Old Name, New Experience
text by Chen Nan
Peking roast duck is a signature dish in China's capital city, but there's more than one way to roast a duck, and that has opened a door to competition in a field that is hotly contested by some of Beijing's most famous Time Honoured Brands (laozihao).
One of these is 600-year-old Bianyifang, a Peking roast duck restaurant with a difference, located on Chongwenmen Dajie near the Hademen Hotel in Chongwen District.
But what is the difference?
The Peking roast duck tradition is divided into two schools, roast duck made using a "closed" oven (where the heat radiates from inner-oven walls) and roast duck made using "half-open" ovens (where the duck is hung over a heating source such as a wood fire). Unlike some of its famous competitors, Bianyifang's product is representative of the closed-oven type; its taste is easily recognizable by experienced Beijingers. It is made without using an open fire, and involves a specially made soup that fills the duck while it's cooking. That is, the duck roasts outside and boils inside during the cooking process. Tan outside and tender inside, fat, but not greasy, closed-oven roast ducks enjoy a reputation as a green food. That is the major reason why Bianyifang is considered irreplaceable and has survived during its long history in China.
Beijing's laozihao restaurants, whatever their products or methods, seem to transcend the marketing chaos of modern food service chains. Their names are instantly recognizable, durable, and epitomize quality. These are super brands, and when one thinks kaoya (Peking roast duck), names like Bianyifang are the ones that come to mind.
It is said that eating roast duck in Beijing is like attending a fine symphony. Peking roast duck symbolizes the ancient capital city much in the same way that Coca-Cola evokes an identity with the United States wherever it is served.
For kaoya lovers, an evening at Bianyifang is a treasured experience, where people engage in fine dining, instead of stuffing themselves with microwaved fast foods. You have to be patient to savour a famous Peking roast duck, and it eating should be regarded as a grand occasion.
A proper presentation of the duck is an important part of the evening. You will never see Beijingers digging into a fine roast duck, tearing the leg or wings off with abandon, which is an injustice to the duck and the roast duck tradition.
Instead, a skilled chef clad in a pure white gown, smiling, will elegantly and swiftly slice the duck into bite-sized pieces, featuring just the right amount of skin and meat. Like snowflakes, they are piled on a clean porcelain plate and readied for you.
But at Bianyifang, before you begin eating, you should hear a story about the legacy of Bianyifang.
A part of the story is revealed in the Chinese pinyin name for the restaurant. 便宜坊, bianyifang, is sometimes mistakenly called as pianyifang. The original meaning is "convenient and pleasant," while the latter implies "inexpensive" or even "cheap." Though the "mistake" has been passed down through the years to today, it has always kept Beijingers from forgetting its name, Bianyifang, or its place in their lives.
But what now of this tried and trusted old brand name?
Any successful brand must cause customers to seek an affinity with it. Advertising geniuses, chief executives, and retail experts point to complex strategies involving identity, creativity, quality, the nature of its investments and, above all, a magical relationship with the customers.
This has been achieved by Bianyifang, but it's the future that concerns Beijing Bianyifang Roast Duck President Lei Guoxiu, who must ensure that the old laozihao adjusts to popular tastes and the evolving desires of weight- and health-conscious young people.
The company began to adapt by absorbing the Hademen Hotel and Xianda Dietetic Company, two powerful, State-owned companies, into the Beijing Bianyifang Roasting Duck Group Company in 2002.
Since Lei took the company's helm, she has worked hard to maintain the firm's customer base, while probing the youth market. She said she realized that without innovation there would be neither development nor vitality. Over the years, the Bianyifang Restaurant has created new dishes to meet the tastes of its wide range of customers. There are now Bianyifang branch restaurants throughout the country and the group offers local dishes from various localities in addition to its famous Beijing specialties.
To cater to young customers, Bianyifang has applied for a patent for its newly developed "vegetable-flavoured crispy roast duck" dish.
According to Lei, the vegetable-flavoured crispy roast duck is healthier and lighter than the original, "according with the tastes of young people." The patent was sought to ensure the authenticity of the company's products and to protect the traditional catering culture to which Bianyifang belongs.
This was also the case in Beijing's flourishing, upscale, ultramodern Haidian District, where Bianyifang in 2006 sought a share of a market dominated by famous-name, upscale brands.
"That is a good way to maintain the glory and charm of our laozihao," Lei said. Her confidence has paid off; during the first half of 2005, Bianyifang restaurant sales doubled.
Becoming a super brand requires a thorough understanding of marketing. Bianyifang's philosophy extends brand identity concepts to a holistic use of advertising, shop layouts and products blended together to create a special business personality.
"A brand has to have its own DNA, perhaps even one that's designed."
However, even when the hearts and eyes of the public have been captured, the work of a super brand has only just begun. Its identity needs to be nurtured, protected and targeted at specific customers on a daily basis.
In today's fast-changing world, millions of new names enter market every year. But to break into the realm of deeply rooted super brands, these newcomers will have to consistently prove their value and authenticity to consumers.
This is one obstacle that Beijing's laozihao have cleared, with their proud traditions and continuing legends.