Have you tried Want Want?

This one deserves a nibble. Want Want Rice Crackers! A favourite of the kids here in Asia. But I wanted to cast a brighter spotlight on Want Want as a brand and company.

The brand started with Mr Tsai Eng-Meng. At age 19 he took over his father’s food business and promptly came up with an idea for a new product: crackers made from rice flour. It was unconventional–back in 1977 most crackers in Taiwan were made from wheat flour and took far less time to make. Then, when he traveled to Japan in search of technology from the Iwatsuka Confectionery Co., the 65-year-old boss told Tsai that he was too young to work with.

Tsai kept trying for two and a half years and finally landed a deal. Soon the family’s Want Want rice crackers became a hit as gift packs for Chinese New Year and other holidays. They also became popular offerings at temples as Taiwanese asked for favors from deceased ancestors and powerful spirits. “Want Want relied a lot on people’s prayers to ghosts and spirits at temples,” he says. “When you go, you have to bring a gift. The spirits know what you want and what you leave behind.”

Today the onetime teenage entrepreneur has turned the rice cracker maker into a snack empire. He moved into China in 1992, and, switching the focus to children (and their parents), Want Want China is now unrivaled in the country’s rice cracker market, with a two-thirds share. It also has scored with flavored milk, where it controls 40% of the market, and has won 30% of the soft-candy business; it is also China’s biggest maker of flavored frozen treats on sticks.

That performance helped propel Want Want onto our Fabulous 50 list of the best large listed companies in the region this year. On the list of Taiwan’s richest people in July Tsai placed No. 3, and his wealth had risen to $3.6 billion. His businesses, which include hotels, financial services firms, real estate and media companies that aren’t part of Hong Kong-listed Want Want China, employ 45,000 people.

The road ahead for Tsai may get a lot tougher. Want Want, which is pronounced “Wang Wang” and means prosperity and fortune, is moving deeper into the beverage industry. Here it might face much bigger rivals such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo from the U.S. and Tingyi,  from Taiwan. Tingyi is big in ready-to-drink tea and mineral water.

Yet Tsai is confident. He entered the fray with sweet milk for children in the 1990s, and today he sells it in unconventionally small kid-size packages; he charges twice as much per ounce as domestic rival Mengniu’s white unsweetened version. And he says the company is “just getting started” in beverages. In his sights: fruit juice. This is a segment that’s already crowded, plus dominating the $750 million rice cracker market is a lot different from barging into the $7.85 billion juice market. But juice sales are growing fast–8.6% this year–and because he already sells to China’s booming hypermarkets and convenience-store chains, he should get good economies of scale from adding juice to the mix.

Tsai thinks his trump card in juice will again be customer convenience and packaging. This year Want Want started selling juice in soft, aluminum-based containers that feel like small bags and are popular in the U.S. Targeted at young women on the go, the new drinks fit into backpacks and pockets more easily than bottles.

The common denominator across all of Tsai’s products is Hot-Kid, the smiling cartoon boy in a tank top that serves as the company mascot. Overlooking the entrance of Want Want’s headquarters hangs a pure gold 34.4-kilogram Hot-Kid logo. Wow. For the kids here in Asia, the brand’s appeal for sweet milk and rice crackers remain. Crunch.

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