Celebrate Differences

On my last day in Taiwan, I’m building on a previous post (Dewa Mata) in which I made some observations about the Japanese market for U.S. beef–here are some similar observations for the second part of my Fellowship trip. Will this be my last post? I’m not sure…I guess we shall see if the muse stays with me…

Safety is the price of entry (part deux)

At risk of sounding like a broken record, if safety is important in Japan, it is even more important in Taiwan (is that possible?). With an influential news media (dare I say the media here have a more sensitive hair-trigger than at home?), we can’t afford to give either politics or media a chance to tank the market. We know we do it right–we know we have the most stringent safety standards in the world. We know that the checkoff, in partnership with industry partners, makes significant investments in beef safety every single year. Let’s not take our eye off the ball (and remember to encourage our partners as well) to tell the story of our impeccable, continuing efforts on the beef safety front.

We’re baaaack

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Young Taiwanese love U.S. beef. Generally, they have fewer issues with eating beef than their elders (with respect to religion or husbandry as I’ve mentioned here before). Our job here (given what I’ve said above) will be to prove how yummy we are, especially when compared to pork, and build consumers the confidence to add more beef servings to their diet. And, as the CEO of the Beef Board, I’m allowed to say it out loud–in this market, pork=Goliath and beef=David. Pork is traditional, well-understood, well-loved. We know what we have to offer. We need to load up the slingshot and fire away.

Beef Can Be Mature and JIT here too

I’ve heard a LOT about wet and dry aging since I arrived. A noticeable trend in both retail and foodservice, it plays well with our need to ship product. However, the best steakhouses have product air shipped in a couple of days, then dry age it from 21 to 45 days onsite. They tell me discerning consumers pay for the waste, the hassle and the process. Good news for U.S. beef. Perhaps a dry aging movement would work well in Japan, if we associate it with the “mature” or “right time” concept mentioned before in this space.

Our Product Offering Works

In my closing post about Japan, I mentioned the trend of “Just for Japan” products. I believe (due to a growing “Westernization” of Taiwan) the products we offer our domestic consumers work well here, with the caveat that consumers here are more familiar with pork, and need education about the many ways to cook beef. And, like chefs at home, white tablecloth chefs here crave creative ideas to offer the discerning palates.

U.S. First, Company Brands Second

Even though we’re feeling the love, we still have some work to do to solidify our relationship with Taiwan’s younger consumers — to tell them about the product attributes of U.S. beef, to teach them about different cuts and appropriate ways to prepare beef. IMO, the Taiwan retail market is not as ripe for a brand bustout as Japan. However, I did hear in multiple foodservice meetings that restaurants need differentiation (read: brands) to compete in this HIGHLY competitive environment (particularly in Taipei). Opportunity exists for different production methods (natural, organic, grass-fed, and whatever else we can think of to differentiate), different product claims and creative ideas in Taiwan. Calling all beef entrepreneurs–come on out to Taiwan (but get ready to study and learn about how to do business in Asia. If you’re ethnocentric, you needn’t apply).

Taiwan Loves Baseball

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At the Elephants and Lions game last Tuesday night. Let me tell you, between the fan band, the horns, the drums and the yellow cone knocker thingies, this place has some enthusiastic baseball fans!

…and American ball player Manny Rimerez. Huh? It’s not as random as you may think. Taiwan loves American sport–particularly baseball and basketball. They admire American athletes (and athletes here at home). In the U.S., the checkoff funded “power of protein” concept pays dividends to encourage consumers’ love for beef. The health and nutrition message, coupled with images of strength and power, as the checkoff is doing at home, would work well here, with Taiwan’s youth, who are health conscious, more willing to turn to food (instead of supplements) to get the nutrients they need, and have a tradition of Chinese medicine (which teaches about the power of nutrients in food) to fall back on. The Power of Protein–call me crazy, but I think a campaign extension opportunity in Taiwan. The messaging would be slightly different (it’s not the same here, remember what I’ve said before about having the in-country expertise), but I think it has “legs.”

Convenience

People work long hours here, and many women go to the office every day too–especially in Taipei. Convenience plays an important role here–just like in Japan (and the U.S. I’m sensing a trend…)

Packaging Matters

Like Japan, packaging matters. But here, I mean ANY packaging. Many Taiwanese shop for meat hanging from a hook in an open-air wet market (it is the traditional way of marketing pork and chicken). Elder consumers want to touch and smell for freshness. Young consumers, however, don’t have time (or interest?), and go to supermarkets. Again, we have opportunity with younger consumers here. Some creative shopkeepers now sell meat in temperature-controlled cases, in independent shops close to wet markets–taking advantage of the close-to-home location of the markets.

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Disclaimer: This blog and the thoughts on it are my own flights of fancy. They don’t represent the views of the beef checkoff, CBB, the Operating Committee, or USMEF. I’m so glad the checkoff has in-country experts who know these markets and work on behalf of producers every day.

Random Photo of the Day:

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A quick game of “Name that Meat” anyone? I’ll give you a hint: the long ones are tongues. Thank you Lord, for international markets.

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Heeey…wait a minute? You talkin’ about me?!?

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Snot soup? Booger bologna? Nosh a nostril? Schnoz sandwich? Loogie lasagne?

Catch you back in the states, dear reader!

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Dewa Mata

I’m a little sad today to leave the friends and wonderful experiences I’ve had in Japan. In no particular order, I offer you some of my observations about the beef market here. Again, my heartfelt thanks to the Eisenhower Fellowship program for this amazing experience.

Safety is the price of entry

Sometimes cattlemen tell me that we’ve done enough work on beef safety—that we know as much as we’re ever going to learn, that we need to stop investing in safety research and telling our safety story. As a matter of fact, I had several folks tell me this exact thing right before the government declared non-0157H7 STECs as adulterants. Whoops.

You can argue about politics and trade negotiations that swirled around the BSE issue, here and in other countries, but severe trade restrictions in the Japan market for a decade hurt American business irreparably. I don’t mean that we cannot regain the market (better than it was), I mean that American companies and American beef producers lost critical opportunities in those years. Consumers here demand safe beef for their families, just like at home, and we must continue to give them the safest product in the world. My learning in Japan is that we can never, ever, ever (am I really quoting Taylor Swift?) shift our focus from providing the safest product possible. I mean, like, ever.

Just for Japan

Frankly, some Japanese women (who make more than 90 percent of food purchasing decisions) feel a little…well…squishy about U.S. beef. What do I mean? They say it comes from a long way away. They wonder if U.S. producers care for animals, or profit (Are the two mutually exclusive??). They wonder if U.S. producers really care about what they do, and the product they produce. Consumers here want the option of choosing a U.S. beef product made in America with the discerning Japanese consumer in mind. Producing beef that is “just for Japan” has marketing power with this audience.

Individualized Choice

Product differentiation plays a critical role in this market. Remember for about 6,000 years, rice has set the standard here for product differentiation (Tamayaka, 2001). With literally hundreds of brands to choose from (I heard a lot about Koshihikari rice and I’m going to try it when I get home), consumers here talk about brand loyalty passionately. They use brands their parents loved, brands their families love, and they carry strong opinions about differences in taste, regions, grains, recipes and uses. In an earlier post, my photo of the milk case, with nearly 30 brands of milk staring back at me, taught me that American products must have clear differentiation from others—and I don’t just mean our Aussie competition. We would be well-served to explain not only our difference from our competitors, but also to offer many choices, through the use of brands, to Japanese consumers. As one consumer panelist said, “Brands indicate the producer cares enough about the product to put a special mark on it.” (That was the translation of what she said anyway. Is it kosher to use quote marks when quoting someone whose words had to be translated for you? I’ll have to ask the AP hotline that question.) Consumers here like to have an active choice, and even a package, that fulfills the needs of the individual, including price. Let’s give them lots of American beef products, from store to store, restaurant to restaurant and even in the same meat case. Giving Japanese consumers more choices through American beef products (see Why the World Matters) means we share our bounty with them. We need to offer multiple, differentiated products they just cannot get at home.

Shopping as Entertainment

Many Japanese women work as homemakers, and they take that job extremely seriously. In a consumer panel, I heard from a woman who cooks different homemade dinners, at different times, for her children and husband, according to their individual tastes and timing. When asked, she replied that she enjoyed her job making a home and raising her family, and she would do the best job she could to keep them happy and nourished. With that attitude in mind, I learned that Japanese women approach grocery shopping as both a critical responsibility and an enjoyable experience. In fact, several members of the panel mentioned that they shop about five times a week and they look forward to it every day. One of the packer reps I visited with, who has marketed beef for many years here, said having and making choices in the grocery store entertains folks, even as they fulfill the responsibility of nurturing their families. In comparison to other areas of the store, the meat case may be boring our customers. With convenience store retailers offering 100 new products each month, Japanese consumers demand something new and innovative when they shop. Grocery shopping should be more like Disneyland, and less like drudge, he said, so customers rush to the meat case to see what’s new, what recipes they can try, what fun they can have. Let’s make meat shopping fun. Entertain Japanese consumers, and they will reward you with purchases.

Customized Convenience

Even though most women stay home, or work part-time jobs here, the number of women choosing to stay in the workforce after having children grows annually. Many women shop via the Internet – placing an individual order at 4:00 and accepting delivery at home by 7:00 p.m. Not only does this save them from walking to the store and hauling heavy bags, it allows them to order from the office and be ready to cook when they arrive home. Therefore, in addition to fun, convenience is key—but convenient products must still feel “homemade” to moms and wives. I heard over and over that women want to take it home, put it into their own dishes, and serve it like they cooked it fresh. No take out buckets or wrappers on the dinner table. Convenient beef products with a homemade feel that also contribute to a Disneyland in the meat case (am I asking for too much here?).

Beef Can Be Fresh, Seasonal, and JIT

We don’t often think about beef as seasonal. Actually, we don’t think about many products as seasonal in the U.S., given we can find almost anything we want, from anywhere in the world, for a reasonable price. But given that the Japanese consumer wants to celebrate seasons with appropriate food choices (see Fresh Thinking), perhaps celebrating a seasonal component of beef, or a just in time aspect that discusses our ship time as time to “ripen” or age to perfection, or promoting beef around an appropriate holiday has potential for us.

Packaging and POS Matter

When shopping the meat case here, I immediately noticed the lighting and the packaging. Particularly in domestic beef meant for more special dishes (shabu shabu or sukiyaki for example), stores trim beef into consistent sizes and shapes, place it carefully in the package and add a garnish for color. Meat managers display packages in neat stacks, aligned and sorted. Japanese women like to see this kind of care put into packaging and display—to them, it indicates that farmers cared that much too. Sloppy arrangement, bloody packages, inconsistent trim with odd sizes or shapes decreases desirability. Sounds simple, but little things mean a lot here and the attention to detail indicates much farm-to-fork product quality in the Japanese mind.

Disclaimer: This blog and the thoughts on it are my own flights of fancy. They don’t represent the views of the beef checkoff, CBB, the Operating Committee, USMEF, the American ambassador to Japan, President Obama or the Buddha.

Random Photos of the Day:

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Warm thanks to the EF Fellows of Japan, for hosting a good-bye dinner featuring river eel last night. The eel was excellent–and the lively, intelligent discussion coupled with one of the best red wines I’ve ever tasted–priceless.

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Yesterday’s Bento Box lunch

Ginza Apple Store

This one is for my Dad and brother. Disneyland, indeed!