White Rabbit is one of the few surviving Chinese brands with a history stretching back to long before the nation’s most recent opening 30 years ago. The brand’s origins can be found in the war-torn China of the 1940s, when a resident of Shanghai re-created for the Chinese market the tasty milk candies he had tried in England. The candy was not originally called White Rabbit because the manufacturer pursued a different, though still popular, branding strategy in modern China: he looked west. He named his candies ABC Mickey Mouse Sweets and differentiated his Mickey Mouse by coloring him red.
With intellectual property lawyers in the US busy fighting wars or generally not existing, it wasn’t Walt Disney who shut down Mickey Mouse Sweets. Ironically, it was the strong qualities of the very brand the sweetmaker had leveraged to make his product so popular that forced the name change. Seen as too connected to the culture of capitalist dogs, the candy’s Mickey Mouse name and logo were dropped. And following the communist takeover and establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the brand officially became White Rabbit.
To those who have not spent time in China or at least in an Asian supermarket, the White Rabbit brand is probably unknown. But at one time White Rabbit was the premium brand of candy in China, put out only at special occasions. In 1972, China’s premier gave them as a gift to visiting president Richard Nixon. Additionally, White Rabbit was often seen as a nutritious candy, with the brand claiming that eating several of its candies was equal to drinking a glass of milk.
Despite having enjoyed the brand for years, it came as a surprise to this writer that White Rabbit is available in more than just the “White Rabbit” flavor, which can best be compared to chewable condensed milk. White Rabbit is also available in lychee, butter-plum, mango, strawberry and red bean, among others.
Before this year’s problems with melamine contamination, a Philippine health group accused White Rabbit of containing formaldehyde. The instance was small, and White Rabbit even suggested—ironically given its beginnings—that others had been illegally making candy using the White Rabbit name and it was this candy that was contaminated. The incident, like many similar contaminated food scandals in Asia—where there is a blurry line between spin and truth—blew over.
It is likely that, in its current form, White Rabbit could survive indefinitely by counting on nostalgia purchasing, similar to the success of Tootsie Rolls, Bazooka Joe gum or Chrysler cars. This business survival plan won’t grow the brand exponentially, but it is an attractive option considering it is unlikely that a massive re-brand would go over well. The Chinese market for candies and snacks is horribly competitive and crowded with interchangeable brands of no great reputation or recognition. The risk is that abandoning its classic branding—which fans have identified with for a half-century—in exchange for a new MaX 2 the X-Treme White RabBIT 2000 would confuse and offend its loyal, and nostalgic, followers. The then-indistinguishable brand would be vulnerable to heavy competition with few or no characteristic advantages except, of course, for the melamine incident.
Additionally, as its primary consumer group is based more and more on nostalgia, it is difficult to imagine any considerable brand extensions White Rabbit could attempt to grow its appeal and exposure. For example, international consumers would not buy White Rabbit milk—especially post-melamine, and cereal—not the most popular product with the White Rabbit–based Chinese consumer—is an unlikely possibility at best. And the Playboy rabbit already has the Chinese jeans and leather belt market sewn up.
But White Rabbit has made nominal efforts to update its image. The brand has released candy in a new tube package and has secured prominent endorsement from wildly popular actress and singer Zhou Wei. She is front and center at the brand’s website.
In the end, it is unlikely that the recent concerns about melamine contamination will do much to diminish the long-term popularity of White Rabbit. In fact, one of the beneficial aspects of this contamination scare, from White Rabbit’s perspective, is that so many products were found to be tainted to various degrees it became difficult for consumers to single out any one product to abandon. And in the West, White Rabbit was really only popular with, or even known to, consumers of Chinese descent.
But as the Chinese marketplace continues to develop savvier consumers who have higher expectations regarding quality and lower levels of tolerance for ineptitude and irresponsibility, the ability of White Rabbit—or any Chinese brand—to weather such PR disasters will decrease sharply. And as one of China’s most iconic national and international names, White Rabbit should start warding its brand accordingly