Press your index fingers and thumbs together in a triangle pattern in front of any Japanese person over the age of 35, and there’s every chance the gesture will score an immediate reaction from them.
“Aussie Beef!” will be the response, and this reporter has seen it happen time and time again.
It is a powerful reminder of the unbelievable ‘stickability’ of Australia’s original marketing campaign in Japan, executed during the years immediately after the Japanese beef market liberalised in 1990.
Not surprisingly, the Australian beef industry threw big licks of money at marketing campaigns in Japan after the market opened-up, including mainstream TV campaigns worth millions of dollars each year.
The little girl featuring in the TV ads making the triangle symbol with her fingers and exclaiming “Aussie Beef” became a household name. The fact that ‘Aussie’ sound like ‘delicious’ in Japanese was an unexpected bonus.
Research showed that unprompted recognition of the symbol in coming years among Japanese consumers was above 97 percent. That’s drifting into Coca Cola brand recognition territory.
But the truly amazing thing is how much residual value that original big investment in mass market advertising still has for Australian beef, and the Aussie Beef symbol.
Against all advertising industry conventions, even today the Aussie Beef symbol scores instant recognition with 90+ percent of Japanese consumers old enough to remember the original campaign.
That’s why ‘Aussie Beef’ is making a comeback in coming months, as part of MLA’s 2013-14 Japan marketing campaign.
Japan region manager Melanie Brock was in Brisbane last week as part of the series of industry taskforce meetings, and spent some time with Beef Central talking about plans for next year.
As highlighted in Tuesday’s article, “Industry cuts its cloth to suit its marketing budget,” expenditure in Japan and other mature markets will be down a little next year, allowing for a little more money to be spent in emerging frontiers like China, the EU and the Middle East.
“While our marketing budget will be back a little, it won’t impact on the broader thrust of activity MLA executes in Japan on behalf of the industry,” Ms Brock said.
“Japan is in a very interesting place at the moment. The new Prime Minister is enjoying very high approval ratings, and has talked about an inflation target of 2pc. Wages are on the rise, and there is a sense of optimism that has not been present for a long time,” she said.
Countering that, the big reduction in the value of the Yen had had a big impact, with an 18pc decline in value recently against the US$, as well as similar decline versus the A$.
“That has made US beef coming in under the new 30-month rule far more costly than the Japanese trade had anticipated, coming in at well over Y90 instead of Y78,” she said.
That had eroded expectations that there would be cheap US beef flooding into Japan under the revised 30-month rule.
“But obviously the greater goal is overall increased consumption in Japan,” Ms Brock said.
“Japanese consumers are still a long way from eating the volumes of beef they did before the arrival of BSE in 2000, but I have seen more beef-focussed TV cooking programs in Japan over the last six months than I have seen for the past three years.”
“That’s partly because of the expectation over US beef, but we think it will benefit imported beef sales generally,” she said.
“Japan may surprise us this year, and many of the exporters engaged in the market are fairly bullish about prospects ahead. It reflects the maturity of the market, and its capacity to come back, even though it has taken a few big hits, economically, and through the Tsunami. The BSE ‘fear factor’ is really quite diminished now.”
One interesting area of growth was in partnership with value-adding companies with operations in other nearby countries, producing products to service the Japanese market.
“We are starting to work with large Japanese companies with processing plants in China and southeast Asia, to ensure that the supply chain to produce those processed products is based on Australian beef,” Ms Brock said.
“In Japan itself, we are quite confident that this renewed sense of optimism being seen at the moment will translate into good, solid figures for the food service segment, in particular, but also at retail.”
Australia was now re-engaged with Japan over a Free Trade Agreement, after a lengthy furlough following the 2011 Tsunami and earthquake.
The Japanese Prime Minister only last week announced his country’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement talks, which meant that for the first time, Japan was actively seeking engagement in a multi-lateral trade pact. While some segments of Japanese society were against the move, saying it would further erode local agricultural and other industries, other sectors were committed to the process, based on its positive impact on the Japanese economy.
Overall, Australia needed to be well-positioned and prepared to respond when Japan does start showing signs of growth, in meat consumption and demand, Ms Brock said.
“It’s important that we continue to show strong support for the Japanese market, just as they have with us in the past,” she said.
The US had now had about a month’s worth of supply under the revised 30-month rule, but the market had settled down quickly following the change in supply conditions.
“The great expectations about price and supply that many in the Japanese trade had, probably hasn’t been realised, partly due to currency movements, but also due to supply issues in the US, caused by drought and fewer US cattle on feed,” she said.
“The US had spent big dollars on promotions in preparation for the change in protocol, but while the Japanese will want the US yakiniku style cuts that Australia cannot supply in abundance, the whole issue is how this plays out on a cut by cut basis.”
Golden Week, a peak Japanese demand period for beef, was now about a month away, and many of the larger retail groups like WalMart and Costco had already committed to a heavily discounted price, even before the currency movements against the US$. That had set the pace for everybody else.
The large Aeon supermarket group will launch its Australia Fair this week through 1500 stores, bringing that forward from August in a strong push for Australian product.
Part of that will include the use of the revived and much-loved ‘Aussie Beef’ logo, which will form a foundation to Australia’s marketing effort in the market this year.
“Japanese people still love it (the symbol),” Ms Brock said.
“Recent consumer research has reinforced that Japanese have a strong affinity with Australia, and Australian beef, and are starting to respond to our iron and other nutrition messages, as well as the fundamental clean & green Aussie beef message.”
“So what better way than to revive the old ‘Aussie Beef’ logo, in a modern way. This year it will involve three good-looking young Japanese male chefs, advocating Australian beef and the making the symbol with their fingers.”
The nationwide campaign will be seen on-line, in magazines, and in point-of-sale material in thousands of Japanese retail outlets, via pre-pack stickers, recipe cards, and posters. It will also be used via food websites (70pc of Japanese women look online for recipes) and an i-phone alert campaign to millions of Japanese housewives, arriving on their mobile phones about 4pm just as they make the evening meal decisions.
While the current MLA budget cannot extend to TV campaigns as they once did, it’s about working ‘smarter’ using some of the modern social media platforms to spread the message in cost-effective, creative ways.
MLA Japan may also look for the original ‘little girl’ who took part in the 1990s TV ads, as part of a ‘whatever happened to?’ segment.