Nothing insurmountable. One thing, because of the growth of the channel, is forecasting demand. In my workshop presentation I mentioned the opportunity we saw for promoting Centrum and Caltrate on Singles Day. But the sales volume we saw far outstripped what we anticipated, especially for Centrum. We ran out of stock within hours because we didn’t plan for it to have that level of success. But we’re learning.
Pricing can also be a challenge. We see others coming in at lower pricing for sure; they’re sourcing products either through wholesalers or other channels in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world. But we have to react to pricing and I think that the bigger challenge for us to understand the relative impact of pricing to our mainline China business. For us at least, it’s part of why we differentiate the SKUs we put onto the platform. We have certain SKUs and products we only bring in through e-commerce.
Have you had challenges with counterfeits in China? If so, how are you dealing with them?
We’ve had our challenges, for sure. I would separate counterfeiting into two issues: There’s the counterfeiting of the products themselves and there’s inappropriate or incorrect claims in messaging that happens in the marketplace. It’s one thing for somebody to produce a counterfeit Centrum and we’ll partner with Tmall and other parties to challenge that.
But anyone can go out and buy a Centrum product in the U.S. and sell it as a trader in the China market and put claims on it that might be entirely inappropriate or unfounded. How do you police, control, or at least manage that? Ultimately the consumer holds us accountable since we’re the brand owner. That’s a big issue for us. Having an official Pfizer Tmall store is one way we address it. It allows us to manage the messaging. Our official site is validated and trusted by consumers. The Chinese consumer sees great value in Western brands because they’re credible, because they can be sure of the quality, and by buying Centrum, for instance, from our Tmall store, they get assurance it’s authentic.
What “inning” would you say you are in in terms of e-commerce in China?
That’s a hard question because the business evolves so quickly, but maybe third? We’re making good progress, there’s a lot more ahead of us and we see it as a significant opportunity for us—and not just in China. I think there’s opportunity for us to learn from the success that we’ve had in China and apply it to other markets. The world is looking at what’s happening in China and reevaluating what’s possible from a regulatory standpoint, from a legal perspective, but also in terms of the opportunity for e-commerce to provide solutions. So the evolution will continue in China substantially, and there’s a lot more innings to come. It’s maybe also triggering some opportunities in other parts of the world for consumers to be able to access self-care solutions through e-commerce platforms, so the channel is only going to grow.
Finally, what advice would you give to other international brands looking to access China through e-commerce?
I would say three things. First, the China marketplace is very fast paced and you need to be willing to react quickly to what’s happening. Second, you have to build infrastructure—we have a team of about 17 in Shanghai dedicated to our e-commerce business. It can’t just be a bolt-on to something else that you’re doing. It’s a unique channel. And third, is about pricing again. Because you’ve got this cross-border trade you’ve got to be mindful of the price implications, both with your domestic business in China and globally.