Canada: Kraft calls on star chefs to capture immigrant market

Wency Leung, Globe & Mail

Smita Chandra is breaking new ground for Kraft Canada.

As a designated “Kraft Kitchen Expert,” Ms. Chandra, who immigrated to Canada from India 25 years ago, is encouraging new South Asian immigrants to revamp their traditional cooking methods, using the company’s products.

Since 2009, the chef and cookbook author has been developing new recipes for the food giant to appeal to newcomers’ tastes. Her version of chicken korma, for example, replaces yogurt with Kraft Philadelphia cream cheese. Her tandoori shrimp recipe calls for Kraft creamy cucumber dressing, and her mango kulfi frozen dessert uses Kraft Cool Whip.

“In South Asia, the cooking style is so different. Everybody has three big meals a day, and four or five dishes at every meal, and people to help them in the kitchen to prepare it,” Ms. Chandra says, pointing out that newcomers need to adapt their cuisine to the North American lifestyle. “This is where I come in; I bridge the gap between traditional cooking with Kraft.”

In recent weeks, Kraft has upped the ante, bringing aboard celebrity chef Susur Lee to extend its reach into the immigrant market. As the company’s new Kraft Chinese Culinary Expert, Mr. Lee’s role will be twofold, according to Kraft Canada spokeswoman Lynne Galia. Mr. Lee will be sharing his expertise on Chinese culinary culture and taste preferences with the company, and introducing Kraft products to Chinese-Canadian families by developing recipes for the company’s website.

“As the landscape has changed and evolved, obviously, we need to as well, as a food company,” Ms. Galia says.

Major North American food companies have been expanding their overseas markets for decades. But targeting ethnic consumers on home turf is still relatively uncharted territory. Industry analysts say that’s changing, as shifting demographics in Canada force mainstream food companies to recognize new growth opportunities among domestic minority groups.

Last year, Campbell Canada launched a new line of halal-certified soups to cater to a growing population of Muslim Canadians. And this past February, the country’s largest grocer, Loblaw, appointed a new president with extensive knowledge of Asian markets. Following Loblaw’s 2009 purchase of Asian supermarket chain T&T, the company’s appointment of Vicente Trius as president underscores its intention to attract diverse customers.As Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston said at the time of the announcement, Mr. Trius “has an understanding of Asian retail, South Asian retail and what constitutes a great way to grab those customers.”

Over the next 15 years, about 75 per cent of the new consumers in this country will be visible minorities, with the majority coming from the Asia-Pacific region, says Sebastian Distefano, national industry leader for food and beverage at KPMG consultants.

“It’s a segment that can’t be overlooked,” he says. “I think companies … like Kraft are just starting to recognize that and lay the foundation in terms of developing products that fit their lifestyles, that fit their tastes.”

Since minority groups have been part of this country’s makeup since before Confederation, it’s a wonder that major food companies haven’t pounced on their market power sooner. And now that newcomers can easily pick up a vast array of imported foods at specialty grocers, it may be more challenging than ever to convince them to switch to mainstream North American brands.

Mr. Distefano says many companies had been delaying their growth plans during the recession, which may partly explain why they’re only ramping up their focus on ethnic consumers now. He also noted that it takes time for visible minority populations to reach critical mass and develop an appetite for North American brands.

“If you look at any immigrant population, when they first come into the country … it takes them a while to assimilate into the country,” he says. “I think as time passes, and as the base gets larger in terms of the number of people here, it will attract the eyes of larger players.”

Joel Gregoire, Toronto-based industry analyst for the research firm NPD Group, says a big, unanswered question that major players need to consider is: When do newcomers become acculturated? Moreover, what’s the best way for North American brands to make their way into newcomers’ households?

“If someone’s coming from China, they’re used to brands that they’ve seen in China or Hong Kong,” he says. “They might not be as open to brands that are in North America.”

Winning over the stomachs of specific minority groups can be a tricky business, Mr. Gregoire says. It’s tough, for instance, to lump together immigrants from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as a cohesive South Asian market.

“Those are very different countries … and of course, they’re very different from Chinese immigrants, from Filipino immigrants,” he says. “To target the ethnic consumer? Well, good luck.”

It takes a significant amount of money and resources to perform the research necessary to thoroughly understand and develop brand recognition and trust from individual groups, he adds. The last thing a company wants to do is come up with a campaign or product that misses its mark.

Furthermore, Mr. Gregoire says, companies can’t lose sight of the fact that non-minorities still make up the majority of the Canadian population.

At Kraft, Ms. Galia notes that her company’s South Asian and Chinese marketing campaigns are also intended for all Canadian consumers interested in “new and interesting flavours.”

The reality is, it’s not just newcomers’ palates that adapt when they come to Canada, Mr. Gregoire says. “As the [percentage] of Canadians that are visible minorities increases, and as immigration continues, what impact will that have on the rest of Canada?”