New weapon in the baby formula war - the 'milk tea sister'

By Dana McCauley

Zhang "Nancy" Zetian AKA "milk tea sister" shot to fame when a photo of her went viral.
Zhang "Nancy" Zetian AKA "milk tea sister" shot to fame when a photo of her went viral.

She's the Chinese internet celebrity famous for looking sweet and "angelic" while holding a refreshing beverage.

Zhang "Nancy" Zetian was an ordinary high-school student in the Nanjing province when a picture of her with a milk tea drink went viral.

Dubbed the "milk tea sister", a Chinese term that came to be synonymous with a pure and unassuming femininity, Zetian was among the first social media influencers to capture the public imagination in China.

The face that launched a thousand ships (of milk formula exports to China)?
The face that launched a thousand ships (of milk formula exports to China)?

Now she has been recruited as the secret weapon of the newly ASX-listed baby formula company Bubs Australia, in its battle for a greater share of the $295 million dairy export industry.

Ms Zetian has taken a 17 per cent stake in the venture through her investment company, and will be tasked with helping to promote the brand in China.

Bubs Australia is also backed by the Stokes family, Ellerston Capital - which is one-quarter owned by James Packer - and Chinese entrepreneur Albert Tse.

Selling organic baby formula to Australia's largest trading partner was once considered a guaranteed money spinner, but companies like Bellamy's got a rude awakening when the Chinese government tightened regulations on imports, sending its share price plummeting.

Zhang "Nancy" Zetian is a celebrity in China.
Zhang "Nancy" Zetian is a celebrity in China.

It might seem like an odd time for a stock market debut, but Bubs Australia saw its share price triple in three days after its $5 million backdoor listing this week.

The company, which sells 40 per cent of its goods overseas, claims to have launched the first Australian goat milk infant formula and sells its products at Coles supermarkets, in department stores and on Chinese e-commerce platforms such as JD.com - whose chief executive Liu Qiangdong (also known as Richard Liu) happens to be Ms Zetian's husband.

It is the pair's fairytale love story - culminating in a Sydney wedding in October 2015 - that captivated the Chinese public, said Bejamin Sun of Think China.

The 23-year-old beauty, who gave birth to a baby girl in March, set chins wagging by romancing the much older Qiangdong, who is 19 years her senior.

Mr Liu is a rival of China's second richest man, Alibaba founder Jack Ma and is himself worth a reported $9.4 billion ($US6.9 billion).

The pair began dating in early 2014 when Ms Zetian was an exchange student at Barnard College, which is affiliated with Columbia University.

Images of the loved-up duo strolling through New York City were splashed in the Chinese tabloid press, and Qiangdong confirmed the relationship on social media site Weibo.

While in Sydney, Ms Zetian and Mr Liu can be found at one of the luxury properties they are rumoured to own: a three-level, $16.2 million penthouse in The Rocks and a $36 million Vaucluse mansion, formerly inhabited by Leonardo DiCaprio during filming of The Great Gatsby.

But can the glamorous Ms Zetian actually boost sales to the notoriously fickle Chinese market? It's hard to say, Mr Sun said.

The marketing expert said the "good-looking young mum" certainly fit the category of consumers that Bubs Australia was marketing to, and was "quite well-known in China", although she was not a "Tier A" celebrity.

"Celebrity endorsements for infant formula brands, it sometimes works well, but it depends whether the brand promotes them correctly," Mr Sun said.

"Using celebrity to front a brand is certainly the right way of doing it because there is a lot of trust at issue, particularly in infant formula brands. It's a great way to start, but how to maintain that in the long term is a challenge."

What would likely be more significant, he said, was the potential opportunities that would arise out of Zetian's connection with JD.com, one of China's biggest retail distribution platforms.

Bubs Australia's founder and founder and executive managing director Kristy Carr has said Ms Zhang would play an important role, although she was "not our sole focus in China".

She said the company had "a bright future ahead", thanks to its "differentiated premium product offering, capacity to deliver innovation quickly and strong links throughout Asia".

Investors responded in kind, with Bubs Australia shares jumping by more than a third to 13.7 cents in the first day of trade on Tuesday.

By the time the bourse closed on Friday, the share price hit 33.5 cents.

It looks like we have a new baby formula share market darling on our hands.

- news.com.au

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