Andrew Kuiler: Transforming food & beverage in China

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance

Andrew Kuiler had a lot of Chinese influences growing up, but it was only until after high school that he started really paying attention to the unique opportunities and experiences available in sprawling cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Following a six-month scholarship for intensive language study through his Mandarin and Business degree from the University of Ballarat, and a brief stint working back in Australia, Kuiler was convinced Shanghai was the city for him. 

Fast forward many years of experience working across market research and brand development in China and New York, it made sense for Kuiler to start his own agency, The Silk Initiative. And now, he’s currently in the process of transforming food and beverage markets in China altogether – including the import of Tim Tams.

How did your experience in Beijing solidify your relationship with China? What happened next?  

It was such a great experience. Beijing, back then, was a bit of a dust bowl; it was a frontier land, quite gritty and grimy. It was exciting as a young person to be there.

My exposure to international business and language started during an internship at University. Upon graduation, I was fortunate enough to land a junior marketing role with McCain Foods, but after a year I was already itching to get to China so I faxed my resume to one of our suppliers in China who does market research. They ended up hiring me in 2000.

I worked with them for three years until they were acquired by one of the world's biggest research firms, NFO Worldgroup. I gained a huge amount of exposure to doing business in China in those days (I travelled all over the country) and developed an understanding of the Chinese consumer. 

I then moved to Sydney to open a market research agency for a US firm who eventually relocated me to New York, where I was based for five years. 

Living through the recession in the US was challenging, and from a work point of view, very difficult. In 2010 I thought I really needed to get back to China so I did. I was recruited for a market research role with Synovate. About two and a half years ago, I bit the bullet and created my own agency, focused not just on market research but the intersection between brand marketing, consumer research and brand visual development.

What was the impetus for starting The Silk Initiative? 

My background in marketing started in food, and I then went on to food innovation and sensory research. I’ve had experience overseas, acquired many skills at big companies; it just made sense to me to have a crack at setting up my own agency. I got on the speaking circuit with the Australian Chamber of Commerce, who were very supportive. I started becoming very involved with every inbound delegation from Australia; whether they were a bunch of farmers, investors from banks, or the C-suite from food companies. Our big win was securing the Arnott’s Tim Tam business from Campbells in Sydney. After that, one thing led to another and they became a key account for the first year for the business and propelled us to a level where we can now support a team of nine people.

Do you work with all of Arnott’s brands to help them come into China?

No. But we’ve worked on a range of research topics for them, everything from developing brand names for China, to helping with their packaging development, understanding Chinese consumer taste expectations, communication platforms and competitive analysis. Because of the Tim Tam name, we started getting briefs from companies such as Bulla Dairy, SPC, and various other Australian food companies that had heard about the work we were doing. We’ve done a lot of product innovation work for Australian companies, that is the main focus of the work we do for them, including full market strategies.

How receptive is the market in China to Australian products? Are the bulk of your consumers locals or expats?

Our customers are mainly locals who are mid-to-upper income and people who are really concerned about food safety. They want better quality ingredients and new experiences. A Tim Tam, for example, is an interesting one because it occupies a new category that doesn't exist in China. They only have Oreos here which is not that exciting (as much as the Americans love them!).

Where are they stocked? 

Only supermarkets and online; we don't do importation or distribution. Our research and strategies focus on advising clients on the best channel of sale, where consumers would buy it and how much they would want to pay. And then, really getting down to the minutiae, what the pack design should look like, how much Chinese or English should be on the pack, what's the shelf placement, etc. 

What was the most difficult part in navigating the Chinese marketplace when you first entered it?

The sheer size of it, and just trying to find a segment that’s receptive to a brand or a product. It’s similar to dealing with Europe; it's like many countries within one big one, there are lots of different dialects and different regions. Each region also has its own cuisine preferences. One could be salty, one could be sour, one could be spicy. All of that has implications for brands; what comes in, where they come in, and what they're offering.

How do you think Australians are influencing the global food and hospitality sector?

Innovation around ingredients and innovation around menus. I think that comes from our national “cuisine” being so influenced by many different cultures, such as Vietnamese, Chinese, Malaysian, Thai, Mediterranean etc. It’s a bit more of a melting pot I think in that regard. 

Where do you hope to take The Silk Initiative?

I like staying in the specialisation of food and beverage because it gives us subject matter expertise. We’ve started to expand into other parts of Asia, and I could see us having someone in Singapore in the near future if we continue to build traction that down that way.

What are your favourite things about living in Shanghai, what makes it unique?

There's always something going on. It's never static, it never stops. The dining scene here is incredible. I would say it’s on par with anything in London and New York. There’s also a really decent emerging music scene here, there's more performance stuff coming through.