Minnie Wang
Nov 23, 2023

The Kraft of good sauce: Heinz brings the magic of AI to Chinese cuisine

If you know ketchup, you know Heinz. But what about soy sauce, with a touch of AI? Campaign speaks to Kraft Heinz China's Eric Yu and Cristina Kenz on their latest artificial intelligence-led campaign, the art of mastering the Chinese pantry and much more.

Cristina Kenz and Eric Yu, Kraft Heinz
Cristina Kenz and Eric Yu, Kraft Heinz

Chinese people enjoy a special love and culture for food with thousands of years of history— with soy sauce being one of the most popular and indispensable ingredients in the cuisine. So it's only fitting that such an iconic sauce would meet an equally iconic sauce brand, namely Kraft Heinz. Founded in 1869, Heinz has been a home pantry staple for over 150 years, for 40 of which it's sold its Master Weijixian soy sauce in China, becoming a go-to for consumers in the market.

But with time comes evolution and innovation, which brings us to today and the latest from Kraft Heinz: AI meets sauce.

The company (like many of its FMCG counterparts) has forayed into the artifical intelligence space with the launch of a new AI chef marketing experiment in China, turning the flavour and memory of its signature soy sauce since 1983 into a live celebration online and offline, and leveraging platforms such as Douyin (the equivalent of TikTok in mainland China) to host everything from livestreaming sessions to pop-up events and OOH activations in Guangzhou.

Commemorating Master Weijixian’s 40th anniversary,  the brand’s in-house marketing team recently unveiled a new campaign and released an innovative interactive video on Douyin, with the theme of ‘Artificial Intelligence vs the Taste of Home’. In the campaign, a mother and an AI robot are seen performing in a cooking competition for a shrimp dish with soy sauce, whilst the mother's son acts as a judge. Netizens on Douyin are also invited to vote for their winner in real-time, with the audience watching a different ending of the video based on their votes.

Master Weijixian also engaged more than 200 key opinion consumers (KOCs) to try AI recipes from the challenge, cooking the same dish twice—once based on the AI's recipe and once based on their own. They then invited their friends to blind test and decide which one was better, eventually sharing the winning recipe online to inspire more people to explore their own experiences.

Apart from online sharing, in late October, an AI robot was also invited to Master’s pop-up event in Mall of the World (Huachenghui Mall), Guangzhou, joining a livestreaming and final competition together with three key opinion leaders (KOLs) and more than 12 home chefs who won the preliminary games. They competed in cooking six home dishes: Fried shrimp, pork ribs, steamed fish, stir-fried meat and vegetables, stir-fried beef noodles and scalded seasonal vegetables. Kraft Heinz China's innovation chef, Zhuang Enjian, tasted and judged the score for the dishes.

Campaign spoke to Eric Yu, head of marketing for Chinese sauces Kraft Heinz, and chief growth and sustainability officer, Kraft Heinz International, Cristina Kenz, on their insights about the effectiveness of their campaign, the Chinese marketing landscape, and what sustainability means for branding in the future.

Can you please tell us a little more about the activation idea for Master’s 40th Anniversary in China? How effective was the campaign?

Eric Yu: We marked this milestone with a series of marketing initiatives. We introduced “AI vs Taste of Home Cooking Competition” as a topic, inviting food influencers to join us and put their own signature recipes to the test against AI-generated recipes. The Douyin activation gained 33.3 million views and 388,000 engagements.

Simultaneously, [we had] a pop-up cooking competition also arranged in Guangzhou, attracting around 5,000 visitors over the period of two days, earning 11,000 social posts. The pop-up cooking competition was livestreamed and earned 9.8 million views—attracting almost 5,000 new followers to our Douyin account in the process.

To further amplify our campaign idea, we launched an interactive video hosted on Douyin, where we pitted home cooks against our AI ‘chef’. Users were invited to vote for who they thought would make the tastier shrimp dish. This is the first time ever Douyin launched this function for any brand in the industry, for such a creative consumer interaction experience.

As a Western brand, how do you connect with Chinese consumers and adapt to country-specific changes over the years?

Yu: Our Chinese-founded soy sauce recently turned 40—a milestone only made possible by staying ahead of cooking trends, pivoting when needed, and innovating ahead of the category.

But of course, soy sauce is a gigantic and incredibly diverse category, which makes it a competitive but exciting category to play in. It’s also one of the most mature categories in the sector, so the need for differentiation is even greater.

Our brand purpose is ‘Make Cooking Personal’, allowing us to focus on talking about the unique taste of homemade cooking that is so personal—and so important—for families. Our goal is to help people make unique memories together through food. We do this by creating authentic content that speaks to our consumers at the right time, in the right place—whether it’s showcasing innovative and unexpected uses for a classic sauce (like soy sauce ice cream!), or providing them with value-added tips on how to make Master a part of important life or family moments.

We use our in-house agency, ‘The Kitchen’, to gather real-time insights on what our consumers are looking for, what they care about and what brings them joy, and use this to innovate new products, new experiences and new ways to engage with people.

How do you view the post-Covid marketing landscape in China? Are there any new trends or changes you’d like to highlight?

Yu: There’s no doubt the market and the marketing landscape are more competitive than ever. The pandemic changed a lot of things for Chinese consumers: How they engaged with content, their cooking and food consumption habits, and importantly, their expectations for brands.

If, as a [food] brand, you are not adding value for your consumers, entertaining or (positively) disrupting their day with high-quality experiences, you are simply not going to stand out or be remembered. So, that’s what we’re focusing on with Master to remain relevant with our consumers. We’re committed to growing in China and seeing some really positive market trends driving us forward.

First, we’ve seen an increased demand for healthier products, and have been innovating in this area for some time now. For example, in 2021, we launched a low-salt version of our popular Master Weijixian soy sauce with 28% less salt, using dried high-quality scallops to create a superior umami taste. We’ve also invested 700 million yuan (US$100 million) in a new manufacturing site in Guangdong, optimising it for healthier products. It's a sizable investment and represents a long-term commitment to our brand.

Secondly, the recovery of China’s ‘Away from Home’ sector is giving us a great opportunity to innovate new flavours and products and get almost ‘real time’ feedback from consumers, to then refine for scale. It’s amazing to see the sector recover (we know that Chinese people love to dine out), and we’re honoured to be a part of that recovery. We also recently opened a new Experience Centre in Shanghai to help us focus in this area, with Chinese and Western-style kitchens to help our chefs collaborate with food service customers for exclusive, custom products. It’s like a creative studio for chefs!

The Double 11 global shopping festival recently passed, how have you found the response to ecommerce for your business?

Yu: Ecommerce channels like Douyin are big priorities for us, allowing us to capture and learn from a consumer’s entire journey: From awareness to interaction, to purchase and repeat, which is incredibly valuable for us.

We’re still early on in our ecommerce journey, but we’re seeing some good results so far. For example, our Master Clean Label Low-Sodium Soy Sauce has just become one of the top soy sauce products to be sold on Douyin after just two months in market.

What do you think are your biggest challenges in the Chinese market today, and what do you foresee for the future?

Yu: I think the biggest challenge will be keeping up with, and ahead, of the evolving ecommerce landscape, which is changing almost daily. But what’s really exciting about this challenge is that it’s also a huge opportunity. The number of marketplaces available to us is only getting bigger, and if we get it right, then everyone stands to benefit. Consumers get instant access to personalised content, and we get meaningful insight about what makes our consumers tick—insights that will help us create even more moments of connection and better innovation.

Cristina Kenz joins a livestreaming in a recent trip to China.

Moving to growth, what can you share with us about Kraft Heinz's growth strategy for China, especially as you diversify into new products such as oyster sauces etc.?

Cristina Kenz: Master isn’t just a brand that Chinese consumers know and love, it’s a key ingredient in our China strategy and our global focus on growing our taste elevation platform around the world.

As one of the largest food companies in the world, with a creative ‘network’ and capability to match, we’re uniquely positioned to lean into our ‘taste’ expertise and expand into new categories like oyster sauce (Master) and salad dressing (Heinz), using our existing distribution network to maximise points of sale.

To put this into context: 40 million households across China have a bottle of Master in their cupboards, consuming 300 million bottles of Master soy sauce per year. That’s a huge amount of people who’ve already bought into the Master brand. And with this as a starting point, we’re in a strong position to expand our repertoire into new categories and bring our existing consumers with us.

You manage markets worldwide, what are the top markets for you in Asia aside from China?

Kenz: Certainly, Indonesia is an exciting market to be in right now and one where we’re actively investing in. As well as Heinz, Indonesia is home to ABC—a brand that’s been a staple in Indonesian cupboards for almost 50 years. Like China, we see a real opportunity to grow through leaning towards new consumer tastes, uses and shopping habits. Examples of that are new product developments in sauces or meals or ecommerce, which is growing at a rate of 25% in Indonesia. We’re also leaning into big cultural moments like Ramadan to engage consumers on issues that resonate locally. For example, earlier this year, we launched #ABCDapurBersamaIbu—an initiative aimed at supporting community kitchens and providing meals to those in need during Suhur and Iftar.

We know tastes, cultures, and cuisine differ across Asia, but our teams are intent on finding new ways to make our consumer’s lives more delicious, and this is what underpins our wider way of thinking.

How could AI help change marketing in the future? Can you share any AI marketing plans in China or other Asian markets?

Kenz: When it comes to emerging tech and tech-enabled tools like AI, we do try to adopt a ‘start-up’ mindset—buying and testing tools, instead of building our own or waiting for the ‘perfect’ iteration. Instead, we pilot with a market and roll out what works. Although we have begun to play with AI (like our robot chef), it’s still very early days as there are some fundamental issues like copyright that the industry needs to work through first.

But it is exciting! Our goal is to lead the future of food, and there’s no questioning that technology will play a big role in helping to make this happen. 

Lastly, what are your key sustainability plans for China and other prominent markets in Asia?

Kenz: Last year, we announced our Net Zero commitment to 2050, and that will require a lot of unpacking and actions to make it a reality. Also, we are the largest producers and users of tomatoes in the world, that gives us a unique responsibility. We want to be leaders in this space and have made a commitment to grow 100% sustainable ketchup tomatoes by 2025. 

Nutrition also continues to be a key focus for us, and in China specifically, we have a goal to reach zero-added preservatives in all Master products by 2024.  

Campaign Asia

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