What Do Young Asian Office Workers Eat for Breakfast and Lunch?

Marketers Are Missing an Opportunity to Introduce More Brands Into Meals, Says McCann's Dave McCaughan

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Dave McCaughan
Dave McCaughan
"The unbranding of lunch." "The fourth meal." "Breakfast Beverage." Food is a habit. Our food choices are habits. Recently we dug deep into the habits of the twenty-something single office workers we call "career builders" in 12 cities across Asia and Australia. We asked four to six of them in Beijing, New Delhi, Melbourne and elsewhere to photograph what they ate for breakfast and lunch for two weeks and load it onto our Facebook profile, with notes on the why, what and where of their choices.

In 2003 we undertook a similar visual ethnography. One standout in the earlier survey was the victory of toast. Traditional Asian rice-based breakfasts like congee were relegated to occasional weekends or mom's kindness. Toast at home, on the run, or at the desk is still the dominant breakfast food. Though we have seen a revival of rice dishes in convenient takeaway forms, mostly described as part of a trend "to get a solid start" to the day. So tradition makes something of a comeback but with modern twists and mostly served up in anonymous packaging from modern convenience stores (e.g., CVS) near your desk. Instant noodles, again bought at that CVS with hot water added in-store and carried to the office, is also a consistent way to get that "solid start."

Breakfast is also brand rich. Though breakfast cereals still struggle to find a place outside of Australia, the usual suspects like Nutella, Smuckers, Nescafe, Coffeemate and Minute Maid seem pretty common, along with local bread brands. And we noticed a big rise in the role Danone, Meiji and Nestle yogurts seem to be playing. What about breakfast drinks? There was a lot of discussion about the twin desires for filling, easy to access breakfasts one could consume on the move or throw down fast but very little evidence of the desired breakfast beverage.

The study highlighted these meal trends:

  • Health don't get you going. Despite what we might consider increasing emphasis on natural, organic and low-fat/low-salt foods, health is a bit of a non-factor. There was a bit of talk that eating a healthy breakfast gave participants credit to indulge in a more tasty lunch. Notice the word tasty. And a couple were very specific about nutritional needs and occasionally chose meals that included specific ingredients, such as fish or vegetables. Surprisingly, only one career builder mentioned "healthy" in the context of weight loss.
  • The fourth meal. One guy in Hong Kong said it all: "Breakfast on weekends does not really exist; I eat brunch, maybe an afternoon snack, dinner, and when I am on the way home from a night out, so at 2-3 a.m., I grab a fourth meal." Funnily enough, no one talks of brands and that fourth meal. Most of the breakfast foods and drinks are regarded as "only for breakfast." We have yet to see the branded juice reviver or "fourth meal cereal" impact their thinking, and yet you would think their friend the CVS would have grabbed at that.
  • If breakfast is about security, lunch is all about "mood food." It's about the need to have food that matches and creates moods to get through the rest of the day. It's about togetherness and unity with my fellow workers, or solitude and "getting on with it," or celebration of the workspace. Not surprisingly, weekend lunches are about "gathering" with friends or family and longer, more considered choices.
  • The unbranding of lunch. Turn the hundreds of photos of lunches from across Asia into a flip book and you would notice few brands. [There's] the occasional fast food brand like McDonald's, or KFC, or a Jollibee in Manila, and of course the most famous instant noodle brands like Nishin. And there are some of the expected beverages. But what stands out is the lack of brands. Sure, lunches are still mostly purchased from stalls, corner shops, small cafes, restaurants and CVS. But what is outstanding is the absence of branding, which is doubly surprising in that most people in Asia do "go out" for lunch. Desk lunches are the exception, and those mood-creating lunches are not being serviced by packaged good brands hoping to play on the shared experience if you can't see them on the table or takeout packaging. There's an opportunity to take the convenience and cost-effectiveness of packaged food and create a shared lunch, either literally (via shareable pack sizes and formats) or through more interesting options that create a shared food experience.
  • Viva pasta ... sort of. If toast won the breakfast war in our 2003 study, then pasta is getting close to lunchtime victory. We noticed a huge variation of pasta dishes across the region. They're not necessarily cooked the way my Italian mother-in-law would approve of, but they're pasta nonetheless. But again unbranded. Whether eaten in a restaurant, a cafĂ© or as takeout at a desk, the brand of the eatery or company that produced it is just not there.

This insight on pasta got me thinking of my own experience living in Tokyo and relying on 7-Eleven, Lawson or one of the other CVS chains for lunch. Unlike the usual Western experience, Japanese CVS stores, and increasingly their branches elsewhere in Asia, provide fantastic ranges of fresh pasta and other hot dishes. They are replaced multiple times a day, and in a celebrity-chef world are often produced under supervision or licensed from top restaurants. While there is lot of in-store POS, there is nothing in or on the packaging to remind me or the career builders from my office who made them.

Dave McCaughan is the Tokyo-based regional strategic planning director at McCann WorldGroup Asia Pacific.
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