One great success story in branding meat comes from my visit with SC Foods (Sumitomo Corp.), with its brand “Silky Pork” founded in 1994, and a sub-brand “Yongenton Silky Pork” in 2011. (As an aside, the view of Tokyo Bay from the 36th floor of the Sumitomo building, above, will knock your socks off! If Tokyo gets the 2016 Olympics, Sumitomo executives will be able to look right into the Athlete’s Village, which will be located on “reclaimed” land, or one of the growing number of man-made islands off the coast of Japan, built largely from waste. Back to our regular message…) To understand why even the name of this product makes a lot of sense in this market, you must first understand the Japanese preference for a soft mouth feel when it comes to meat. You almost have to chew it (or gum it, sort of), to understand it, but A-5 Waygu beef has it, most iterations of tofu have it, some of the kale products have it. Texture in food carries a lot of influence, and the name “Silky Pork” imparts exactly the right level of chewability for a desirable meat product here.
The company realized early on (nearly 20 years ago) that a branded product offered additional differentiation in a rapidly expanding market, which allowed for additional profit potential. Smithfield (a comparatively small packer at the time) agreed to partner on the new product development, since several of the larger packers they approached weren’t interested in producing a branded product. Smithfield was fully integrated–farm to fork–which appealed to SC Foods (and to the Japanese consumer, see earlier posts). As a result of this integration, Smithfield offered a full gamut of information (again, farm to fork) that allowed SC Foods to “tell the story” of where Silky Pork came from. This integration let SC Foods help Silky Pork consumers feel the love behind the production. The brand rolled out in Japanese packaging (no English)–it was a uniquely Japanese brand from a Japanese company. This was, and is, important, because the Japanese consumers firmly believed (and largely still do) that the best quality of nearly anything comes from Japan.
Silky Pork made Sumitomo a pioneer in selling chilled pork into Japan. It led the way for additional meat branding (multiple American pork brands now compete skillfully with more than 400 domestic pork brands in Japan), it opened the door for consumer research in stores, and allowed a smooth intro into foodservice through yet another partnership with existing Tonkatsu restaurants, increasing the feeling of familiarity to Japanese consumers.
I believe beef industry companies could learn from pork’s success in Japan, as we rebuild and retool our offerings to Japan. Every cloud has a silver lining. While every story I hear about the 2003 case of BSE and its effect on the Japanese beef market makes me cringe, I’ve begun to think that a “do-over” in re-introducing Japanese consumers to U.S. beef may actually have a silver lining–allowing us to strategize carefully about our future direction, and to decide how much investment we need to make to fully realize profit potential in international markets.
One thing I’ve heard in each of my packer meetings with JBS, Tyson, National and Cargill (and several other importers and distributors) this week: middle meats have growth potential in Japan. While we definitely sold some middle meat here prior to BSE, the potential at this point in time may be larger than ever. How to capture the heart, mind and discerning eye of Japanese women (who make most of the buying decisions here, just like in the U.S.) remains our challenge and our opportunity.
Random Photos of the Day: