The New Zealand dairy industry, like many other primary industries, fuelled by market volatility is at a pseudo crossroads in its evolution. Does it look to secure its past dominance in global dairy commodity trade and optimise its investment into established commodity infrastructure? Or does it forego past heritage and investments, adopting a more singular focused strategic migration into revenue dominance from consumer value-add exports and secure the perceived provenance value of our dairy products?
Anecdotally, the view of the majority of industry stakeholders is a push for the latter. New Zealand’s dominant dairy exporter, Fonterra has made a genuine contribution in this direction to date, but by its own acknowledgement, still has a long way to go7. Other dairy exporters are now re-aligning strategies to secure their share of the potential prize and as a result, considerable media and industry discussion has evolved on what needs to be done and the urgency behind the industry need.
I saw an opportunity to understand this subject better and apply a critical analysis of existing research, market participation and industry support initiatives to understand just what focus our industry needs in order to brand our products successfully.
China is an export market that has dominated export revenues for the New Zealand dairy industry in recent years and its demand for dairy with attributes like those associated with New Zealand is forecast to continue to grow17. Fonterra have recently stated the strategic importance of the Chinese consumer market within its strategic goals7. With growing attention and market penetration within China from competing dairy export nations, there is no better time for New Zealand to form a plan, which includes identifying a target market.
A review of existing literature and research identified that the current Chinese dairy market considers food safety, freshness and authenticity when making their consumer choices for food and beverage consumables. Existing New Zealand exporter marketing had not challenged the market with anything other than satisfying these key consumer needs.
The report proposes that the target market should be the emerging upper- middle-class demographic within Chinese consumer society. These consumers had been found to be young, adventurous, well-travelled, independent thinking, while maintaining traditional Chinese benevolence and health/wellbeing values20. They display much of the same behaviours observed within their western “lifestyle consumer” peers and combined with an empowerment to now establish a generation identity, are likely to be attracted to a brand purpose rather than more sterile functional attributes.
Existing literature points toward an opportunity for either the New Zealand industry as-a-whole or individual exporters to develop a story to support product differentiation. This has been partially accomplished through the national NZ Story Group and quality assurance platforms such as inSight, but to date the story does not appear to be compelling enough to draw the market demand and premiums the industry seeks.
Past research such as that by Lincoln University’s AERU has identified generic Chinese consumer feedback on the importance of many of New Zealand’s credence attributes but fell short of being specific to dairy, the identified target market, and did not challenge survey respondents to make trade-off selections to simulate the actual rapid product-purchase process. I conducted a quantitative survey of over 500 upper-middle-class Chinese consumers using basic milk powder as a sample product and asked participants to prioritise factors I predicted would determine their purchase decision.
The results confirmed that historically understood consumer needs of Food Safety and Freshness still dominated consumer priorities, but that attitudes towards genetic modification had changed to a more negative perception. New Zealand’s traditional credence attributes of environmental stewardship and Animal Welfare best practice continued to rank as important but not critical and that what value these attributes did provide, stemmed from an association with health benefits.
It appears that the “NZ Story” New Zealanders are familiar with and associate much of their industry pride with, is either not fully understood by the target market or does not resonate. It was identified that only those consumers that associated environmental attributes with food safety benefits provided a willingness to pay a premium. My recommendation for future research is to better understand the factors within the potential NZ story that will engage the interest of these target pioneering consumers, thus creating a value behind a desire to be associated with New Zealand.
There certainly needs to be energy directed at establishing a robust channel of current market intelligence within both the Chinese retail and e- commerce markets across all aspects of consumer needs and attitudes. Such information will need to feed brand development and future functional innovation focuses.
A word of caution though, as it may just be a matter of time before this ever-modernising and westernising consumer demographic simply “catch up” with their western peers and evolve an appreciation (outside of personal health benefits) for our existing ethical product value all on their own.