An oft-told story of globalization is North American companies’ quest for new markets in foreign countries–tweaking the taste of Oreos for the Japanese palate, for example, or buying and developing a high-selling brand in a foreign market.
A more complex story is how the Western multinationals responded to the growth of multicultural communities in their home markets by importing those beloved international products–from Nestle’s Maggi seasoning to Knorr Asian and South Asian soups.
Just like a bedspread or painting brought over from the old country, seeing products from back home on Canadian shelves can serve as familiar and comforting touchstones to newcomers while providing marketers with an opportunity to get attention and shopping dollars.
Call them hybrid, ocean-crossing brands: products already under a multinational umbrella, but would be seen as “foreign” in North America even if they are seen as Western in their home markets. (Unilever’s Brooke Bond Taj Mahal tea, for example, is an Indian product but its roots stretch back more than a century to imperial Britain.)
“The mission statement I developed for the ethnic business out here was simple: make the immigrants feel at home,” said Partha Guha, senior manager of marketing and business development for Unilever National North America.
Guha’s job is to look for import opportunities in the multicultural space. He says Unilever had enjoyed success with its Knorr’s Asian soup bases in places like Hong Kong, and in the mid-90s saw an opportunity for the products in the growing Chinese communities in Canada.
“From a marketing perspective, we got serious in 2001 or 2002,” said Guha, adding that the company is focusing on bringing more Filipino and Chinese brands to Canada in 2014 – a response to changes in Canada’s newcomer populations.
“Initially we knew Cantonese-speaking communities were growing, so we targeted Hong Kong products,” said Guha. “Then mainland China [populations] started growing, so we are targeting mainland Chinese and Taiwanese products. Now we are seeing in Canada the Filipinos are growing, so we are targeting Filipino products.”
Familiarity, he said, is key when reaching out to immigrant shoppers. “Habits are very strong when it comes to food. That’s the same for anyone, it doesn’t have to be of Asian origin. When the Brits come here, they would like to still have their Marmite.”
Perhaps for that reason, Guha said when choosing brands to import in any given category, Unilever narrows it down to the leaders–the number one, two and three products in their home countries and nothing else.