Canadians may be forgiven for being a little bit bitter about the success of Aussie beef in the Japan market. But we would be silly not to take note of what the Australians have been up to. In June
2008, Prime Minister Rudd stopped by a Jusco supermarket in Yokohama, flanked by Motoya Okada, president of food giant AEON, and a huge media contingent. He proceeded to hand out samples of Aussie beef to consumers as a kickoff for a huge promotion by the MLA in several hundred supermarkets in the AEON group. Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) has been running a hugely successful ongoing Father’s Day beef promotion with celebrity Japanese chef Harumi Kurihari, Japan’s Martha Stewart. Over the last four years, regional manager of MLA, Samantha Jamieson, has written about 25 columns for the NIKKEI SHIMBUN, Japan’s most respected business newspaper, something akin to a Japanese rice representative in New York or Toronto writing regularly in the NEW YORK TIMES or the GLOBE AND MAIL. While it may be tempting to chalk some of these marketing successes up to good timing or opportunism, the fact is there has been some clever strategizing too.
MLA’s most successful strategy has been to ride on the shirttails of a huge government information campaign begun in 2005 called Shokuiku (Food Education). By all accounts, the program should have been working against the Australians. In addition to promoting a healthy diet, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Fisheries program touched on all kind of fears in Japanese society about the loss of traditional food culture, low food self-sufficiency, and the declining Japanese agriculture industry. Buying domestic product has become not only a moral issue, but also an emotional one.
The Australians easily found their way through the minefield. They avoided Crocodile Dundee stereotypes about their natural environment and friendly people, and instead poured their efforts into showing the Japanese how much they care about food. They have exploited the Shokuiku concept that producers should have a face, and farmers’ and consumers’ eyes should meet. Japanese language Aussie Beef advertisements all show a smiling Australian standing out in the field. I am just an honest farmer, the message goes, just wanting to grow an honest product for some honest folks who can appreciate it. And since the Japanese beef industry can now boast that a serial number on a package of meat precisely identifies the animal and farm from which it came, the Australians have been anxious to show they are not far behind. Safety is one of the main features of the MLA Japanese website, and pages of detailed information describe quality control, traceability, and inspection mechanisms. Food safety is a key feature in all Aussie Beef advertising.
However, Australia’s most intriguing use of Shokuiku is their school education program started in 2008. Japanese classrooms have been a key battleground for the Japanese agricultural industry, and this has not gone unnoticed by the MLA. Based on the theme “Let’s Study About Aussie Beef,” Meat and Livestock Australia offers to send an Australian and a Japanese teacher out to elementary schools to tell students about “nearby Australia,” Aussie Beef feeding environments, as well as safety and quality control measures. The reps are also able to offer some nutritional “advice” on nutrition for elementary school students; the school lunch program just happens to be one of the most hotly debated areas of Shokuiku, and a billion-dollar industry.
Another massively successful Australian marketing strategy has been the careful targeting of Japanese women. It is worth first noting that the support base for Japanese agricultural products is not in ministry meeting rooms full of men in grey suits; rather it is in Japanese kitchens. Also worth noting is the word for “housewife” in Japanese, shufu, implies something more like “house manager,” and lacks the slightly negative connotation of English. The concept for the first supermarket for everyday Japanese in 1957, and predecessor of the massive Daiei supermarket chain, was in concept a Shufu no Mise, or “housewife’s store.” Indeed, supermarkets continue to acknowledge this discerning power of female consumers and their management role in the home. Japanese women know exactly what kind of beef they are buying and where it comes from.
The Australians figured all this out long ago. The main
Japanese language web presence of Meat and Livestock Australia is not their commercial site, but their website designed for homemakers. The website, pinkish in color and featuring friendly handwriting font, not only provides scores of recipes and restaurant information, but hoses readers with information about food safety, traceability and beef production. Most intriguing is the fact that the Australians are borrowing from the bag of tricks used by Japan’s deeply conservative agricultural organizations. The main website of the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, Japan’s main protector of domestic agricultural industries, features a polished web magazine and a “blog” for women both entitled “APRON.” Apron sandwiches frightening articles about Japanese low food self-sufficiency between delicious recipes for locally grown meat and vegetables.
By far the best pitch to Japanese women has been the marketing of MLA regional manager Samantha Jamieson herself. When Kevin Rudd showed up in a Japanese supermarket in 2008, standing behind him in a red MLA apron was Samantha Jamieson. Samantha appeared alongside Harumi Kurihari in the Father’s Day promotion, and has been the centre of a great deal of positive attention in Japan. She has not neglected to point out that she is fluent in Japanese because she did a home stay in Japan at the end of the eighties, where she was “one of the family.” It was when she went with her host mother to the market every day to buy fish and meat, the story goes, she discovered “what housewives really want.” Indeed, having a woman at the head of MLA in Japan has made advertising which shows knowledge that women buy meat on special occasions like Christmas or Father’s Day much more convincing. Fortunately she is now wrapping up her eight-year stint with MLA.
MLA’s most spectacular success has been its strategic use of the Japanese media. The Australians recognized the extraordinary influence mainstream newspapers like the YOMIURI, ASAHI, and NIKKEI have on Japanese consumers, and used the newspapers to publicize their advertising campaigns. In Japan, companies carefully use press clubs located in government and trade offices to roll out new products and marketing initiatives, while the media gets ready-made stories from press kits.
Jamieson penned several dozen articles for the Bijinesu Senki (business war stories) column in the NIKKEI SHIMBUN, Japan’s must-read national business newspaper. Japanese newspapers occasionally invite successful foreigners to contribute to their columns, but Jamieson’s articles were particularly influential, and reference to them can still be found all over the Japanese blogosphere. Some articles dealt with informal topics such as her return to work after having a baby, others were artful expansions of the key MLA messages. “Loss of trust in objective data and control mechanisms,” Jamieson observed, “has meant people put their trust in the picture of the producer on the package.” As the “face of a producer,” she too would like to her eyes to meet those of the consumer.
While all these things have been happening, Canadian producers have remained largely locked out of the Japanese beef market. But that does not mean there is nothing for us to learn from Aussie Beef marketing. In fact, everyone interested in selling food to the Japanese should be paying attention.
Paul Sinclair Is A Saskatchewan Farm Boy With A PhD From The Osaka University Of Foreign Studies In Osaka, Japan. He Currently Lives And Works In Taipei, Taiwan.