Tiger Balm: Not just your grandmother’s trusted pain remedy

Breaking into new markets, developing new products and enhancing packaging has ensured that the Tiger Balm brand keep its loyal following for 100 years while gaining a younger audience.

By Batandwa Malingo

“Some are fantastic ideas but we cannot just run with them because it (Tiger Balm) is medicinal, so we are very careful because we do not want to fail or to make a product which may be poisonous as that may ruin our image and we would not recover.”

Tiger Balm is one of the few items you might find at most households and the owner may turn to be obsessive over their Tiger Balm because of miraculous effect on muscle pain.

The world-renowned ointment dates back to the late 1800’s when Chinese herbalist Aw Chu Kin developed the ointment and sold it at his small medicine shop in Rangoon.

He later died in 1908, leaving the special ointment with a touch of menthol to his sons, Aw Boo Haw which means gentle tiger and Aw Boon Par, which means gentle leopard.

Like the rest of the Tiger Balm users, his sons saw the potential of the product and moved to Singapore where they developed a manufacturing firm and gave the product its name.

Executive Director for Haw Par Corporation, Ah Kuan Han was tasked with developing the Tiger Balm brand since 1991 said the company had to adapt their business model due to the changing business landscape.

“Our products had a strong menthol smell and we needed to change that to appeal to young people. We made scent adjustments. Also, you don’t want look oily or smelly at the office, people are going to ask if you are sick. Our products are now suitable to use in an office environment. Those are some of the adjustments we had to make to appeal to the younger generation,” he said.

Han said the company developed anti-mosquito products and added lavender fragrance to some to attract both males and females. He said they had to be careful with how they develop their products though, so as not to lose consumers and also not to be over-excited and make mistakes in manufacturing.

“We have our product development team internally, students are also very keen on us, they come and talk to us, so we generate new ideas. You must remember however, this is a medicine so you can’t come up with a new product that is far removed from the original product” he said.

Han said some ideas come from consumers who, according to him have bombarded their social media and website with feedback.

“Some consumers have fantastic ideas but we cannot just run with them because it is medicinal, so we are very careful because we do not want to fail or to manufacture a product which may be poisonous as that may ruin our image and we would not recover,” he said.

Tiger Balm is produced from natural ingredients and Han believes that while anyone can mix ingredients, it takes a special team to make a product that has survived for more than 100 years.

“It’s not just about the ingredients we put in, it’s how we blend them. Two people can cook with the same ingredients but the finished product would not taste the same, it’s a skill. You check how much of and when you add the next ingredient. It’s our own technique, we add high quality products and blend them in a very special way that has attracted millions of consumers across the world,” he said.

Tiger Balm products are available in more than 100 countries across the world, but this is not enough for Han as he plans to dominate the whole world with the product.

“We are trying to get into new markets so we are always looking for distributors in countries where we do not have presence. For example in South Africa e do not have a distributor anymore so it is difficult to get our products there,” he said.

Han revealed that some South Africans saw the gap and has since seized the opportunity.
“They travel from South Africa to Asia or to the Middle East and buy our products in bulks to sell them back at home, but we want to have our official distributor there (South Africa).”

Han said the group has formed an alliance with Alkem Labs Limited to market, sell and distribute Tiger Balm products in India.

“We had another distributor in India but we decided to change to Alkem because they are the 5th largest pharmaceutical company in India and the country has more than 1 billion people. We want them to access our products and we believe this company will help us achieve that,” he said.

While Han plans to take the Tiger Balm brand to countries where it is not yet available, the products did not get a warm welcome in some countries in the past due to misconceptions.

“There was a misconception that Tiger Balm contains tiger parts, when we sold the product in the UK people were saying we are terrible, we are killing tigers to make Tiger Balm, we had to deal with that. We would not be able to sell Tiger Balm for that cheap price if we used tiger parts because it would be expensive,” Han said.

Besides misconceptions, the brand has also been marred with fake products using its packaging.
“We are a registered brand in more than 150 countries in the world. There were people who made fake products and claim they are Tiger Balm. Other people used our Tiger Balm packaging on their products, we had to take legal action,” he said.

Han revealed that Haw Par Corporation Limited sells 50 million Tiger Balm ointment jars per year.
The ointment is the company’s flagship product.

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