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Land and Environment : Agribusiness Assoc. of Australia
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Agribusiness Review - Vol. 10 - 2002

Paper 4
ISSN 1442-6951


Festive Seasons in Asia: A Unique Marketing Opportunity

Kaye Crippen, Grant Vinning, Scott Vinning.

Introduction

Festive seasons and special ceremonial events are often important opportunities for marketing food and fiber/textile products in Asia. For the purposes of this paper, the three key festive seasons of Christmas, Chinese New Year, and Ramadan and Idul Fitri (Aidilfitri) are reviewed for market opportunities in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. This paper includes basic descriptions of each of these festive seasons and the special role of food and fiber products, and the implications for marketers.

The issues of universal product and marketing systems versus regionalisation or localisation of the product offering are important considerations in an era of rapid globalization. In marketing food and fiber, these issues can be important in tapping into markets in Asia.

Cultural aspects of doing business in Asia continue to be important. These include which hand not to eat with, and what is the proper etiquette when served refreshments or when sharing a meal. There are also many taboos related to what foods various religious groups eat. The basics are Hindus do not eat beef, Buddhists may be vegetarian or not eat meat on some days, and Muslims do not eat pork, pork products, or consume alcoholic beverages.

Festive seasons and special celebrations, whether cultural or religious, can offer unique marketing opportunities. The awareness of potential marketing opportunities for special foods and fibers for festive seasons is related to an in-depth understanding of local or regional cultures, and in some cases of specific religious aspects.

Festivals, whether cultural or religious, require use of special food or fiber. For example, Muslims have the fasting month of Ramadan, followed by the celebration of Idul Fitri (Aidilfitri or Lebaran). The Lebaran period includes many family visitations where food is served. As a second example, most Chinese in Asia celebrate Chinese New Year with special foods. The sales of Mandarin oranges used as exchange or as offerings, either at the family altar or at the temple, increase significantly during this period. In general, each of these festival seasons has something to do with family and community and sharing food and fellowship.

Market opportunities

The authors became aware of the festive season's market during certain market research conducted for a group of Australian stone fruit growers who had developed their own brand name. The group had a training seminar before departing Australia and had some understanding of the new Asian markets, which they were visiting. The authors realized that many of the participants had not seen sites familiar to those living in Asia. Such sites included Asian wet markets where much produce is still sold in Asia and household and temple altars with offerings of fruit such as oranges and peaches.

Although the group had discussed these uses of their products before departing Australia, seeing these situations at first hand gave the Australian exporters different understanding of the cultural aspects important to marketing their product as well as an understanding of the complete market systems.

For festive seasons markets, calendar dates and shape, color and size of the fruit might be more important than flavor. Many marketers used to the required product specifications and market conditions within the domestic market, often fail to grasp subtle differences within the export market that can mean the difference between success and failure or affect the size of the export market demand. For example, if the shipment is late, they will have missed the opportunity when the market demand is the greatest. Many might think that being a few days late would not matter. However in some cases it is critical.

Before one can evaluate the various festive season marketing opportunities, it is imperative to have some detailed understanding of the culture. For example, bread in the shape of a crocodile in a Jakarta bakery is a traditional bread used by the Bedawi culture and shared during special ceremonies such as weddings.

Even birthday celebrations in Asia vary from the use of birthday cake, to rice cones in Java, to noodles in China where the length of the noodle signifies longevity. Chinese food and textiles are especially rich in symbolism. So at auspicious times, such as Chinese New Year, one sees much symbolism related to food usage. Hence it is essential to understand the festive seasons to identify market opportunities.

Factors related to demand

It is important to understand those factors that influence consumption and demand. Asian families are often close knit, and extended families can be quite large. Consumer purchasing habits are changing and these are influenced by an increase in urban living and the many new malls with supermarkets, department stores, and fast food outlets. However, wet markets remain important, and produce is often purchased at the wet market or from a door-to-door vendor, with purchases made by the consumer or by a household helper. The growth of supermarket shopping has been influenced by an increase in working women who find the hours of the supermarket more suitable to their schedules, and the shopping trip often becomes a family outing with an element of entertainment. The supermarket has a much greater variety of products and the consumer is more likely to see new products to try.

Many supermarkets have a large number of stock keeping units (SKUs), so it is no longer as easy to secure shelf space. New retail formats, such as hypermarkets, are popular in some areas, and discount stores are starting to appear. The growth of the convenience store is also important and, during festival seasons, last minute food gift items might be purchased at such an outlet.

Holidays, such as Chinese New Year, often require elaborate food preparation. Many middle and upper class households in Asia have household helpers who assist with selection and preparation. Hence marketers must reach their correct target to get the product into homes. Income disparity is often great in many areas there is also a great diversity amongst consumers. The more educated, and those who have traveled, often will try new products more readily. Many Asian countries have a high proportion of youth, which is also willing to try new products.

It is important to understand that Asia is not a mass market, but a highly segmented market. It is also necessary to try to understand potential customers and to target the correct ones. In cultures where status is very important, food and fiber is still used to convey this concept.

For a number of reasons, restaurants are often important during the season of Chinese New Year. Many Chinese go to restaurants to celebrate their reunion dinner. Elaborate meals are prepared with many courses of foods. During Christmas, New Year and other festive seasons, hotels aim to show their culinary and entertainment skills. Some offer special packages termed pakets in Bahasa Indonesian to attract guests to stay. Often people will go to a hotel for New Year and spend the night there. During Lebaran, when maids traditionally return home to their villages to celebrate with their families, hotels in Jakarta offer special packages which include rooms and food, since the maid is not in the home to do the cooking. They may also provide temporary prayer facilities, usually in the hotel or attached to the hotel.

Selected festive seasons

Christmas

Christmas is celebrated in Asia by Christians in the local communities as well as by the expatriate communities. However, it is becoming a more universal celebration in many areas of Asia, with gift and or card exchanges popular in some areas. In countries such as Indonesia, one will see the occasional Christmas tree in commercial buildings, but not see so many of the decorations usually associated with the season in Western countries.

Of the three countries discussed in this paper, Singapore has the most specialized food offerings. Standard items, such as turkey, pumpkin stuffings, Christmas puddings, candies, and other items, have expanded to include a greater number of SKUs. Supermarkets may also sell special napkins, decorations and non-food items. In Singapore, one can find a very wide range of products.

Astute Singapore supermarket retailers started offering preparations of turkey and ham with the trimmings, since many household helpers would not know how to cook a traditional Christmas meal. In many cases, domestic kitchens would not be suitable for such food preparation. Stores have now expanded their delicatessen offerings to include local Chinese favorites such as pork ribs and other treats. Retailers in Singapore think that more people are now celebrating the season with special foods. Also, many Asians receive year-end bonuses from their employers and like to treat their families to special foods.

In Singapore, the Orchard Boulevard and other shopping areas are decorated to entice customers. Today, many Asians or expatriates living in Asia like to spend this festive season in Singapore. Shopping mall proprietors realize that they entice customers by their store decorations. Tanglin Mall, a relatively new mall in Singapore, had a winner last year with old and young alike. A giant Santa blew real snow every evening and crowds congregated for the event. Inside the stores, scenes of Christmas and music greeted the holiday shoppers. This total approach to marketing a festive season is important. Santa was soon replaced by Confucius when the season for marketing Chinese New Year started in the mall.

Chinese Lunar New Year

Chinese New Year is an important event, which starts with the family sharing a reunion dinner on the eve of Chinese New Year. The other two key days are the first day which is often celebrated with vegetarian food and the last day, the fifteenth day, which is generally celebrated with another reunion dinner with close family. Chinese New Year is a cultural celebration. In many areas, families who can afford it, will go to a restaurant or hotel, where offerings include set menus. Since the Chinese believe in auspicious numbers, colors, and motifs, these abound during this season. So dinners for a table of ten might be priced at $888 and have a distinctive name. Many hotels give auspicious names to dishes. Popular items include fai chi because of its sound. Abalone and shark fin consumption increases during this season.

A more recent creation found in Singapore and Malaysia is the yu sheng (yee shang) made of a number of shredded items such as carrots, and raw fish. It is served on a round platter and celebrants toss and shout a slogan for good luck. This has become so popular that hotels are now extending the duration of the period they offer this, creating a take away offering, and up scaling to include more expensive fish such as lobster. Some supermarkets offer a do-it-yourself kit with the items for making the special sauce, since restaurants charge a premium.

There are numerous aspects to this festive season. Even business associates often send hampers of festive season food gifts to one another. The key point is that people buy more food and try to eat the best festive foods that they can afford. Visitations are common and people exchange Mandarin oranges and eat snacks, which include watermelon seeds, red dates, preserved fruits, and special Chinese New Year cookies. Wax ducks, sausages, and special thin slices of barbecued pork are also sold during this season. Exotic items such as bird's nest and sharks fin are in demand at this time. Almost all items are packaged in red and or gold.

Ramadan

The Muslim month of fasting may at first not appear to be important for marketing food. However, initial research would seem to indicate that even average and lower income people may try to eat a better food and perhaps more food during this time. An example given was someone who usually eats no meat with noodles for breakfast might add a little chicken.

Breaking fast may involve more elaborate foods. Often family, friends, or colleagues break fast together. This is termed buka puasa in Bahasa Indonesian. Hotels offer special buka puasa buffets with a large number of items. Mosques may also provide cooked food. Even shopping malls and fast food restaurants offer specials. In restaurants, the gong may be sounded at the appropriate time or a speaker announces the time. Consumption of food increases during this period. Neither food or water or other liquids are taking during the fasting periods, but persons with special medical conditions do not fast.

How does one break fast? Some start with dates or something sweet, while others may sip tea. Sweet soups, kolaks, and many sweet as well as savory items, are consumed. The authors did find variation from country to country in food items as well as in variations of customs.

Lebaran

The culmination of the month long Ramadan fasting period is celebrated with families and friends. Visitations may extend for several days. The ketupat, or steamed rice inside a woven container, is traditionally made the day before by the mother and children. Other traditional dishes served include opor ayam, which is a spicy chicken dish with coconut milk and lemon grass; rendang, a spicy dish made with chillies and coconut milk and generally beef for this occasion, and other savories, snacks and sweets. Youth are open minded to try new dishes. This year one family served pizza at the recommendation of their daughter.

The common theme throughout the above festive seasons is that they focus on family and friends and meeting to spend time together regardless of any special religious meanings associated with the festivities. Sharing food is an important element of these festive seasons. In multi-cultural communities, often friends from different cultures participate in their friends celebrations.

Substantial opportunities for textiles also exist during Lebaran. Many customers purchase new household textile items such as draperies or pillows. Some of these items are sold at open-air markets. New apparel or best wardrobe attire is generally worn for the first day of Lebaran. The traditional female attire requires long pants or a skirt, covered by a long  or veil. This translates to a large number of meters of textiles used. Designers offer very elaborate attire during this time for the people who can afford it.

Since both Chinese New Year and Lebaran and Ramadan last for many days, the opportunities are unique. Special requirements are necessary when Chinese New Year and Lebaran occur in close proximity. These requirements include the unique packaging and decorations by stores, especially in Malaysia. Restaurants and supermarkets also find it difficult to meet staffing requirements. This would mean opportunities for produce, which is normally minimally processed such as pineapples, which have been peeled. Any type of time saving items would help in food service establishments. Since these two festive seasons are lunar based, the type of fruit and produce offered may differ from year to year.

Marketing implications

Examples of new product offerings could include chilled abalone, a vegetarian 'pork' product, the yu sheng kit, and persimmons and squashes to compete with Mandarin oranges due to their color. Up scaling of Mandarin oranges is more common; they are now packaged in smaller, better four color boxes with a carrying handle. Cheese was introduced into a new market segment in Indonesia as a dessert or sweet served during Ramadan and Lebaran. These are just a few examples, but they all illustrate the need to understand the festive season market. It might have been more difficult to introduce cheese to the traditional market segment, but once customers have used it, the manufacturer can then inform them about other ways to use the product. Hence we see the importance of cultural aspects in marketing.

It is important to assess the market possibilities for each product in various countries. For an exporter already doing business in some Asian countries, it would be logical to evaluate opportunities to increase sales or to launch new products during these festive seasons.

For an intending exporter starting to assess the potential of Asia, existing products should be assessed to determine the feasibility of better matching the product to market requirements. To do this, it is essential to visit the location and understand more about the specific festive seasons.

Other considerations include special packaging for the seasons. For example, candy manufacturers make special packages for Christmas, Chinese New Year, and Lebaran. Sampling is another way to potentially increase sales. Advertising and promotion are key activities.

Brand names, colors, and symbols are important in Asia. An example of a brand name developed in conjunction with the authors is 'Red 88' for apples exported to Asia. In developing the name the authors realized that 4 is not an auspicious number, but 8 is lucky, and 88 denotes double lucky. This nomenclature was combined with red, which is a good color. Naming is key. Also, symbols and motifs should be appropriate to the culture.

One key is to find a local partner who will give good quality local information and support your product. Site visits should be made to understand the situation. In some cases, it is difficult for someone who has lived in a specific culture all their lives to understand an exporter's lack of understanding of the situation. It is essential that the exporter and agent or distributor start working early with the retailer or hotel. Some hotels plan events one year in advance, especially for special food promotions. Retailers may start as early as six months in advance due to long shipment times and promotional planning. Samples and brochures are valuable aids in achieving orders. Point-of-sale displays are also common during festive seasons.

Implications for food and fiber/textile marketers who wish to tap into festive seasons in Asia include timing of supply, securing shelf space, merchandising, packaging, and new product development. Festive seasons offer major opportunities for selling both new and traditional products. With the rapidly expanding urban middle classes throughout Asia, the importance of understanding these festive seasons is important.

References

Anon . (1997) 'Eat and Prosper', Wine & Dine 4(1), pp.35-46.

Leong G, (1992) Festivals of Malaysia, Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications (M) Sdn Bhd.

Lewis B, (ed), (1976) The World of Islam, Thames and Hudson, London.

Welch P, (1997) Chinese New Year, Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press.

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