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Spotlight: K-Food in America

By Karina Masolova,

While Korean food (K-food) is just a small part of the speciality foods industry, it’s the touchpoint for many questions about branding, such as: What does it take to market an entire industry? A country?

American retail sales of specialty foods reached $99 billion in 2016, and make up 15% of all retail food sales, according to the Specialty Food Industry. In an attempt to grab even more of that share, the Korea Agro-Trade Center New York (aT Center) recently hosted K-FOOD FAIR New York. The show was launched in order to introduce American buyers to South Korean manufacturers, and the organizers hope to build relationships. I had the chance to sit down with the staff of aT Center, including President Kwang-Jin Kim.

To begin, keep in mind that the Korean food market is relatively immature. In the U.S., retail sales activity is concentrated in areas with high Asian and Hispanic populations. But the aT Center, a government-invested enterprise responsible for the marketing and trade of its country’s agriculture and food industry, is playing the long game. The agency is just one part of a greater strategy of “nation branding”; the country’s first attempt to create Korea’s national brand began only in 2002.

The aT Center’s primary target? Millennials. When it comes to food and beverage brands, adults aged roughly between 20–36 are one of the easiest demographics to market and sell to. They are interested in trying new, exciting flavors; trying healthy and sustainable ready-to-eat foods; and have even invested in Korean culture through the soaring popularity of K-Pop stars and TV shows. And the best part? Once they incorporate a food/beverage into their diets, they won’t disuyjhnengage for decades to come. The immense staying power of food/beverage goods is part of the reason that among all the product categories we track, licensing deals for those goods tend to be the longest (albeit, with some of the lowest royalty rates).

The history of branding food and beverage products in Korea is quite different than that in the U.S. Several years ago, a government-led initiative gave birth to a “grouped” branding scheme for certain Korean foods. A particular product, like kimchi or seaweed, would have its own character brand—no matter what company made it, all kimchi would have the same imagery. The idea would be to create a uniform impression among foreign buyers and encourage general consumer recognition and goodwill towards Korean food exports as a whole. But companies rebelled, preferring to have their own, distinct branding.

As a side effect, it is difficult today to find “character” branding as we know it for food/beverage products. Except for the largest conglomerates, most small- and mid-sized companies market their products first, and brand second. Typical branding focuses around the area where a product came from, for example, a region famous for its distinctive kimchi recipe. Only in the last 10 years have companies started “star marketing,” or launching advertising campaigns with famous actor/actresses, music stars, or comedians to help distinguish their products. The implication was that partnerships with other brands would be far off.

But the “star marketing” strategy works, and it is one of the most impactful ways that K-food has become popular in the U.S. For example, First Lady Michelle Obama brought kimchee into our national consciousness. On TV, social media, and on the street in food trucks, chefs began using Korean-inspired ingredients like chili paste and seaweed. And K-food began showing up in subscription and ready-made boxes from companies like Blue Apron and Try The World.

Despite that, Vietnam and Thailand food/beverage exports into the U.S. outpace those from South Korea. I suspect basic staples like jasmine rice are singlehandedly skewing the scale, but the statistic itself is surprising. My theory? Americans don’t plan a vacation to Jeju Island (unfortunately for Lionsgate’s 1.3 million sq. ft. new theme park), but the smaller, Southeast Asian countries are prime destinations. Their image is more sensual, less academic. No matter how widespread K-pop and entertainment are, there remains some distance. Obviously, that is breaking down with time. But licensing is one of the most intimate forms of marketing there is—and for a consumer to eat or drink your products requires a higher level of trust and understanding.

In sum, the biggest takeway for any brand is: No matter what you’re selling, you have to translate it well. One of the most common refrains I hear from licensing executives working with TV entertainment properties hailing from overseas is the need to explain the show’s concept, meaning, and target market to retailers, even when they have a dedicated audience. Their story is not unique; every brand ambassador has to examine their brand critically and be able to articulate what makes it special. But when it comes to licensing, things get more personal.


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