Surekha Ragavan
Sep 3, 2019

Taiwan brands regain trust as food scandal paranoia wears off

Local food corporations are quickly and surely upping their marketing to regain consumer confidence after the 2011 food safety scandals.

Singer Selina Jen Chia-hsuan attends a 7-Eleven public welfare activity in Taipei.
Singer Selina Jen Chia-hsuan attends a 7-Eleven public welfare activity in Taipei.

TAIWAN: FOOD SAFETY SCANDALS

In 2011, multiple food safety incidents plagued Taiwan when many large processed food companies were found to have included plasticisers in their products to replace palm oil. The incidents sparked a wave of bans across the globe where major supermarkets removed a number of Taiwanese products such as tea, tofu, noodles, and cooking oil from shelves.

Fast forward eight years, trust among consumers has gradually restored and sales for items such as instant noodles are looking upward. “The food crisis effect is wearing off but the press is still scrutinising food quality,” says Oliver Tsai, chief strategy officer at Isobar Taiwan. “Food safety and food quality is a key thing now and everybody’s improving.”

This is benefiting local food corporations such as Uni-President, the best performing local brand in Taiwan and 8th on the overall list. The group wasn’t directly involved in the safety scandals, and is well-trusted among locals.

But of course, they don’t just sell food products. Starbucks, Muji, 7-Eleven, Carrefour, drugstore chain Cosmed, a theme park, and a shopping mall within the Uni-President International Tower are just a few subsidiaries they offer. They are also looking to tap into the medical and health supplements market. To say that Uni-President is diversifying outside F&B would be an understatement.

Tsai says one of the reasons for the group’s success is its lifestyle marketing that taps into local life and culture, and this has been carried through since Alex Lo Chih-Hsien, the son-in-law of the group’s founder, succeeded as president in 2013.

“They are connecting to events or activities that local people are interested in such as baseball, music festivals, and open picnic days to showcase their different lifestyle products,” says Tsai. “They really manage to blend into the everyday life of Taiwanese people.”

One example is the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions, a local baseball team that plays their home games in Tainan. There’s also the biennial Simple Life Festival, a creative festival with musical performances, art markets and more.

Taiwan's Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions baseball team


Meanwhile, Taiwanese food manufacturer Wei-Chuan, which was directly involved in the food safety scandal, is far lower on the overall list at 39th spot, and 6th among local brands. The company is still referred to negatively in the press as an aftermath of the scandal, with labels such as ‘tainted oil maker’. However, Tsai says that the brand is investing heavily in its marketing to win back the hearts of the Taiwanese people.

Another local food corporation I-Mei Foods fell 20 spots this year, but this drop was unexplainable to Tsai. He says the brand—one of the few that was cleared in the food safety scandal—has now taken on socially conscious marketing by way of using locally grown ingredients and tapping into nationalist pro-Taiwan pride.

The brand has also continued to develop new products such as its milk tea that sent people into a buying frenzy for the its “thickness” and use of “quality milk”. Fun fact: As proof of the tea’s popularity, the milk tea was mentioned in a university entrance exam that featured the subject “form a long line”.

I-Mei Foods' milk tea caused a buying frenzy in Taiwan


Overall, local food brands fared better than international ones as consciousness around locally sourced ingredients and health foods increase. “It is difficult to say if there is a general increase in awareness or emphasis of food safety among Taiwanese consumers,” says Martin Lu, brand strategy director for DDG.

“However, there has been a rise in health-conscious restaurants and supermarkets that place an emphasis on food safety. Of these restaurants and supermarkets, some have been successful in targeting a specific group of consumers who are willing to pay a premium to pursue a healthier lifestyle.”
 

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