Let’s talk about rice…..

The inspiration for this post is a combination of the Asian love for rice, a fabulous Vietnamese restaurant in London and the increasing importance of heritage branding of Asian commodity exports.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Velo, a Vietnamese takeaway plus sit-in restaurant, is one of my favourites for an often Vietnamese lunch treat. Like any popular joint in food crazy London, it has long queues during lunchtime but a surprisingly efficient service. Rice is one of the primary ingredients in most of Velo’s popular dishes. Being an Asian, sampling rice in the myriad of forms it is served up in Asian cuisines comes naturally to me. So, that motivation combined with the curiosity of tasting Vietnamese food from an albeit commercial joint (this is not a street side shop) was the trigger to walk into Velo one day.

Rice is a staple diet in a majority of Asian countries. But at the end of the day, it is still a commodity, with sizeable levels of domestic consumption but also a significant earner of export revenues. So, what is it about rice that can be leveraged by Asian nations to position it as a heritage product and also use it to communicate a nation’s legacy? Manufacturers in India and Pakistan had woken up long ago to the opportunities of building brands around rice varieties and targeting them to export markets. You will probably see more TV advertising for Indian and Pakistani rice brands in the UK then you would encounter in the source countries. Walk into any supermarket with a significant Asian food section, and you will be bewildered by the variety of brands on the shelves.

As a product, rice has one single differentiating characteristic that allows any form of mainstream, premium or super-premium positioning. This is nothing but the type of the rice. Strong brands with sizeable loyalty levels have been built around this characteristic. Households will swear by a variety and will go to extreme lengths to get hold of that variety. It is form of luxury marketing positioned on scarcity and exclusivity, but at the bottom end of the price scale, that many Asian brands have mastered. Indian and Pakistani rice varieties are considered to be the best for numerous Asian dishes.

But is there room for more differentiated rice brands to develop across Asia? Of course there is, and they also have the ability to contribute brand building prowess to a nation. Let’s take an example of a country that has been able to successfully implement such initiatives.

As a Londoner, I am also not a stranger to Thai food. One of the characteristic ingredients of Thai food, whether you are having it in a posh Thai restaurant or having it from a street stall in Bangkok, is jasmine rice. In 2015, the World Rice Conference voted Cambodian and Thai rice as the best in world. Thai rice brands have strong export markets and are increasingly becoming more and more mainstream (expanding out of the pockets of loyalty among the global Thai diaspora). Thailand was one of the biggest rice exporting countries in 2015, pipped to the post by India. Thai rice brands like Khao Dawk Mali and Hom Mali have strong visibility and loyalty in global markets.

Other Asian countries are now waking up to this opportunity of building strong rice brands for global export markets. Two countries who have taken some serious steps in brand building are Vietnam and Taiwan.

In the middle of 2015, the Vietnamese Prime Minister gave official approval for a project to develop a Vietnamese rice brand that should have aspirations to become the world’s leading rice brand by 2030. From a realistic perspective, it is a perfectly achievable objective as Vietnam is the 3rd largest exporter of rice, but without any strong brand names. The simple creative brief for this rice brand is “a national rice brand in line with Vietnam’s culture, history and tradition”.

The time frame to identify and develop strong brand names for Vietnamese rice is till 2020 with the ultimate vision of becoming a global rice brand by 2030. Key milestones on this path are “20 per cent of export rice to have national brand names by 2020”, which should “increase to 50 per cent by 2030”.

Cambodia is another Asian nation that is taking rice branding for global export markets seriously. The article below provides some interesting highlights into the challenges of selecting a suitable brand name for Cambodia’s export varieties:

http://www.phnompenhpost.com/business/single-rice-brand-stirs-pot

The Cambodian government is aiming to reduce the fragmentation caused by multiple brand names in the export market by bringing all brands under a single brand name (akin to the “branded house” architecture framework). But the proverbial challenge is around bringing the different rice varieties under a single brand name. There is a pull and push between two ends of the spectrum – not to succumb to the lure of branding everything as “Phka Romduol” (which has been voted the world’s best rice three years running) and also not to use generic names like “premium” or “super premium”.

Cultural, societal and historical influences define Asian food and its primary ingredients. It is no different for rice. But brand building in rice comes with its own challenges.

In global markets where Asian cuisine is increasingly gaining popularity, the consumption of rice happens in an unbranded manner (what we call “blind”) at any eating place. I won’t know the brand of jasmine rice that I have eaten at a London Thai eatery. But a Thai family living in the UK would exercise brand preference or loyalty when buying Thai rice from a supermarket.

As Asian countries realise the branding potential of some of their country’s most signifying characteristics, brand builders will need to embrace the challenge of B2B branding for the burgeoning Asian eating out industry and combine it with B2C branding for their global diaspora. In both instances, for a product like rice, characteristics like taste, versatility, staying power, aroma and quality will remain critical. Brands should serve the purpose of instilling a nation’s pride, history and legacy on a pack of rice.

Next time when you have a plate of bai sach chrouk or Cơm tấm do pause and give a thought about the challenge that rice has overcome to make it to your plate of food.

Photo courtesy: Ruocaled

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