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Mixue on the march: ice cream serves soft power for China in Southeast Asia

Mixue's signboard
One of Mixue’s outlets in Tasikmalaya, West Java. AsepSur/shutterstock

Mixue has dominated Southeast Asia’s ice cream and tea businesses for five years, having opened its first outlet in Vietnam in 2018. Based in China, where it operates 22,500 stores. Around 1,000 Mixue outlets now operate in several Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. In comparison, despite having been around much longer, there are 10,000 Starbucks outlets and around 9100 McDonalds restaurants throughout the Southeast Asian region.

In Indonesia, Mixue has become a trend on social media platforms. People are posting about their daily cravings for Mixue products and making jokes and memes – it is common to find the brand among Twitter’s trending topics.

The joke in the region goes that you have to keep an eye on any vacant space in your neighbourhood, because it will soon turn into a new Mixue outlet. There are three contributing factors behind Mixue’s success story in Indonesia: supply chain efficiency, affordable product prices and the ease with which a franchise can be started.

In addition to this, we as researchers focusing on China-Indonesia relations argue that Mixue – along with other China-based international retail operations such as Miniso – is more than just a business success story. It has the potential help China promote a positive national image in Indonesia.

More than just a business

In international relations, food can act as a national ambassador and even influence diplomacy. A country can use food as a source of soft power to display cultural characteristics and symbols.

A 2012 study shows that public knowledge about a brand’s country of origin can improve a nation’s image. Surveying nearly 500 respondents in the US, the study supports a claim made by Olle Wästberg, former director of the Swedish Institute, that furniture brand IKEA, does more for the image of Sweden than the government. The study also found the popular energy drink Red Bull improved the image of Austria.

Mixue may carry similar potential for China in Indonesia. The first Indonesian Mixue outlet opened in Bandung in 2020. Its rapid growth prompted many major news platforms to write about the origin of Mixue, its owner and even the meaning of its name (“snow that’s sweet like honey”) as people grew more curious about it. Many people expressed their joy when the Indonesian Ulema Council issued a halal certificate for Mixue.

Mixue’s presence has also helped the country’s tackle unemployment by recruiting local workers. With the popularity of the brand in Indonesia, the growing presence of Mixue may already be helping China’s efforts to boost its positive image in the country.

Negative perceptions of China

Negative sentiment towards China, however, is still relatively high among Indonesians. A 2022 survey by ISEAS-Yushof Ishak revealed that 65.9% of Indonesian respondents expressed concern over China’s growing economic influence on Indonesia. Meanwhile, as many as 25.4% of Indonesian respondents saw China’s rise as negatively influencing Indonesia.

But the Chinese government continues to encourage its companies to develop overseas not only for economic gains, but also to promote a positive image.

This is especially true in the technology sector. Thanks to the government’s support, China’s technological progress has been rapid. The country produces smartphone products, such as Xiaomi and Oppo, which have a fairly large market share in Indonesia.

In addition, there are also growing retail businesses with strong China links such as Miniso and Usupso, which were recently accompanied by the expansion of KKV. Chinese products are competitive in the global market due to the low production costs.

Mixue’s effects in Indonesia – and a bit beyond

Mixue sells its ice cream and drinks at around 40 US cents to US$1.50. In comparison, popular Taiwanese-based tea franchise Chatime markets its products in between $1.34 and $2.67. Mixue, therefore, attracts a larger segment of society.

Consumers are queuing in a Mixue outlet in Batam, Riau Islands, Indonesia.
Mixue outlets are often packed with consumers queuing for cheap ice cream and beverages.

Mixue also seemed to be immune to declining profits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By the beginning of 2022, Mixue outlets in the country reached 1000 and offered job opportunities for Indonesians while other businesses collapsed.

Negative perceptions of China may not be entirely eliminated by popular cheap food, but the more Mixue spreads in Indonesia, the more people may realise that there are aspects of China’s presence in the country that they actually like.

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