In happier days, the Taiwan market was shared between the US, New Zealand and Australia. Their main concern wasn’t competing among themselves, but rather growing the Taiwan market.
In 2002, the beef barons united. Federations from the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada formed the Taiwan Beef Alliance. Together, they pooled funds to advertise the virtues of beef.
A year later, the joint marketing effort came undone, as first Canada, and next the US saw their herds afflicted with BSE. Meat New Zealand saw an opportunity, hiring Golin Harris Taiwan to promote its beef and becoming market leader.
Ever since, Taiwan has been a rollercoaster ride for US beef exporters. Boneless beef under 30 months was ping-ponged in and out of certification. But eventually, US beef regained its former market lead, and late last year Taiwan prepared to the lift the ban on other, riskier cuts of US beef.
Then Taiwan’s partisan politics got in the way. In an effort to comply with a trade treaty, KMT struck a deal to allow all cuts back into the country, including ground beef, bone-in beef and offal, effective January 2010. When first reported, all hell broke loose. DPP politicians lambasted the KMT, schools and military vowed to boycott the meat and Taipei ruled that all restaurants must post the source of their beef.
In the US, politicians assured reporters that US-Taiwan arms treaties would be safe. But, on 6 January, just days before the lifting of the ban, Taiwan’s parliament re-imposed the ban on high-risk ground beef and offal.
> US beef exports to Taiwan were worth US$128 million in 2008
> That's 40 per cent of the total value of beef imports in Taiwan
> Taiwan is the sixth-largest export market for US beef in the world
> McDonald's in Taiwan carry signs claiming all beef is from Australia
Senior reseacrh analyst, TNS International
“For Taiwan consumers, the US beef issue is a lot like the problem with Made in China products. Both are about sources of manufacture, except that for the US it is less across the board, while for China there is a whole range of categories - tainted milk, lead paint on toys and more.
Food scares create such panic. Consumers need reassurance. But what are the consumers’ hot buttons? Is it a fear that their children will contract Mad Cow Disease? Or is the concern more about the likelihood of being exposed?
How can US beef interests regain trust? Hypothetically, they might assume that issuing a statement by US authorities assuring the safety of US beef is the right approach. But research might show that what local consumers really want is a seal of approval from a credible local source. Usually, with food scares or product safety issues, consumer awareness falls away rather quickly, but with US beef, the issue of Mad Cow Disease has been in the news for a long time - since 2003 - and concerns have been renewed again and again. Each time the issue is slightly different, and communication efforts that may have worked in the past for US beef interests may prove ineffective now or the next time.”
CEO, United Advertising, Taiwan
“In Taiwan, beef is branded. People know it is imported. When they see it on the meat counter of the supermarket, it has little national flags on the packaging. Rationally, most people believe US beef is safe. But Mad Cow is a frightening disease. Emotionally, they are afraid. That is understandable. But what is surprising is how the import of US beef has become so entwined with local politics.
The KMT made a big mistake when it chose to privately conduct the trade negotiations with the US late last year. This gave the DPP a weapon to wield against them. Now the DPP can say: ‘When we were in power we weren’t afraid of the US, but you let them push us around’. This presents a huge challenge to communications.
Normally, an ad agency would feature an opinion leader in testimonial advertisements to renew confidence in the product. But getting a DPP-aligned celebrity is hardly possible, and a KMT-affiliated spokesperson would be tainted. For US beef, this is a tough issue. Advertising isn’t going to work, so public relations is the only option. It can deliver its message about the procedures that assure the safety of US beef through blogs and the internet, and wait for the storm to pass.”
This article was originally published in the 28 January 2010 issue of Media.