Tough task wooing the tastebuds

By Christopher Adams

Philip Poole says even if Whittaker's expands its overseas sales it will still make its chocolate in New Zealand. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Philip Poole says even if Whittaker's expands its overseas sales it will still make its chocolate in New Zealand. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Gaining serious traction in the Australian confectionery market remains an elusive goal for Kiwi chocolate maker Whittaker's.

Since being founded in Christchurch by James Henry Whittaker in 1896, the firm has grown to become New Zealand's No 2 chocolate brand, after Cadbury.

But after almost two decades of being exported across the Tasman, Whittaker's products continue to have only a "single-digit" share of the Aussie market, says Philip Poole, marketing manager for the firm that three generations on is still owned and operated by Whittaker descendants - Brian and Andrew Whittaker.

"The real problem is building the brand and getting the people to taste the product," he says. "We are increasing [market share] slowly."

The Whittaker's experience highlights the challenges that face Kiwi food manufacturers overseas.

"It's very hard," says Poole. "It's a matter of building awareness for the product."

Katherine Rich, chief executive of the Food & Grocery Council, which represents manufacturers, says it remains immensely challenging for local processed-food companies to enter overseas markets in "any meaningful way".

She thinks some firms lack resources. "It's very expensive to invest and open up a new market."

A Government-commissioned report, released last week, found high-value, processed edibles made up only about 14 per cent of New Zealand's total food and beverage export value, per capita, last year.

The report's title - Moving to the Centre: the Future of the New Zealand Food Industry - is a reference to the central aisles of supermarkets where processed foods are stocked, as opposed to the outer areas where meat, milk, fruit and vegetables are usually found.

Almost 130 years after refrigerated shipping allowed New Zealand's first consignment of meat to set sail for Britain, its food exports remain dominated by primary products such as frozen lamb and milk powder.

New Zealand needs to increase its volume of valuable, processed edible exports - such as chocolate - to potentially double the value of the food and beverage sector - worth $17.6 billion last year, the report says.

Chocolate and sugar confectionery exports from New Zealand were worth $117 million last year, while Australia's were worth twice that amount and Canada's netted well over a billion dollars.

The report says New Zealand has the potential to grow its chocolate and confectionery exports to be worth $630 million annually, which would bring the value of its output in line with Austria's. Encouraging overseas confectionery manufacturers to invest in New Zealand would be one way of growing the industry, the research suggests.

Tim Morris, director of Coriolis Research, which carried out the report, says New Zealand is good at producing food and more focus should be placed on growing the sector, rather than trying to create new industries from scratch.

"Let's not just sit around and hope some guy in a shed is going to invent the jet pack," he says.

The report mentions that in the past, high tariffs in overseas markets limited the ability of New Zealand food producers to move into value-added products.

But the research says the same will not be true of the future and by 2025 New Zealand will have relatively tariff-free access into many markets, especially in Asia.

Poole says Whittaker's first priority overseas is to become better established in Australia.

In-store tastings are a major part of the company's current marketing strategy across the Tasman, he says.

But the firm is simultaneously developing markets farther afield in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Poole says Whittaker's has plans to increase the capacity of its Porirua factory. Once that's done the firm will look towards establishing a presence in other nations.

"We get inquiries from countries like South Africa, Canada and the US because people from those countries have been to New Zealand and tried our chocolate and thought it's really good," he says. "Those countries will be future developments."

Poole says that as the company expands overseas, all manufacturing will remain in New Zealand, even though the temperature-controlled shipping required for exporting chocolate is expensive.

"Our prime motivator is to make world-class chocolate and to do that you have to control all aspects of the manufacture," he says.

"We control the whole manufacturing process right through to the end product - we call ourselves a bean-to-bar company."

Stefan Lepionka, chief executive of listed juice maker Charlie's, says there is no shortage of opportunities overseas for Kiwi food and beverage manufacturers.

But it requires "big balls" to write out the investment cheques that precede profits, he says.

Lepionka says moving into each new market requires a similar amount of capital as needed for the initial start-up in New Zealand.

"You've got to have the same approach to every market you enter into," he says. "Don't think you can just sell your services or products in these new markets and then leave. You've got to be intrinsically committed to that country or market."

Dieter Adam, food and beverage director at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE), says having adequate representation in-market is an area where many Kiwi food manufacturers hit difficulties overseas.

"The typical pattern we see with smaller [food and beverage] companies is they go to market, appoint a distributor and importer and then they expect the business to roll from that," he says.

"It just doesn't work like that."

Adam says it's important for exporters to establish strong, long-term relationships in the markets they deal with. That can mean a lot of expensive travel.

"As soon as you buy a plane ticket it's expensive going forward," says Lepionka.

Charlie's, which has production facilities in New Zealand and Australia, now exports to several Asian countries, including South Korea, China and Singapore.

In September the company secured a distribution deal with Caffe Bene, a South Korean cafe chain. This week Charlie's Phoenix drinks went on sale in the chain's 300 stores.

Lepionka says the next step in Charlie's Asian expansion will be to begin manufacturing in-market, through a licensed bottler.

"What that does is it gets rid of high tariffs and there's more money on the table to support the brand in the marketplace. That will be our next evolution - our next step."

Until then, Lepionka says, Charlie's will focus on expanding its presence in Australia.

- NZ Herald

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