It was January 2013, and Beijing’s first “airpocalypse” descended upon the city. Face masks became the latest fashion trend and air purifiers became the latest must-have for Beijing residents. University of Virginia student Thomas Talhelm, then on his PhD Fulbright scholarship living there, too looked online for an efficient purifier. “I found one that works, and it turned out to be about $1,000,” Talhelm told Jing Daily. “There is ridiculous price gouging going on; air purifiers need not be that expensive to work.”
And so Talhelm built his own purifier and founded Smart Air with his friends, and set to introduce to the market a product that he claims works just as effectively as expensive ones, but at a fraction of the price. Just a month prior in December, Texas-based air purifier manufacturer Oransi was entering the Chinese purifier market, but with a marketing strategy that was the complete opposite of Talhelm’s—luxury air purifiers that target the upper market and cost nearly triple that of existing mass-market models. “It’s different from just about anything else on the market,” says Peter Mann, founder of Oransi.
China’s prodigious growth has afforded its people many luxuries, such as a rising affluent middle-class, but it has also robbed them of one thing: clean air. Amidst a blazing air purifier market, two new brands, whose products use essentially similar HEPA filters, entered the Chinese market targeting opposite ends of the consumer spectrum. Oransi, which would eventually depend significantly on Chinese sales, is entering a market that Talhelm believes is home to an “expensive air purifier myth.” As Oransi tries to stand out from competitors with its assurances of a superior product and being “Made in USA,” Talhelm’s marketing strategy revolves around transparency in how air purifiers work and claims that high prices aren’t justified.
China’s air woes have been around for a long time, but they came under national spotlight in January 2013 when an exceptionally severe bout of smog lingered at hazardous levels for a week. PM 2.5, fine particulates that can cause respiratory and various health problems, peaked at 35 times the recommended levels set by the World Health Organization.
While the Chinese government has pushed its harshest environmental protection laws in 25 years to curb the issue, many Chinese citizens are taking matters into their own hands. Many of China’s rich who can afford it took to fleeing the mainland altogether, while those who can’t resorted to the more commonly used air masks and air purifiers.
“There are over 100 manufacturers (of air purifiers) in China,” Mann told Jing Daily, and most tend to focus on the middle to low end of the market. China’s air purifier market is projected to grow by 34 percent to $22 billion by 2018, according to a recent TechSci Research report. According to a recent report by consulting firm PIM China Ltd, consumers in China expect purifiers to be priced from $163 to $327, last one to two years, and to be a catch-all for the various pollutants and odors in the air. HEPA filters, an industry standard of filters that trap PM 2.5 particulates, are used by all leading air purifiers, including Oransi, Smart Air, and Swiss IQ Air.
Mann decided to enter the market because he received a lot of demand for Oransi’s products from Chinese distributors, despite strong competition from Swiss company IQ Air to be the top luxury air purifier in China. “IQ Air has been in China for maybe seven to eight years, and held the position for being the premium product,” says Mann. “But if you do a spec comparison of our products, they don’t really compare, even though our price lines are similar.” IQ Air’s products on e-tailer site JD.com cost 12,800 yuan ($2,050) to 18,700 yuan ($2,990) while Oransi’s line goes from 14,480 yuan ($2,320) to 18,680 yuan ($2,990).
“Everyone else is focused on PM 2.5,” Mann says about other purifiers on the market. “We recognize that there are other air quality issues in China that we don’t necessarily have in the United States, such as formaldehyde in building materials and combustion gases.” According to him, not only do his products remove these pollutants, but also use less energy due to using a different kind of motor. But one of Oransi’s important distinctions, says Mann, is that its “Made in USA” tag carries a prestigious assurance of quality in China, and the health-conscious are willing to pay the price.
However, Talhelm feels that those luxury air filters and his perform essentially the same function. In contrast to the prices on the higher end of the spectrum, Smart Air purifiers retail for merely 200 yuan ($32). “HEPA filters are not expensive, and they are not proprietary,” he says. “If you bought a vacuum cleaner, it probably has a HEPA filter in it, and you did not pay $1,000 for it.” He adds that air purifiers fall into a class of product where one cannot assess its value even after purchase. “When you’re talking about effects like cancer, is the product preventing more cancer now than it was last week?” says Talhelm, adding that without a particle counter, laymen understanding of air purifiers’ effectiveness is scant at best. “In such cases… we often use the price as a guide to assess the quality.”
Talhelm emphasizes that the only way to undo what he sees as a trend of using the price as a gauge of effectiveness is educating people. “We’re doing something that’s completely different from other air purifier companies—we’re being completely open and transparent about our data and putting it up online.”
In fact, he believes that education is the best marketing strategy for air purifiers because the spread of brand and product awareness about air purifiers in China is mostly through word of mouth and recommendations. Smart Air holds workshops, where they teach how their products work and hold live demonstrations, as does IQ Air, according to Talhem. “I think that if people just listen to me for five minutes about how air purifiers work, then they wouldn’t overpay for their air purifiers,” Talhelm says. Currently, Oransi depends on its Chinese distributors for spreading awareness of its products. However, it is in the process of establishing a subsidiary in China, where it would then become easier for Oransi to market directly.
Talhelm posits that marketing through education and transparency works because people in China are perhaps becoming more critical of large corporations that are opaque about their operations. This distrust of corporations isn’t exclusive to the young or the expatriates either. “The first month that we moved to Taobao, the Taobao sales outpaced the PayPal sales. I assume that most of the people on Taobao are Chinese citizens,” he says, adding that he receives many emails from people appreciating their open-data policy.
“We do get a lot of young people, but just the other day, Anna, a co-founder, hand-delivered a purifier to an elderly Chinese woman who called us and told us she wanted to pay in cash,” says Talhelm. “We told her, ‘Sorry, it’s all through Taobao, just pay through Taobao,’ and she said, ‘I don’t know how to use Taobao.’ Sometimes people tell me they buy one for their aunts or uncles.” According to Talhelm, the company has received around 6,000 orders since the filters went on the market in January this year.
Mann agrees that Chinese consumers are savvy customers who do their research prior to purchasing. However, he thinks that additional knowledge will actually convince them that his products are worth it, and not turn them away. Mann says that while his products come at a steep price, they feature energy-efficient motors and remove pollutants, such as formaldehyde, that other big names aren’t offering. Oransi’s sales aren’t too shabby—its first shipment of 500 units last December sold out quickly, and Oransi’s second shipment of 1,000 units that arrived in March is on sale. Mann predicts global sales of $6 million in 2014, as reported by Businessweek, half of which are expected to come from China.
Even as Oransi and Smart Air disagree over brand identity and price point, sales for both companies are brisk now. Some experts believe that China’s air problem will not blow away soon, and the demand for both Oransi and Smart Air’s products will endure as long as gray skies linger. As the saying goes, “health is wealth,” and it seems that many Chinese consumers have no problem parting with some wealth to afford a peace of mind.