Bring ethnic to Canada instead of converting ethnic to Canadian

Many food manufacturers and retailers are trying to crack the code of how to attract new or ethnic Canadians to their North American brands.  This represents a great opportunity, but one that may be tricky, expensive and require resources not already part of the company toolbox.

Consider the other side of this opportunity: if you can’t convert ethnic Canadians to Canadian brands, why not introduce the highly multicultural, open-minded Canadian shopper to ethnic products and brands?

There are many upsides to this and great examples of successes that were often just accidental.

Let’s look at the facts for a moment. Currently about 20% of Canadians are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. In the next 15 years, that number is expected to rise to 30%. The immigrants who come to major metropolitan centres such as Toronto or Vancouver are able to maintain many of the same eating habits they had in their home countries. This has led to pockets of communities where you can find ethnic grocery stores and a plethora of restaurants. And it’s certainly not just ethnic Canadians shopping and eating in those stores and restaurants – in some cases there are as many non-ethnic Canadian born customers as the ethnic customer. The exposure is already there.

There have been some very successful examples of ethnic products creeping slowly into conventional grocery stores, and their presence continues to grow.  A great recent example is coconut water – a very popular drink in many countries around the world but until recently, completely new to North America.  There was a story in the New York Times on July 26, which traced the roots of coconut water. It went from being sold only in specialty stores in ethnic communities to being a $400 million business in the U.S. alone with leaders in the beverage industry like Pepsico and Coca Cola trying to get in on the action.

Another successful example is Pataks Indian Sauces and Pastes. According to Statistics Canada, South Asians represent 5% of the total Canadian population. For many years Pataks was only available in the South Asian grocery stores, but it now has a strong representation in many others – even in some of the smallest towns in Canada. I was recently able to buy a jar of Pataks Hot Curry paste in Mount Forest, Ontario, population 4500.

As a non-food centric culture, (i.e. not a culture with particularly distinguishable foods or diet) Canadians are very open to new foods and flavours.  Today they are open to the real, authentic flavours ethnic cuisine can provide – not just the Canadianized versions we have become accustomed to. In fact, 50% of millennials (15-33 year olds) indicated that having a wide variety of ethnic foods was a driver in their choice of grocery store (Source:  Project Millennial, 2013).

Sourcing authentic products will not only allow ethnic Canadians to shop in conventional grocery stores and find some of the foods they like, but it will be welcomed by non-ethnic Canadians by providing them with variety. Products need not be imported. Good, authentic-tasting products made in Canada are just as acceptable and for some even more acceptable.

For retailers, sampling, demonstrations and in-store information will help move the product off the shelf.  For manufacturers, finding the right products that have both ethnic and non-ethnic appeal will require some consumer research.  The reality is not all products will work, and how they are positioned is be critical. Strategies may have to have a double-pronged approach: one for the ethnic Canadians who are familiar with the product and one for non-ethnic Canadians for whom this will be a new experience.  The strategies will need to be complementary.

The long-term benefit to introducing an ethnic product to non-ethnic Canadians would be to build credibility in a category, eventually enticing ethnic consumers.  In the meantime, you have the other 80% of the Canadian population to draw from.  The key to success is to be authentic both in approach and taste.