Multinational food companies seeking success in the global marketplace can be forgiven for occasionally being frustrated.
One might assume that the most successful are those that are most responsive to local tastes, spending the requisite development dollars on taste testing in local markets before they formulate the final product.
Yet there's no hard and fast rule.
No one has really figured out, for example, why the Italians, Germans, and British love Kraft's Philadelphia Cream Cheese; but the Greeks simply don't buy it.
Why did Perrier, a mineral water from France, take America by storm, while other imported mineral waters did not?
Taste is, of course, a key variable.
Nestlé, for instance, produces more than two hundred slightly different blends of Nescafé for export to different countries.
McDonald's Big Mac has more mustard in its "special sauce" in Paris than in New York. Taste tests verified that people in the United States liked sweeter condiments than those in France. The Big Mac is one of several American products whose sugar content has had to be modified for sale overseas.
Taste is not solely about ingredients. Sometimes, it is a more a matter of the way a food product looks or feels. One case study that comes to mind is soft cookies which just don't sell as well in England as crisp cookies.
When Betty Crocker cake mix was introduced in England, it was not an immediate success. Extensive marketing research found that buyers felt more comfortable with mixes that required more than water to prepare them. The mix was reformulated without egg, and the instructions were rewritten: add water, and an egg. The revised cake mixes became very popular.
Taste, then, extends beyond just flavor. It's a combination of flavor preferences and local expectations.
Getting the taste right is only part of the struggle. Packaging, too, has to compare favorably with competing brands and the public's expectations.
Serving sizes of soft drinks, for instance, are often different in foreign markets.
All of this inevitably makes products more expensive. If products and packaging cannot be standardized, the item becomes costlier to produce. Somewhere, there's a sweet spot between the requirement that products be adapted to please the tastes and expectations of local consumers, and the expectations to standardize products for maximum cost effectiveness.
Complicating things further is that even the experts don't agree on how far to go in adapting products for local markets.
A few years ago, Ted Levitt, editor of the Harvard Business Review, predicted a "pluralization of consumption." This means that, at least in some areas, tastes are likely to converge, which makes sense when you think about the increased potential for travel and sampling of foods, and the continued global marketing efforts by multinational corporations.
Logically, then, it makes sense to identify the areas in which tastes are most likely to be the same, and concentrate efforts on those food products.
But there's also the issue of global marketing: the potential to create taste by selling the image that surrounds a product. The popularity of products seen in movies and television certainly spills into the foreign marketplace. If consumers want to associate themselves with an image, won't they develop a taste for the product that does that for them?
Starbucks began as a regional coffee in Seattle, Washington, and made the global leap in 2000, opening shops in China, a traditionally tea-drinking society. Starbucks marketed to the cosmopolitan consumer: the young, trendy set, looking for a modern image as well as a different taste.
Success in the food export industry is probably best described as a combination of the flavor of the product (with some adaptation for local markets), satisfying expectations in preparation and packaging, and the product's image. The difference is that many of the products being sold have a short shelf life...