In a move that would delight Sun Yue, the ancient author of The Art of War, four former foes — Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. — have joined hands to convince the modern Taiwanese housewife to buy more beef.

“Low beef consumption in Taiwan contradicts the belief that as people get richer they eat more red meat,” says Timothy Kelf, regional manager, South Asia, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA).

The MLA is one of four members of the Taiwan Beef Alliance (TBA), the second phase of which was officially launched in Taipei on April 10. The other participating groups include Meat New Zealand (MNZ), the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) and the Canada Beef Export Federation.

The first phase of the TBA campaign began in April 2002 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city and a major port in the south. It ran seven weeks and was delivered primarily via television infomercials with additional newspaper and radio advertisements.

The first phase targeted food service outlets, retail stores and wet markets in Kaohsiung. In addition, all member countries continued their individual country promotional programs at the restaurant and retail levels.

Last month, the TBA launched phase two, an advertising campaign with a message tailored to the Taiwanese housewife's maternal instincts and Chinese cultural background. Roughly translated, the marketing proposition, which doubles as a slogan, is: “To enjoy physical vitality and mental acuity, the iron in beef is the place to start.”

The Taiwanese are rich by any standard. Taiwan's per-capita income of $13,000 rivals that of Western countries. Problem is, the Taiwanese consume a mere 9.25 lbs. (4.2 kilos) of beef/person/year. That pales next to Taiwan's average annual consumption of 95.8 lbs. (43.5 kilos) of pork and 63.4 lbs. (28.8 kilos) of chicken.

“We want to share in some of that volume,” Kelf says, “and it's not unreasonable that we could take two kilos from each, and raise beef consumption to seven or eight kilos [15½ to 17½ lbs.].”

Nearly all of Taiwan's 23 million people are ethnic Chinese. Most emigrated in past centuries from China's Fujien and Kuangtung provinces where agriculture was based on the rice paddy, and pork, chicken and fish were the staple meats. Another lingering ghost is that, in rural Chinese villages, the water buffalo was a near member of the family, and eating beef was akin to cannibalism.

“The cow was the tractor,” Kelf says in a practical analogy. “If you eat your cow, you pull your plow.”

Beef Builds Strong Minds

How does TBA intend to overcome Taiwanese reluctance? Advertising, of course, but the approach also includes countering culture with culture.

Just like parents anywhere, Taiwanese want their children to grow up healthy, to excel academically from kindergarten through college.

“Feed your kids beef and they'll get good grades,” is a subtle subtext of the TBA ad campaign.

Three TV commercials convey that message by linking dietary iron to a child's physical and mental development. Each demonstrates beef's vast superiority as a source of dietary iron. The viewer learns that a few slices of beef have as much iron as a tall pile of pork chops, a whole roast chicken and a haystack of spinach.

The TBA isn't publicizing the size of its war chest, but it budgeted more than $200,000 for April and May, most of it for airtime on the island's TV and cable channels. Supporting the campaign are newspaper ads and educational events for children and mothers.

The campaign is strictly generic advertising — promoting beef as a meat category — without mention of country of origin. The goal is to encourage Taiwanese to eat more beef and, in turn, increase the sales of each of the alliance's members.

Joel Haggard, vice president, Asia-Pacific, USMEF, says: “There was a clear trend that beef consumption started to stall out in the late 1990s,” Haggard says. “This was a concern because it was unusual at such low per-capita levels at a time when import costs — for example, tariffs — were declining.”

Yet, Taiwan remains an important market. Of the island's demand for beef, 90% is met by imports, virtually all of which is sourced from the four alliance countries. Last year, Taiwan imported 65.1 million metric tons (MT) of beef, with Australia supplying 33.2 million MT, New Zealand 14.7 million MT, the U.S. 13.2 million MT and Canada 3.6 million MT.

Each of these beef exporters has staked a claim on a particular segment of the Taiwan market. Australia, for example, dominates the retail trade by supplying reasonably priced shin, shank and intercostal cuts. The U.S. leads in the sale of special-quality beef (SQB) steaks, while New Zealand takes the biggest share of non-SQB steaks sold to hotel, restaurant and institution (HRI) channels.

These product positions are fixed — the U.S. isn't going to switch from grain-fed to rangeland production, vice versa for Australia and New Zealand. This makes it difficult to justify the overlapping advertising campaigns waged in past years.

“We came to realize we were just shuffling around the deck chairs,” Kelf says. “We decided to stop beating each other to death and work together.”

Alliance Slow To Start

But forming an alliance was an unusual step — perhaps a first. Gaining participation from the home offices was a slow process.

“I believe the MLA approached the USMEF several years ago with the idea,” recalls USMEF's Haggard. “Because it was novel and, on the surface, counterintuitive in terms of competitors working with each other, it took some time to gel into a working plan.”

To test the proposition, a pilot program was launched in April 2002 in Taiwan's southern city of Kaohsiung, where the advertising used in the current campaign was tested on air for seven weeks.

Polled months later, 62% of the Kaohsiung residents who remembered the test ads could cite some nutritional benefit of beef. And, 28% recalled that beef is a natural source of iron, while 23% recalled that the iron in beef is easily absorbed.

One year later, the TBA formally launched its promotion program in Taipei, the island's political, cultural and food service center.

Even so, the launch of the alliance doesn't mark an end to the rivalry between its members.

“Each country is still doing its own promotional work by calling on the trade,” says Irvine Paulin, director of the New Zealand Trade Development Centre in Taipei. “Meat New Zealand, for example, has a roster of calls it makes, especially in the HRI sector, to explain the benefits of New Zealand beef.”

In a way, it is business as usual in Taipei.

“In our own countries, we promote beef based on its nutritional values,” Kelf says. “Here in Taiwan, four groups have joined hands to do the same thing through the Taiwan Beef Alliance.”

Glenn Smith is a freelance journalist based in Taipei, Taiwan.