EU Agricultural Mission to Japan highlights interest in consumer demographics, organic markets and retail innovation

This week Meros’ Managing Director Chisa Ogura presented on Japanese consumer food trends to delegates of the High Level EU Agricultural Mission to Japan led by EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan. There were over 70 delegates, including agricultural industry reps, SMEs and farmers from throughout the EU, all looking to understand how the new EU-Japan EPA can benefit food and agricultural trade between the EU and Japan.

It was a full house and we got great questions from the delegates on organic trends (especially in wine and beef), the impact of demographic changes and the notoriously fast turnover in new retail products.

Japanese consumers now spend more on bread than rice, more on meat than seafood and more on wine than sake, with cheese and yogurt consumption growing rapidly. This brings many potential opportunities for EU food and agriculture to develop new business in Japan.

Nevertheless, to successfully build a business in Japan, careful understanding of the characteristics of the Japan market is of course critical. For example, one area of interest to delegates was the fact that while countries like Denmark (227€ annual per capita spending), Germany (116€ per capita) and France (101€ per cap) have booming organic markets, consumer interest in organic products has been slow to catch on in Japan (only 8€ per capita).

The price premium for organic is relatively small in Japan, compared to some of its Asian neighbors, where organic products can command an extremely high price premium. Japanese consumers also tend to be convinced that domestic conventionally grown agricultural products are already safe and healthy and are less willing to pay a premium for organic certified products. In addition, organic agriculture is difficult in wet and humid Japan and this has resulted in fewer Japanese companies producing, promoting and educating on organic practices. While EU organic products are welcome in Japan, more of the burden for promotion and consumer education will fall on the EU side.

Other consumer trends that Meros highlighted included the Japanese consumer expectation for constant relaunches and limited editions of retail food and beverage products, which contrasts with many EU exporters’ focus on classic and authenticity, rather than innovation.  Not only is this seasonal packaging an issue, but urban Japanese consumers tend to bring their groceries home by hand or in a bicycle basket, to a kitchen with extremely limited storage space. Responsiveness to these Japanese consumer lifestyle realities can greatly improve EU exporters’ marketing and promotion strategies.


Kanpai! Sake needs new markets, in Japan and out

Kanpai!  Meros joined the discussion on NHK World’s current BizBuzz episode on the Japanese sake industry.  The episode can be seen streaming on NHK World for the next few weeks.

Sake, also called nihonshu, is an alcoholic beverage brewed from rice, water and the critical ingredient koji mold which helps convert the starch in rice into sugar to be fermented. Although sake is often called “rice wine” in English, this is a bit of a misnomer, as the production process is closer to beer brewing than to wine.

Within Japan, sake consumption has decreased to a minor share of the alcohol market (6%).  Sake began to be thought of as an “old man’s drink”, with younger Japanese consumers preferring beer, wine, shochu (Japanese distilled spirits) or other drinks.  With Japan’s shrinking population, Japan’s venerable sake breweries have needed to think strategically about how to maintain their industry – growing share within Japan as well as finding new markets overseas.

Japan has been seeing  growth both in younger brewers and new business models, such as Asahi Shuzo’s Dassai sake who marketed directly to Tokyo restaurants or and  start-up  Nihonshu Oendan which supports the sale and marketing of craft sakes from several breweries.  Sake brewery tours, like wine tours in California, are growing in popularity among both Japanese and international tourists.

Overseas too there has been increased interest in sake, both because of the increase in sushi and Japanese restaurants, as well as the inclusion of a sake category in major wine competitions.  For example, in Japanese sake’s top export market, the US, most Americans who have tried sake say their first experience was in a Japanese restaurant. Still, sake is a negligible share of even the US market.   To really have an impact in overseas markets, sake will need additional consumer education and will ultimately need to break out of the limited Japanese restaurant market.  Organizations like the Sake Samurai Program, Sake Education Council and WSET Sake Certification as well as direct-to-consumers sales models like Kanematsu’s Sake Network for the EU are looking to address these issues.

In this episode, Meros’ Lucia Vancura, sake expert Rebekah Wilson-Lye and host Jon Kabira discusses the changing sake market, the rise of sake sommeliers, pairing sake with non-Japanese cuisine challenges and opportunities for the sake market to grow overseas.

Meros shares green tea industry insights on NHK’s Biz Buzz Japan

Meros is back on this season’s Biz Buzz Japan on NHK World. This time Meros’ Global Markets director Lucia Vancura discusses the Japanese green tea industry and export marketing challenges with tea expert and certified tea instructor Oscar Brekell, and host Jon Kabira.

Green tea exports from Japan have doubled over the past decade to over 4000 MT, a bright spot for an industry whose domestic production has been falling.  The domestic Japanese green tea industry faces an aging and shrinking population of tea farmers, as well as Japanese consumers who have endless choices of beverages

Exports of Japanese green tea were driven initially by the growth in sushi and Japanese restaurants overseas over the past decade. The healthy image of green tea with its high anti-oxidants also boosted its popularity. Top tea export markets for Japan are the US, Taiwan and the EU-tea processing hub, Germany. Not only green tea leaves and bottled tea, but matcha (green tea powder) also has  become increasingly popular as a flavoring for desserts, from ice cream to cakes.  Now fruit-flavored green tea beverages and green tea lattes can be seen in cafes and convenience stores across the world.

Green tea and black tea both come from the leaves of the same plant (camellia sinensis), but then undergo different processing.  For Japanese green tea, the leaves are harvested three times a year, then quickly steamed, crushed and dried, retaining the green color and original fragrance.  Many other countries, including China, Vietnam and Taiwan also produce green tea, but through a slightly different process that usually includes panfiring, rather than steaming the leaves. Due to the differences in processing, as well as the different climates and cultivars, tea leaves from different areas have distinctive flavors. Japanese green teas are often described as “grassy” and “mellow”.

Japanese green tea exporters face various challenges in international markets for various reasons, including low consumer familiarity with Japanese green tea, regulatory barriers related to agrochemical registration, as well as the high price and relatively low volumes available for export. In overseas markets, although green tea itself is increasingly common, there is often no reason for a bottled tea manufacturer or a lemon-flavored green tea product to use expensive Japanese green tea as a raw material. These manufacturers need large volumes of affordable green tea leaves. Cheaper tea leaves from China, South America or elsewhere are usually substituted.

The key for Japanese green tea producers, who are typically small family farms, is understanding the needs and interests of overseas consumers. What kind of packaging is attractive – dry leaves, bottles, or ready-to-drink tea bags?  Do people buy tea at cafés or supermarkets? Inspiring people to become interested in the characteristic flavor of Japanese green tea, compared to other green teas, may be the best way to convince consumers to pay the higher prices that Japanese green tea requires.

This NHK BizBuzz episode discusses issues in the green tea industry and highlights some creative ventures in the domestic market to attract younger and new consumers. These include cold-brewed green tea packaged and served like high-end wine and flavored Japanese green tea.

The episode is broadcast on NHK World throughout June and is available online on demand until July 21st.  NHK World is available around the world on cable as well as streaming online.