Bubble tea, also known as Boba tea or Pearl tea, is one of the most beloved beverages in the Asian community.
Originated from Taiwan, the sweet drink combines milk, tea, and tapioca pearls into one and is now popular worldwide.
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Retail in Asia had the pleasure to interview Cheong Zhaoyong, Brand Director of Gong Cha Singapore.
With more than 10 years of international business as well as marketing and branding experience, Zhaoyong is responsible for conceptualising and driving customer engagement strategies and strategic partnerships to deepen consumers’ affinity with the Gong Cha brand.
RiA: What is the concept behind Gong Cha?
Cheong Zhaoyong: Established in Taiwan in 2006, Gong Cha took inspiration from Chinese customs of yielding the finest tea as tribute to honored guests, even to the Emperor. In fact, Gong Cha directly translates to Tribute Tea, underscoring the superiority of the tea and the brand’s commitment to premium tea by consistently delivering fresh, fragrant and quality tea sourced from Taiwan.
Since then, Gong Cha has become deeply appreciated by its customers, gaining global renown by word of mouth and uniquely customised service. With our mission to bring people across all ages together with our premium tea – Gong Cha has since strongly established itself to be one of the pioneer brands fronting the global bubble tea phenomenon, and it is now a household brand in the market with 1,370 stores worldwide.
Gong Cha’s story continues as the brand roots itself as one of the most reliable providers of quality tea in the world focusing on the tagline “Your day is better with a cup of Gong Cha!”
RiA: What is the customer profile? And how are you engaging them?
Cheong Zhaoyong: Our customer profile is rather diversified, ranging from students to office executives. To our customers, bubble tea is not just a drink to quench thirst but a unique part of their social identity as a consumer and individual.
To continue engaging our customers, we have invested in a mobile app for customers to place their orders and select their preferred pick-up time from a store most convenient to them, through cashless payment. This Gong Cha App is especially relevant now to enable customers to avoid queues and reduce physical interactions with stores (e.g. cash payments). Soon, the App will also incorporate the rewards function – a bid to thank our loyal supporters.
Furthermore, Gong Cha continues to innovate new products and drinking experiences to ensure that the brand stays current with current trends. Bubble tea today is more than just a drink, but is now driven by contemporary culture. It is now an identity and lifestyle that bring joy to many, on top of facilitating social interactions. For example, Gong Cha has become a popular choice for many to hang out with friends over bubble tea.
Our latest innovative bubble tea experiences include the recent launch of a new product category Bubble Tea Float (“BTF”) – a partnership with leading ice cream brand Haagen Dazs. To Gong Cha, BTF represents the next level of the bubble tea experience. While using ice cream as a drink topping option is not new to the market, BTF has gone beyond that as both teams have worked together for over a year to come up with the best pairing of various bubble tea formulas and ice cream (in line with the theme of Indulgence, Love and Happiness).
Our innovations continue to push further on the joys which customers can derive from bubble tea, and transform this into a lifestyle experience that exceeds the expectations of our loyal fans.
RiA: Do you see any difference across the different markets you cover? Specifically, Western and Asian markets.
Cheong Zhaoyong: From the experiences of various Gong Cha stores in various markets, different countries are riding on different parts of the bubble tea wave.
In Singapore, given the many bubble tea brands and a wide selection of various drink menus, customers are definitely more spoilt for choice. As highlighted earlier, bubble tea is now more than just a drink option, but a lifestyle compliment to many.
However, in markets such as US, Canada and UK, bubble tea is a relatively recent F&B phenomenon driven by the Asian pop-culture wave which is now sweeping through the Western markets. In these territories, Gong Cha is a novel experience to mainstream consumers who want to experience bubble tea from one of the pioneering brands. In these markets, our bubble tea store locations are also far and few between, and strategically spread out. As a result, we command long queues in our stores there. Our key focus in these markets is to ensure the quality of bubble tea drinks to wow our customers in the Western markets.
Bubble tea is typically a familiar sight to most customers in Asia, especially in places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China, Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam and including Singapore. In these territories, competition is intense with a strong density of various bubble tea brands present in close physical proximity.
Among the Asian markets, Japan is a relatively new entrant to this bubble tea wave but is also now experiencing rapid saturation, as bubble tea brands and shops started popping up next to each other. Other than maintaining the quality of bubble tea drinks, our key focus in these markets is innovation as Gong Cha strives to exceed customers’ expectations – a considerable challenge as customers in these markets are already so familiar with the concept of bubble tea.
RiA: How did Gong Cha re-enter the Singaporean market? Any new approaches or adjustments made to the business strategy?
Cheong Zhaoyong: Singapore has always been a key market for Gong Cha. Since the end of our previous franchise agreement, we have emphasised that we very much intend to possess a continued presence here.
When we left the market briefly back in 2017, we received an overwhelming influx of applications for the master franchise for the Singapore market. However, given the strength of Gong Cha’s brand in Singapore, we wanted to pick the right partner.
We are now under the leadership of Mr Kang Puay Seng, who is a veteran in the F&B sector and the co-founder and former managing director of Mr Bean food and beverage chain. Mr Kang’s extensive experience in F&B, coupled with his hands-on approach, detailed operational knowledge and commitment to quality make him the best fit for Gong Cha.
When Gong Cha reopened in Singapore in Dec 2017 (barely six months after the brand’s initial departure), our first flagship store at SingPost Centre was set up as a bubble tea café instead of the usual kiosk, providing a space for our loyal customers to bond and hang out over bubble tea. Our stores in key locations (e.g. Takashimaya, Westgate) soon followed.
Another key innovation is a switch to more self-service kiosks in our stores, to enable customers to make cashless payments and also reduce physical queues. Our first fully self-service store was rolled out in NUS UTown in January 2018, which mitigated long queues during peak hours, enabled more modes of payments and generally provide a more efficient model to the store.
By Jan 2020, barely 2 years since re-entering the market, Gong Cha is now conveniently located in 34 strategic locations in Singapore, especially within key central and neighbourhood malls, business districts, MRT stations and even universities and hospitals.
We continue our focus on growth, while retaining the key priority to always provide our loyal customers the highest quality and expectations of bubble tea. Gong Cha is here to stay and we will continue pushing boundaries to innovate new products and tantalise tastebuds with new drinking experiences.
RiA: Bubble tea is a big trend. What other trends are there in the beverage industry that you see emerging?
Cheong Zhaoyong: We have always drawn inspiration from market trends to further add to our product offerings. One such trend which cannot be ignored is the Brown Sugar wave, of which we have recently incorporated into our classic Milk Foam formula.
Gong Cha’s house special has always been the “Milk Foam Series”, being the pioneer to introduce this special topping to the market a decade ago. The main idea was sourced from the milk foam on Coffee Latte, and we wanted to enhance the taste of our teas with a creamy yet savory flavor and a consistent texture. The result is the perfect blend of smooth tea with the fresh, sweet yet savory taste of milk – which is formed by the whipping of our proprietary creamer, butter, cream and milk at high speed for three minutes.
After months of R&D, we finally have two new additions to our classic Milk Foam Series- Brown Sugar Milk Foam and Strawberry Milk Foam. The Brown Sugar Milk Foam incorporates the same Brown Sugar formula behind Gong Cha’s bestselling Brown Sugar Drink series – the sweet caramel from the brown sugar is complemented by the savoury hints from the creamy milk foam The Strawberry Milk Foam introduces a fun twist that will add a fresh fruitiness to our brewed teas. With every sip, the savoury notes from the creamy foam is accentuated with the tartness of fresh strawberries, making for a refreshing treat at any time of the day.
Initially, the Brown Sugar Milk Foam and Strawberry Milk Foam can be paired with four of our signature teas – Alisan Tea, Oolong Tea, Green Tea and Black Tea. However, given popular demand, these Milk Foams are now available as toppings for any drinks of your choice.
RiA: What do you foresee the future of the beverage industry?
Cheong Zhaoyong: Despite the intense competition in Singapore and most of Asia today, bubble tea is still on a growth trajectory. We expect to see more bubble tea brands emerging, and some existing players may move upscale in terms of price, menu offerings and store locations. Other than just takeaway kiosks, bubble tea brands will move towards café setups or even more high-end F&B establishments.
In terms of the beverage sector as a whole, there may be a convergence of F&B models as drinks and desserts continue to blur the line between each other. More innovative concepts will be rolled out to the market, especially those marrying desserts and drinks.
In short, consumers will be more discerning with regards to their beverage choices and purchases, and demand more elevated drinks with heightened visuals and experiences that will befit their social media involvement. They are likely to be more sensitive to visuals and value over pricing.
RiA: How is Gong Cha tapping onto the rise digital technology?
Cheong Zhaoyong: As mentioned above, Gong Cha has recently invested in an app to facilitate customers’ orders and pick up timings to avoid cash payments and lingering in queues. Our Gong Cha App leverages on the order-pay-collect model which customers can customise and order their drinks through the App via cashless payments, then choose the preferred time of collection from the store most convenient to them.
Beyond this ordering function, the App will incorporate a gift-card function to enable users to gift their favorite bubble tea to friends and loved ones. We are including more gamification and reward elements into the App to make this more engaging for members.
In terms of marketing, Gong Cha is relying heavily on digital media platforms to promote our various campaigns and connect with customers in the digital space. On the physical store-front, we have upgraded our self-order systems into both kiosks and tablets at the stores to further expedite the order taking and payment processes.
RiA: What is next for Gong Cha?
Cheong Zhaoyong: As highlighted, Gong Cha is always innovating new product designs and flavours, to extend and maximise customers’ joy over new bubble tea experiences.
For example, for the upcoming festive season, we are launching an exciting Christmas drink range – Brownie Bubble Tea series! If you ever have to decide between having brownies or bubble tea, why not choose both?
Imagine having your favorite Taro or Brown Sugar Latte topped with a layer of luscious brownie cream and cookie crumble, it is exactly what you need to celebrate the year end (ie. surviving 2020!), so Gong Cha is the best place to get your brownie points.
Beyond drinks, Gong Cha Singapore will be launching new concept stores that goes beyond what customers typically expect from purchasing drinks, to elevate their bubble tea experience. Please keep a lookout for our expansion, and we look forward to our customers’ continued support as we strive to maximise their joy from our drinks.