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Zhong Shanshan has dethroned the likes of Jack Ma and Pony Ma as China’s richest man in 2020, but how much do you know about him? Unlike Jack and Pony who are tech entrepreneurs, Zhong has made his wealth from bottled water and pharmacy companies.
Zhong Shanshan is the founder of Nongfu Spring and owner of Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise, both public-listed companies. Zhong is one of only a handful entrepreneurs in the world today to not just build one $10 billion business, but two $10 billion businesses, it’s pretty remarkable.
Zhong founded Nongfu Spring in 1996 and still owns an 84% stake in the company which holds more than a quarter of the bottled water market in China. Zhong came from a poor family, he has worked as a bricklayer, carpenter and news reporter before becoming a billionaire, so how did he do it?
Like Jack Ma, Zhong was born in Hangzhou in 1954, he dropped out of school at the age of 12 during the political upheaval of China’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. Due to his family’s poverty, Zhong ended up doing construction work to help his family.
In 1977, Zhong took the college entrance examination and enrolled at the Zhejiang Radio & TV University where he completed his degree and worked at the same time. From 1984, he was a reporter with Zhejiang Daily where he interviewed more than 500 self-made businessmen.
Writing about entrepreneurship had not only expanded his network but also kick-started the dream of starting his own business. In 1988, Zhong moved to Hainan to start his businesses from publishing a newspaper, growing mushrooms, farming prawns to selling curtains.
Despite failing in his businesses, Zhong didn’t give up and became a sales agent for Wahaha beverage company. After some disputes with Wahaha, Zhong started a health supplement company riding on the market trend back then.
Zhong applied the marketing gimmicks he learnt in Wahaha and made his first 10 million RMB. However, health supplement companies were met with a consumer trust crisis and Zhong was quick to emulate Wahaha who pivoted to bottled drinks.
The brand Nongfu Spring was born in 1996, but how would Zhong grab the market share which was already dominated by Nestle, Robust, and Wahaha?
Since non-flavoured bottled drinks taste similar, Zhong understood that the only way to win the battle is through marketing, by selling a brand philosophy that connects to the consumers. Zhong executed aggressive campaigns trying to convince consumers’ perception that Nongfu’s spring water is healthier than distilled water by his competitors.
Riding on the slogan “There is a bit of sweetness with Nongfu Spring”, Zhong’s campaigns had made his first 1 billion RMB sales and threatened the big boys. In 2009, Zhong introduced a new slogan which literally means “we connect you with nature through our water”, signaling Nongfu’s water is not artificially produced like his competitors.
With the campaigns anchored by the second slogan, Zhong has elevated Nongfu Spring to 15 billion RMB annual sales in China. Even though Zhong and his brand faced a number of controversies, his aggressive marketing campaigns and brand-positioning slogans are legendary.
In contrast to the charismatic Jack Ma, Zhong is known for being more low profile and reclusive, earning him the nickname “lone wolf”. He is certainly not low profile when it comes to brand marketing though.
Marketing aside, Zhong believes that brands need to focus on improving their products instead of being diverted by the Internet and competitions.
Many traditional businesses are being unsettled by the Internet and have lost their direction. They forget the fundamental need of making a good product.
A product requires R&D, dedications, technology and accumulation of knowledge. A SKU in contrast, is a commodity with a selling price, involving distribution & retail.
If a brand is unable to communicate how it can contribute to the consumers, what’s the value of the corporation? Instead of focusing on the competition, we prefer to focus on improving our product.
It is not about another brand on the shelf, for us, this is not what we considered as competition.