By Aaron Posehn
With the steady drumbeat of dire headlines and warnings about China’s air pollution, indoor air quality has become a very important subject for locals and expats alike in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. In this interview I sit down with Mike Bearden, Vice President of IQAir China, one of the best-known air purifier brands on the market. We discuss the current state of pollution and indoor air quality in China, recent developments in the air purifier industry, and some of the things that IQAir is doing to address the needs of their customers. We also discuss differences in the types of air purifier units that can be purchased, as well as the overall direction in which the industry is headed.
LCB: Can you tell us a little bit about how you see the current pollution situation in China and what people there generally do to combat it, if anything?
Bearden: The pollution situation in China is well-documented and is definitely a hot subject on people’s minds these days. As public awareness rises, consumers also become more motivated to acquire knowledge about ways to combat the pollution. There are hundreds of air purifiers on the market to help protect your indoor environments and there are countless companies selling face masks to protect against exposure outdoors. I don’t think the pollution has really become worse; it’s been a problem and now there is a growing awareness.
LCB: With the Chinese government starting to take notice of the worsening air conditions in China, have any of their actions to reduce pollution either helped or hindered your company in terms of sales?
B: I go back to the awareness factor. The government is doing its part to raise public awareness and they have instituted certain pollution policies. They provide the public with AQI numbers and send out SMS messages to warn people of heavy pollution days. Driving restrictions are in place in most major cities and they are closing down factories to cut down emissions. This is a long fight and it won’t be solved overnight.
LCB: With air purifying units being marketed from as little as 200 yuan for small HEPA filters to as high as 12,000 yuan for larger industrial units, how is a consumer to decide which kind of air purifier is best for them, especially if most brands all say they will remove a majority of particulate matter from the air?
B: There are tons of options in the current market place and I can see how the consumers can become dizzy with all the marketing done in this industry. In English, you can find lots of websites that give extensive breakdowns of the different air purifier options on the market. I always suggest that people do their research when investing in their health.
Basically there are three areas you want to look at the most. First, there is the technology used: different types include HEPA technology, UV, and ionizers. We use HEPA technology in our IQAirs, which has the best track record. But you have to be careful, even some of the brands who claim HEPA are using synthetic HEPA.
The second thing to look at is the quality and amount of media that make up the filters — what type of material is it and how much filter media is protecting you?
The third area, as you might guess, is budget. You have to judge for yourself the balance of price versus performance on any model you might purchase. Everyone’s needs are different.
LCB: Does your company face any special challenges when dealing with domestic customers in China?
B: Like most businesses, we recognize that we are only as strong as our customers’ trust in our brand. We have a very strong presence in the domestic market with people who want a better quality of life. The trust we provide is in the quality of our products and quality of our service. The local Chinese customers are no different from customers in Western countries in that they want to protect their families and/or employees and keep them comfortable.
LCB: Since the overall volume of sales for air purifiers is currently much lower than other household appliances, it seems that there is also less regulation around the standards to which they must adhere, such as correctly specifying the maximum interior area that a product can purify. In light of this, what can a company producing air purifiers do to help customers have faith in the quality of their brand?
B: At IQAir, we provide in all our literature and even on the control panel of our machines the coverage area of each model. This can be adjusted depending on the speed of the fan. One of the marketing tricks we have seen in the industry is that when competitors state their numbers, they are only talking about when the machines are running at their highest fan speeds. You would never operate the machine at that noise level unless you lived on an aircraft carrier!
Is regulation the next step? I know we would be the first company to support regulation and holding manufacturers accountable for their claims. I believe the customer deserves the truth.
As the popularity of the industry grows and more consumers and other stakeholders become actively concerned, I expect to see more regulations put in place around the world.
LCB: It seems that the most popular consumer brands of air purifiers in China are produced by foreign companies such as Philips, Panasonic, and Sharp. Why do you think this is and do you see a chance for homegrown brands to recover more market share in the future?
B: Currently there are a few different local brands that have some of the market share in the lower end of the industry. You do tend to see foreign brands occupying a higher position. Most of the big electronic manufacturers have already come out with an air purifier, or will in the future. Looking more broadly at other consumer electronics like TVs, mobile phones, and home theater systems, you could probably say the foreign brands also dominate those industries at the current moment.
Chinese companies and brands are becoming more sophisticated, and it wouldn’t surprise me if over the next few years we see more local brands entering the market. I’m sure that this is an inevitable trend.
LCB: With sales of air purifiers this year at an all-time high across the board, what do you see as the future of this industry in China?
B: As I stated before, the situation that China faces with pollution is a long-term challenge. Even with the right government policies and our ability as humans to consume more wisely, the solutions will be gradual in nature. For our industry, this means that people will continue seeking the means to live a better quality of life and so demand for products that meet this need will only continue to grow.
I also think that a lot of new manufacturers will enter the market and it will become more and more competitive, but this will be a net positive as we will see advances in technology and ultimately regulations that will only benefit the consumer.
I’m confident that IQAir is going to continue to lead the way and I’m excited for all the future developments and changes in our market.
Mike Bearden is the Vice President of IQAir China, a company that produces air purifiers for both residential and corporate sale in China. Headquartered in Beijing, more information about IQAir can be found on their website: www.iqair-china.com.
Aaron Posehn is the managing editor of LearnChineseBusiness.com and is a graduate of the University of British Columbia, where he majored in Asian Area Studies. Currently also working as an academic editor in Taiwan, he has had an intense interest in the crossroads between business and culture for as long as he can remember. He has also recently completed writing chinEASE, a guidebook that teaches Chinese learners how to more easily learn Chinese characters for purposes of business and pleasure.