Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Dec 5, 2013

Q&A: Lee Kum Kee on the 'glocalisation' of oyster sauce

HONG KONG - Linda Ho (何婉霞), executive vice president of global marketing at Lee Kum Kee (李錦記), in an exclusive interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific, explains the brand's '100-1=0' quality management philosophy.

Linda Ho (何婉霞) at the 2013 Business of Design Week (BODW) event
Linda Ho (何婉霞) at the 2013 Business of Design Week (BODW) event

What is your strategy to get this thick, dark brown, fishy-tasting oyster sauce onto as many plates as possible globally?

Lee Kum Kee was established in 1888 when our founder Lee Kum Sheung invented oyster sauce in Nanshui in the Guangdong province of China. It's been a family business for 125 years and has now become a household name, from just two products to over 220 choices of sauces. I joined Lee Kum Kee back in 2002 as its corporate brand director then. Many century-old brands falter away but with our superior product quality, stringent manufacturing process and customer-oriented approach, our brand continued to be in business. A big milestone was 1988 when we started to properly do marketing with a mission and vision.

There are challenges of glocalisation since foreigners may not be familiar with Chinese or Cantonese cuisine, let alone the intricacies of oyster sauce, which is a strange concept to some, like blue cheese. Every foreign market has a different understanding and receptiveness to 'real' Chinese cuisine, with dim sum the most famous out of Hong Kong; so from the base of our flagship sauces, we develop new products suitable for local palates. For example, we introduced the Sriracha Mayo for the US market, the Lemon Chicken Sauce for Australia, the halal 'Panda' brand oyster sauce for Malaysia/Indonesia, and Sauce for Mixed Vegetables (八宝菜酱) for Japan.

Japan was also one of the first overseas markets we went into 50 years ago. It's a matter of patience and respect for the local culture; you can't expect people to cook/eat exactly the same way as we do.

Have you heard of how a Houston company brought popular Chinese alcohol 'baijiu' to the US market, but named it 'Byejoe' so that American drinkers can pronounce it? Lee Kum Kee has been distinctly Asian on the other hand.

We think there is better brand registration in the minds of Caucasians this way. There are pros and cons to localising the brand name itself, but at the end of the day, it's better to keep our Hong-Kong heritage and Asian feel. Look at our logo: the red bridge symbolises culinary ambassadorship to the West. Our core value philosophy '思利及人', which translates to 'consider others' interests' is very central to our corporate image. It means you have to think from the perspective of others and put yourselves in their shoes.

Some would say that a sauce is a sauce is a sauce. How can you innovate this product and make it interesting?

Many foreigners don't have the habit of marinating their food, or think Chinese cuisine is what they see in Chinatown take-out counters; so we place a lot of importance in long-term education (such as gradually weaning consumers from basic sweet-and-sour sauces to more exotic sauces from dishes like Dong Po pork (东肉) from Hangzhou).

We also provide 'easy' solutions in terms of convenience. For example, when we introduced a toothpaste-like squeezable tube, it was an packaging innovation in the sauce, dressings and condiments industry. I'm sure you used to see your mothers turning a bottle upside down and 'smacking' the bottom of it to shake out the last bits of oyster sauce. Also as household and family sizes become smaller, there is no need for big bottles of sauces that sit in the refrigerator for a long time. 150ml-sizes are more useful now.

I bet you may not know Lee Kum Kee sauces were used for seasoning the food of astronauts on the 'Shenzhen IX' and 'Shenzhen X' space missions last and this year. We worked with the China Astronaut Research and Training Centre to ensure the sauces were in conformity to 'space food' requirements. So our Sichuan Hot & Spicy Chili was one of the flavours in space.

Euromonitor data also state that Lee Kum Kee is the world’s number-one brand for oyster sauces from 2007-2012. Nielsen's retail audit shows Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce has a market-share of more than 70 per cent within Hong Kong. Maxim's Group, Cafe De Coral and Cathay Pacific are all our vendor-clients here. Globally, Kikkoman is probably the closest competitor for us.

Environmental pollution and natural disasters will obviously cause fluctuations in the quality of your products. There wouldn't be the same amount of oysters or shrimps of the same grade farmed every year. Do you do what the whisky brands doblend different spirits of different ages to maintain a level of consistency from batch to batch, but remove the age statement?

We're a family business, so we treat our consumers like family members. We have a unique management philosophy: 100-1=0. Even if there is just one slight imperfection, the quality becomes zero. We produce as much as nature bestows us, so the market will have to settle for limited supply during ‘bad’ years.

What about branding and advertising; are your communication tools keeping up with the times?

Digital is going to be an important activation element in our total media mix. We already have a mobile recipe app for Hong Kong called ’轻松由我煮‘; and an online mini-movie for Korea. Digital is a definite trend in Asia, so we will invest more in the more gadget-savvy markets—Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Philippines—though traditional product-driven TV advertising and partnerships with celebrity chefs like Martin Yan (甄文达) will still be a key chunk of our mix.

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