East vs. West: How the Boba Guys Brand Jumps the Void

Learning from Asia to sell tea in America.

Andrew, the business-minded half of Boba Guys, picks up where Bin left off and elaborates on what the East vs. West battle means for their business.

When we were considering the different options for our brand persona, we wrestled between Eastern vs. Western preferences and values. Our private tastings taught us that tapioca’s jelly-like consistency can be a polarizing texture for the Western palate. We also knew that much of the population—even in the diverse San Francisco Bay Area—had not tried boba before. The current boba market caters to a very specific subset of the population who already have a cultural familiarity with boba.

These facts force us to answer a question: Do we match the existing customers to our brand or match the brand to the kind of customers we want to attract?

In business school, I focused on global strategy, which included learning about the nuances of emerging markets, particularly China, Taiwan, and India. In one of my favorite books, Winning in Emerging Markets by Tarun Khanna and Krishna Palepu, I learned the concept of institutional voids. These are essentially gaps in parts of a society’s social and commercial infrastructure, like product and labor markets. Here in the U.S., most of the voids are filled. In China, and perhaps even Taiwan, the voids are still very apparent.

One of these voids is a sophisticated adoption of brand management. For Bin and I, brands are symbols or shortcuts that signal an expectation or promise to the masses. Some brands promise quality while others promise low price. Some, unfortunately, do not promise anything.

Branding is still in its infancy in Asian countries like China, India, and Taiwan. (Some countries, like Japan, are already there.) Consumer product branding in these countries typically promise one of two things: intangible benefits—an aspirational lifestyle—or function. Branding is seldom more sophisticated than that, and for good reason: In developing markets, the income disparity is very evident, so the affluent often use brands as a signal for status while the less well-off are primarily concerned with how the product works. As the market matures and people move up a Maslowian hierarchy, brand promises need more value and complexity.

So our brand centers on our target customer: people who are adventurous, holistic, and cultural hybrids, like us. To answer our earlier question, we match the brand to our customer. We pair our favorite Eastern values—a local and community-minded spirit—with our Western mentality—a focus on consistency, reliability and the commitment to upholding our brand promise.

This philosophy plays out in tangible ways. Because we think branding is important (some do not), we believe in complete control of the customer experience. Although we aren’t quite Jobsian in our controlling tendencies, we are downright religious about how boba should taste. While other boba shops offer an insane menu of options, we don’t. Many of our friends think we are missing a golden opportunity to capture additional customers, and they are probably right, but that’s not how our mission works.

We like being slightly hipster, kinda Asian, a little picky, functionally irreverent, but super approachable.

Happy Thanksgiving, and we will see you next week!


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