Thought for food. (Or why the big grocery chains are missing the point.)


I was talking to Marina Strauss, the Globe and Mail's retail reporter just the other day, and we circled around for quite a bit trying to identify what the issues were with the marketing of grocery stores to multicultural markets.

As is typical, the lightbulb went off much later.
The issue is that there is none.

I think first of all the major grocers are doing very little other than bowing to the demographic realities of multicultural Canada and stocking ethnic foods on their shelves. They have no choice. It is simply good business to do so.

Those are market dictates and if they sold no ethnic foods, well someone else would do so and take that business away.

Whether you go into lower end stores like No Frills or Food Basics or into a Loblaws or Dominion (more on that later in this post), you will find ethnic or international aisles.

In a No Frills or Food Basics, you can be sure that the main focus is the ethnic or multicultural customer.

However, very little is being done to communicate that these S Asian and Chinese foods are available to those markets.

That's like a bank offering retail-level service in Punjabi or Cantonese, but keeping it a secret from their Punjabi and Cantonese customers - TD Canada Trust would never do a thing like that - they take some pains to let their customers know that such a product/service exists.

That's why they are consistently rated the top bank in the multicultural market - not just because they offer a product or service but because they take the trouble to communicate and carve a clientele for themselves; as a result, they don't just have a share of the market, they lead it.

When there has been an attempt to advertise directly to these markets, the low-end stores have tried to do it on the cheap.
It's why huge mistakes occur - mistakes like a TV spot marketing specials on beef (offends Hindus), pork (offends Muslims) and cranberry juice (is not on a S Asian's grocery list at all) to a S Asian audience on Omni.

It sounds unbelievable, but it's true.

In higher end stores, ethnic food aisles exist mostly for hip Caucasians who have adventurous palates - it's like the "world music" section at a music store. Yes, some S Asians and Chinese shop there but most shop at No Frills or Food Basics (there is new research from Solutions Research Group that confirms this, Marina tells me).

Furthermore, most of the marketing/advertising in a higher end store - say of Loblaws new PC butter chicken meal is aimed at Caucasian Canadians and largely delivered through flyers. Guess what language those flyers are in - yup, it's my own weapon of choice: Ye Olde Anglo-saxon.

There is little or no effective marketing or advertising to the two largest and most important (in terms of purchasing power too) visible minority markets: South Asians and Chinese.

Why? Partly because few self-respecting South Asian families would buy a meal in a box - those cool butter chicken and chicken tandoori meals are really meant for the Anglophone Indophile. It's pretty much the same for Chinese food and the Chinese audience.

So if the exotic-menu-meals-in-boxes aren't right for South Asian and Chinese palates, should Loblaws and Dominion and Sobeys start marketing to S Asians and Chinese? Absolutely. They need to buy apples and oranges and rice and milk and eggs like every one else. They just do it in different ways and with different cultural motivations and marketers at those stores would do well to begin figuring out how to connect and activate those motivations.

What are those motivations? More on that in my next post.

Photo by Pinprick/Amanda via flickr.
Article: Creative Commons License 2008 Gavin Barrett

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