Ceci Israel’s motivation into the hospitality, food, and beverage sector.
The fear of losing intellectual property.
Differences in business practices in China and France?
Success in the Chinese market
At age 15, Ceci entered Paris’ famous Hospitality School. She discovered the fantastic world of wine and literally fell in love with it. She loves wine and for her, it is a human product that evolves with time.
No one can master wine; there is always so much to learn and be surprised about. However, Ceci much disliked the way Wine was taught, with its complexity and elitist nature. To her, wine is about conviviality and social life! We consume wine with friends, at restaurants, to pair with dinner, over parties, celebrations, with our love, or just alone after a long day of work…
Ceci continued her international journey in hospitality management working in marketing, finance, and business strategy in famous hotels and restaurants, after a Degree at Institut Paul Bocuse and an MBA at ESSEC Business school. During all that time, she always kept some idea in mind to market wine more accessible.
From virtual tables with RFID tags to smart wine labels, Ceci always got ideas and a strong desire to lead new wine experiences, more easily and fun! She was looking to the US market, and then China! China is booming and soon becoming the second wine market worldwide, but consumers are totally neophyte but interested to discover more to select their wine, taste, and enjoy.
Cici produced and launched innovative multisensory smart wine labels to ease wine selection. It ended up being also perfect for wine events.
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[email return to Philip@Auerbach-Intl.com]
Hello everyone. Since today’s guest comes from France, I thought it would be appropriate to start with a blooper in a sign in a Paris hotel elevator, which said, very simply in English, “Please leave your values at the front desk.”
So, with that, today’s guest is Cecile Israel. Cecile has extensive experience and expertise in international business and marketing, particularly in the hospitality and food and beverage sectors. She started her studies and career in hospitality, evolving into strategic management. She has recently returned to her native country, France. after six years in China, where she launched her own company, Easy Bacchus, combining wine marketing and technology, she is known as Ceci, The Wine Lady.
Before moving on to an exciting food tech company with Epermarket Group where she led marketing development in South China, she was also the president of La French Tech, a powerful international tech network at the time. We are delighted that you have joined us today.
Hi Philip, thank you so much for having me today and for that great opportunity, and I’m really excited to share about my past.
Well, let’s start with your background. What motivated you to get into the hospitality and Food and Beverage business? And then, how did you get to China?
Huh. That’s a very interesting one. So actually, I think hospitality is a world of patience, and am very interested in hospitality and tourism. But I wanted to join the hospitality school when I was only 15 years old, but my family didn’t want me to. I really had to fight to enter in September to attend hospitality school in Paris. 15 years old, and I did. It was a really wonderful experience when I learned how to cook and how to serve. Of course, all sides of management were involved, and wine really became a strong point for me.
The next step of my journey was really complex, and I really disliked the way it was taught at school. Actually, teachers were using very elitist, traditional, and very technical words, even in a market like France, which was supposed to be, you know, the French market where people knew about wine. It was still very difficult to pick a bottle of wine.
Anyway, at that time, I continued my path in my hospitality studies. Every summer at the time, I worked in a variety of hotels, including some that were well-known places in Paris in the kitchen, restaurant, and so on, and then moved up the management ladder. I continued my path until I received my MBA from ESSEC Business School.
And in between, I worked with Hyatt in Dubai for a year in finance, and then I worked with Star-rooted hotel groups that now belong to Marriott as a revenue manager, which was very interesting because you have to analyze a lot of figures because your final goal is to optimize room revenue.
And at the same time, it’s a lot about communication and all that. You know, my background helped me a lot. Then, when I opened my venture, I thought a lot about, of course, how to elaborate the right strategy at the right time.
And I was, finally, you know, quite comfortable in my life. I’ve had that wine idea since I was 16 years old making wine more accessible for everyone. I was particularly looking at the U.S. market and the Chinese market, but my idea was more about gamification. So, the Chinese market was very interesting, and it was expected to become the second-largest market in the world at the time; it was also very lucky. In my personal life, my husband had a work proposal to go over to China, so we just took the plane together back in 2016 and landed in the south of China in Shenzhen.
So, the hubs are highly dynamic business cities known as the hub of hardware because you have a lot of factories. It’s very close to Hong Kong, where it’s located in Guangdong province. So, I opened my company, and the goal was to make wine more accessible. So, I had a lot of background and, as well, a strong interest. And of course, wine.
And I benefited from the Shenzhen ecosystem by using tech to leverage wine marketing tools. So, the first project that I initiated was the production of some very specific wine labels where you could actually scratch and smell the wine. The wine came from us, and then you could touch it. How will the wine taste? So, whether it is soft, strong, or picky for sparkling wine, then you can see some food suggestions and scan, because in China, you know, people scan dozens of times per day to get more information.
So, it was a B2B product. Very innovative. I have three patents. And it was literally very hard to do. I mean hard and easy because Shenzhen has so many factories and developments… Product development is literally very fast in comparison for instance, with France, but still, it was difficult because I didn’t speak a word of Chinese at that time, and so I found the right factories that were also able to produce my labels on a shoestring budget.
That’s an excellent way to obtain it with the patent. And as we all started the commercial development, I had to change course. Sometimes because the market fit was not ideal. So, I started to launch and initiate a mobile application. We say in Chinese that mobile apps use augmented reality because, at the time, China was far more advanced in terms of new technologies, particularly virtual reality, and augmented reality.
But I also made some mistakes while working with a remote team that was not friendly with all the software that was used in China, and it needed a lot of cash. So at that time, I started to do some wine events just to get some cash to finance it. Actually, I do mobile application development.
But we know that often in business we say that it’s customers that drive the market and drive the project, and that is exactly what happened. We eventually took off and became more and more famous, and I always thought it was, you know, the technical stuff that was needed. That was key in my business, but it was actually everything that I wanted to do with Augmented Reality. I just did it myself, you know, so of course I created a set of a one-of-a-kind wine experience involving a variety of games based on my wine labels, for example. It was really particular, and I started with individuals, and people, and then I got to know them.
So, I started to expand into corporate business. and then some (other) brands noticed me. Of course, I did as well. I did some self-branding and started some brand collaboration, and then after the events, people told me, “Oh, I love your wine.” I love your recommendation. I have faith in you because we have a lot of counterfeit wine, so there is a lot of fruit in the wine. We could develop that maybe later, so the recommendation aspect and trust are really important.
Did you say counterfeit wine? I’ve never heard of that.
So different stuff. Can be the label that is incorrect. So, let’s say we’re going to put a very fancy label on it. But it’s really just regular wine. That is the best case.
The worst case could be just a mix of wine and water, maybe some plum juice. And then they can add to it as well some chemical elements that can literally make you very sick, so it can be very dangerous, and you can find counterfeit wine as well in the supermarket.
Is that only in China? I’ve never heard of that in the United States or Europe.
It happens in some markets, but a lot in Asia, particularly in China.
Yeah, there was literally something very, very important. I educate a lot of people about that. How to choose wines, but of course, you’ll know once you’ve gained the trust of people you know. So, like, I just became a local influencer, so people just wanted my recommendation.
So, then I was forced to actually launch my marketplace. I was using WeChat. I was just getting started with my own marketplace, and I was creating a lot of content and engaging communities. A lot of inbound marketing and so on.
COVID arrives and of course, you know, I now have fewer events, such as events where I earned most of my revenue, so I had to pivot again more online and start more E-Earning while trying to expand in different markets, and so on, until the hypermarket group reached out to me and recently purchased a warehouse in Shenzhen.
So, it was a food delivery service that catered to ex-pats rather than Chinese people at the time. So, they were buying premium imported food for ex-pats from different countries, many in Europe and North America, to bring a taste of home at a very high quality.
They had a very large offer, with more than 8,000 products, so they were based in Shanghai. They just purchased a warehouse in South China, in Shenzhen, and wanted to expand. They have been recruited there to lead the marketing, communication, and development sides.
So, my main customers at the time were ex-pats, and it was all about marketing. How do you create a strong acquisition and retention strategy, and how do you keep loyal customers? And, of course, brand exposure has been very diverse.
Sure. That sounds fascinating. I want to explore some of the themes that you mentioned.
One of the issues that you mentioned is that you have three patents. Western companies are very afraid of entering the China market because they will lose their intellectual property.
How could you protect yourself from someone stealing from you?
So, IP in China is more important than it has been. Let’s say 10-20 years ago. OK, so now there is still a conscience. OK, people are more aware of IP and so on.
But for me, what is still key today is the time to market. You have to go first in the market. Then you have to create a strong brand, because if you have a strong brand, then you’ll understand. You will have built, and you will know the story behind it. You will have a brand effect. You will have such a community that you know how to engage those who support what you’re doing. And that you are aware that nothing you are aware of can happen to you.
So, it’s still important, but time to market is still important, and apps in China are more expensive than I am not sure about the US side. But at least In comparison to the French side, apps are much more expensive in China.
I’m sorry, and what you’re talking about that is more extensive in China? The time to market or
Is it time to go to market? Yeah, time to market is definitely more important. You have to be first in your market and create a strong brand.
It’s fascinating. What are some similarities between business practices in China and France?
I will say that first there are more differences than similarities.
Let’s talk about whatever you want to start with, differences or similarities.
I will maybe talk first about the differences between me in China. The business relied on what we call Guangxi. So, Guangxi is like if I had to say one word in English, that would be it a “network,” but it is much more intense.
It’s a network where people you know become your friends and your family, and trust is really the main element in that relationship. So, build strong relationships. The Guangxi connections have a strong and genuine bond.
Guanxi is also translated as connections or a relationship of connections.
Yeah, it’s a connection. Yeah, but it’s really a very close relationship. OK, it’s like what we say in business, where we call each other brother, sister, or best friend, so it’s the really that close relationship that we don’t have in France. Like in France, you know I’m doing business. I will never call someone bro, sister, and so on. I will keep a certain distance.
In China, everything is mixed. Business and family are all mixed together. For instance, when conducting business. Before you know it, you’re always spending time with that person, often in restaurants, when you go to the order and sell with a potential supplier. So, you go on different outings with that person, who is also very famous and maybe does Karaoke where you sing and drink a lot of alcohol, and sometimes even you have to drink a lot of alcohol to show your vulnerability to the other person.
So, it’s really a deep relationship that you need to make with that person. And the power of Guanxi is that it will last. Someone to assist you, or just to connect, It’s fine; you know they will give you money, etc. They don’t care. But ten years later, they can come to you and ask you a question, and that’s always a balanced relationship in which you can help that person if necessary, so he has more trust and long-term elements, as well as having a more genuine and closer relationship side.
Another element is that of course, contracts exist nowadays, but they are not the most important thing in the world.
So, as far back as the relationship with the person, according to the Guanxi is much more important. In addition, you can sign a document but signing won’t have any effect. The signature is the company’s stamp. You can have a sentence signature without a stamp. No paper will have any legal value in China.
So, I understand that many foreign companies want to have, you know, to protect themselves, so they arrive, they try to do business, and contracts are so important, but no, you have to be there and establish a relationship. That is one of the things I would say about suppliers. The most important elements.
Then something else, in business, for me the Chinese are more pragmatic; they don’t think, ok, they can do it, and they can do it in a short manner in comparison to France, in general. I know that now I’m back in France. I see many of my friends who spend many hours in meetings a day. Sometimes they have more than ten meetings a day, which really, you know, astonishes me. Yeah, really a lot, and in China, no.
In China, something has happened, so you just try the “test and learn” method, but Startup showed up. Is definitely present everywhere in China, and speaking about it as well, is more pragmatic. Just makes me think about the factory.
You have to be very precise when you produce something. Example: If I say I want a fancy wine label that matches the… Let’s say it’s a new year. China will enter the year 2023. It’s the year of the rabbit, so just do a rabbit pattern, and so on. They won’t know what to do, so if you want to have something and it’s really important, especially if you have a tech element, you really have to be very, very precise about what you’re going to do in France, for example.
So, must you have a designer? For example, do you have a graphic designer on your staff?
I did when I had my company, I definitely did and we have all of the design proof, and we have literally measured everything about the material, and so on. And it was really, really important to do so.
Very interesting. How did you determine the success of your Chinese venture? Was it by market share, profitability, receptivity, or something else?
Then success, as you know, is very subjective for me, having an impact on the way people were discovering wine and educating people about wine, because everything you know about when you buy a product in China is linked to branding, and for me, you know, wine is not only branding, is about discovering your own taste, and so on.
So, then we can develop that later as well. If you want to discuss how people buy wine and how Chinese and French wine consumers differ, for me, having that impact was literally the key measure of success. And, of course, revenue as well. I needed to systematize my life. and making a business. So, I needed money for the system, but I will say in general, all of the notoriety effects make having a strong brand that people recognize is very important in China If you want to be known because if you don’t, no one will trust you.
It’s a bit paradoxical, but it’s really linked, you know, to the Chinese mindset. The brand needs to be known. It must be shared on social media. We need to talk about that brand, and then I can trust it, or I need to see some influencers, and then we can talk as well about the poor of social media and social commerce, and then I can follow their recommendation.
In terms of the wine or grapes themselves, did you import them from Australia or New Zealand? Where did the grapes come from?
Are you speaking about the wine that is produced in China or the wine that I was distributing?
Were you producing and distributing wine or just producing?
I was distributing wine, but I was not importing it myself. The great thing is that I was buying stock from the first big importers that arrived from abroad in China. So, it helped me to not have any import taxes and, as well, to not have any stock to handle, and so on. So, it was very smart in terms of business.
So the importers would import wine, and then you would change it or put your own label on it? Or was it someone else’s wine? How did that work?
I was, and my label was actually an additional wine label, so it didn’t change anything about the primary wine label. It was just a marketing tool in addition to the first wine label.
And so was the wine owned by another company, for example? And then you re-labeled it?
The thing is that in China, you have the primary wine label that, say, is Pinot noir from California. And then on the back, you have the Chinese wine label, where the importer puts all the legal information. In order to sell wine in China, you have to put specific information in Chinese, and then yes, the name of the wine importer will show up at the end. But anyway, it’s a B2B business, so it’s extremely complicated for individual customers to buy wine from them. Then there’s the top of the bottle. So, there’s a bottleneck on the side. I had my wine label.
Which was more marketable and testable.
Well, thank you so much. Cecile, this has been a superb, wonderful interview full of wonderful facts.
Thanks to you, Philip.
Thank you so I hope everyone will join us next time for another edition of Global Gurus and their stories of international business. This is Philip Auerbach from Auerbach International (www.auerbach-intl.com) . Thank you.
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