For most brands and marketers across the world, 2020 was nothing if not tumultuous. But Miseon Stella Park, senior brand manager, mints, Asia – Mars still sees South Korea’s economy faring better than others. In a chat with WARC’s Gabey Goh for the Marketer’s Toolkit 2021, Park talks about how important e-commerce and creative marketing are in keeping her products at the top of the consumer’s mind in the new normal.

Key insights

  • Health and wellness have become a wider concepts beyond just the human body.
  • More brands are investing in e-commerce, but the question is how marketers can convert this media investment into actual purchase.
  • Being a part of the consumer’s new daily life will be a key challenge as competition now doesn’t just lie in one category but across categories.
How has your organisation adapted to this new ‘at home’ economy since the pandemic made its presence felt in South Korea?

I think this has affected all brands, not just confectionery ones like ours. Products like chocolate, gums, and beans, these are not essentials, you can live without these products. Historically, all the F&B products that are not proper meals have been impulse purchases. Shoppers visit the store, they see it and they buy it. Now nobody goes to the store and the traffic has dramatically decreased; we lost our chance to show our product this year. But surprisingly, the product consideration didn’t decline. This year, versus last year, we didn’t grow but we didn’t decline. I think that’s thanks to the highly advanced e-commerce channel in Korea.

Around the world, all the markets and brands are going to delve into e-commerce now, but I would say, South Korea has the most advanced e-commerce infrastructure. We have the Korean version of Amazon that we call Coupang. Besides grocery shopping, other retailers are becoming increasingly larger this year.

Brands have launched bigger pack sizes or very customised packs; products are being customised to meet the increasing consumption.

Historically, in confectionary and food and beverage, the e-commerce channel contribution was small, less than 2%, if I remember correctly. I think, this was an opportunity, in a good way, for my company and F&B customers in South Korea, to educate shoppers to start buying through e-commerce.

Secondly, what I feel is that it is more about the creative part, to educate, to build relevancy and the reason to buy our product in this pandemic situation. What we are really focused on is new shopper insights and their daily routine; exactly where can we catch their attention?

For example, for my brands, I am managing the mints category. We can resonate our functional benefit more because everybody wears a mask now and they don’t want to smell their bad breath.

When it comes to your category in food and snacks, are you seeing a huge shift in preferences towards healthier options?

What I found interesting is that health and wellness has become a wider concept. It isn’t a new concept. Previously, it was limited to the health of the human body, like watching the calories and improving the immunity system. However, with the pandemic, consumers are now more aware of the environment. Health and wellness now cover the total ecosystem.

Everybody understands the issue behind the pandemic. So, this was a reminder for people of how we need to change. I see it happening in South Korea now. We weren’t very sensitive to the environment, but it is dramatically changing now.

Koreans love their meat. But now, the vegetarian diet is really a big thing. Many brands have started producing vegan products.

The second thing is that shoppers are now very keenly interested in how these products are made and if they are made in environmentally-friendly and ethical ways, and if the packaging is eco-friendly. This has become one of the key criteria for Korean shoppers when choosing what to buy.

Overall, I think the health and wellness concept is changing and this will be a very good trigger for the post-COVID era as well. This was a good wake-up call for everyone, especially in South Korea because we didn’t really care much about the environment. We are seeing a dramatic change in consumption behaviour now.

Miseon Stella Park, senior brand manager, mints, Asia – Mars

What has been the biggest change for you and your marketing team this year in terms of dealing with the pandemic?

When people stay home more, they realise that they don’t need to buy lots of things. Consumption naturally decreases a lot.

That was critical for us to keep the top-of-mind share for our brands to stay in that essential consideration.

There was very severe competition to secure the display in the store and e-commerce as well. For example, we displayed our products with masks. We developed new display tools in stores. We expanded our retail channel.

People now stay indoors, and they buy less but what would be something that they don’t give up consuming? I worked on that insight and realised Koreans really love their coffee. I think Koreans coffee consumption per capita is topping the world. Even during the pandemic, everybody including myself continued drinking good coffee every morning. People still went to the coffee shop and we started selling our products there.

We are spending our time and money to understand the new normal and develop a new creative message this year. I think the brand can play a significant role to excite consumers and make their lives more fun.

It’s interesting you said that you expanded your offline retail distribution because we are hearing from so many other marketers that they shifted everything to online channels. But the fact that people were still going to cafes in South Korea is interesting.

Now that we are in a lockdown, we cannot sit in the cafe but in the last 10 months, we could, and people still wanted to have their coffee in a cafe.

It is important to understand the shopping journey because there is always an opportunity. Of course, we invest a lot in e-commerce but there is a lot of competition there. I feel that consumers are really tired of watching the old commercials. It is important to understand how daily routines and daily life have changed based on shopper insights.

Before the pandemic, everybody was focused on channel mix and selection, optimising inventories. When the pandemic came, conversations changed. Everybody is talking about the need to be creative, the need to stand out. Do you see the rise of heightened creativity in the wider South Korea market?

Regarding the creative message itself, we started looking at exploring what is more relevant to the new daily life. Secondly, I think now that more brands are investing in e-commerce, the question is how we can convert this media investment into actual purchase.

Previously, the in-store display was the number one source of brand awareness and conversion driver. Now brands are focusing on brand activation in e-commerce. It’s not just about the product but even the package that consumers can enjoy at home.

I personally don’t think COVID changed the media selection in South Korea. Before the pandemic, YouTube was almost catching up with TV here. The prioritisation between TV and digital was not difficult. We already knew that we needed to invest in YouTube. Most brand investments were shifting to these video and social platforms, and we were already there.

Surprisingly, not much changed after the pandemic. TV ratings didn’t increase much while YouTube and OTT consumption just exploded. 

I see brands really increasing advertising on YouTube because there are more people watching and it’s an opportunity. However, the real question is how we can spend this money wisely. This is very critical because digital media is the only source to reach the consumer and deliver our brand massage.

It’s interesting you share that media selection considerations didn’t really change that much in South Korea because we are hearing very different stories from other markets.

I too thought so because I watch more TV now. But people are watching more OTT and YouTube staying at home. Of course, there are the big brands that are still investing in TV; that’s what we used to do too. But now, our money has shifted to digital.

Earlier, we used to do one or two bursts with very well-made creatives during the year. Now, memories are really fragile, we need to keep the top of the mind share and drive conversion to our e-commerce site. What I’ve changed with the creative and media strategies is more frequent and always-on communication with light creative content.

For example, I used to produce communication with high quality copy but now, while of course it’s good copy, it’s light content that the consumers are exposed to many times during the year. Otherwise, they will forget about our brand.

Would you say that as a marketer you have access to a lot of sophisticated data-driven solutions to plan out the layers of media? Or is it a case that in South Korea, it is good but there are certain areas that need to be improved?

There is Google and now there are other platforms like TikTok that are increasing in popularity in South Korea. They offer more detail and various data to the brand so we can work together to leverage all the data for more sophisticated targeting.

What I really want to work further on is to use the purchase data with the online retailer. For example, if one person buys our product once a week and another two times a week, then we can develop a different message for both. But we are not there yet. I want to improve that in the future by collaborating more with our e-commerce retailers.

If the focus shifts to the big platforms like Google or Facebook, where does that leave the smaller players in South Korea’s ecosystem? Do you foresee that to be a shrinking part of your budget allocation?

We have to prioritise now. It’s something good to have but not an area we can go with.

I mentioned before that seniors who didn’t pay attention to e-commerce before, now is an opportunity for them to learn and buy. But there is a big gap to assess the e-commerce benefits across the generations.

For a product like ours, the core target is a young millennial and Gen-Z. But the seniors also consume our products. We really need to think about how we can reach them. We know how to reach the youth but now is the time for the brand to think more carefully about the difference between the generations and create a more sophisticated and customised customer journey.

What is your outlook for the South Korean market for 2021?

I am quite positive about the future. More people are getting used to buying products through the e-commerce route, even those who were not buying online before. Brands now have the tools to approach them.

The reason I want to have a positive view is that while there was a drop in sales at the beginning of the pandemic, things are recovering in South Korea. Our economy is not shrinking as much as other countries. People are now embracing the new normal.

It will be better in 2021 and even if the pandemic isn’t over in the new year, people have accepted this new universe.

Are there any challenges or opportunities you have identified that you will be focusing your team and your resources on?

The biggest challenge is that people don’t go to the shop. Traditional retail is still a major part of our business. It’s really important, like I mentioned earlier, for such impulse products that consumers need to be reminded of them. It remains a big challenge. New channels, new transactions, e-commerce, they still cannot compensate for the loss from the traditional channel. How we work with our retailers ahead will be critical.

What will be your pick as the number one challenge facing all marketers and markets across categories in 2021?

The key challenge is being a part of the consumer’s new daily life. Otherwise, they will not buy our product. Many consumers are experiencing lack of income now. Competition now doesn’t just lie in one category but across categories.