Korea, cooking and consumer culture

"Three Meals a Day Fishing Village."
"Three Meals a Day Fishing Village."

Shows with culinary focus heat up audience attention in Asian nation, says McCann Seoul's account planning manager

SEOUL, KOREA — Catering to consumers who value cooking can give brands a reputation boost. In Korea, "Have you eaten?" often serves as a functional equivalent to "How are you?"

Gathering to eat has always constituted an important part of the country’s culture. But as a nation preoccupied with "bbali bbali" (hurry hurry) and coming in second-highest in terms of working hours (according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), the majority of Koreans don’t have a lot of time to think seriously about food on a daily basis.

Still, this year meals and eating have become a hot topic in Korean media. Flip through the channels and you’ll find more than 10 popular reality-TV programmes showing people eating and cooking. They vary in format but all carry a similar theme. And a country known for being "fast" in all it does has seen its foods become "slower" in 2015.

Slower is not just a reference to speed, but largely reflects a change in the consumer approach to eating — the increase in time invested in preparation to eat a good meal, whether it be in or out of the home. Meals now reflect the conscientious decisions of consumers — what to eat, how to eat, and whom to eat with — to make mealtime the most enjoyable.

Why slower? Health is gaining as a concern, but this trend is not just about nutritious options. The country’s cultural standards of happiness still centre on education, career, and wealth but because the road to happiness seems like an endless journey, people are looking for more ways to release stress on a daily basis. Eating a good meal is relatively easy and doable.

The "Three Meals a Day Fishing Village" show on local network tvN follows three male celebrities on a remote island. Their sole task is to prepare three meals a day from scratch using only ingredients from the island. The show recorded a 13.4% viewership, the highest among all cable and terrestrial channels in the same time slot. Its popularity derives from the vicarious satisfaction viewers experience from the slow life, centred on cooking, which is something their busy schedules don’t allow.

At the same time, "slower" does not mean cooking has become more complex. With single households on the rise (now at 27% of the total), there is a preference for easy solutions for eating well. The "Please Take Care of My Refrigerator," show, from the cable network JTBC, brings the real refrigerators of celebrities into the studio. Professional chefs then take 15 minutes to whip up creative meals using only the ingredients inside, which differ very little from what’s found in common refrigerators. Not only are resulting recipes easy to follow, the entertainment value is high as the show cleverly mixes food with a behind-the-scenes look at celebrity stories.

Even the chefs themselves have reached celebrity status, leading to the coining of a new term in Korea, "cheftainer."

Koreans also want to learn more about what they eat. The tvN show, "Wednesday Food Talk," features a panel of celebrity gourmands, experts, and restaurant owners. For one hour panellists discuss one specific food, its taste, history, and top restaurants that offer its genuine flavour. Topics range from street food like ddukbokki to wood-fired pizza and its Italian origins.

In 2014, Korea’s "mukbang" (eating broadcasts) trend, where viewers watch strangers binge eat on live-streaming sites, shocked global media outlets. While mukbang gave Koreans instantaneous healing from daily struggles, this year the trend has evolved to "cookbang" (cooking broadcasts) — represented by the ever-growing number of cooking TV programs.

For brands, "cookbang" is an opportunity to promote a variety of products. In June, E-mart invited Chef Jun-woo Park of "Please Take Care of My Refrigerator" to host a cooking show at its Kintex location to promote Shinsegae L&B’s (E-mart is a subsidiary of Shinsegae) new mini sparkling wine brand, Meander.

Chef Ki-yong Maeng, from the same show, has become a brand ambassador for Samsung’s Smart Oven. And Samsung’s Chef Collection, the brand’s premium refrigerator line, also gets constant exposure on the TV show through product placement (Samsung ranks at number one in Campaign Asia’s Top 1000 Brands study for Korea and APAC). Coca-Cola’s Seagram’s, launched in the market last year, has product placement on the same program.  

"Cookbang" seems to have greater effect than just on culture. In June, Shinsegae announced a 7% year-on-year sales increase for kitchenware, while Lotte Department Store (ranked number three in Korea and 17 for APAC overall) saw a 7.5% increase. And food companies, such as CJ Cheiljedang and Maeil, are now launching more products to cater to consumers who value cooking a good meal at home.

In 2015, for both Korean consumers and brands, cooking is more than a cultural concern; it's a path to a top brand reputation.  

Angela Kim is account planning manager at McCann Seoul.

This article first appeared on campaignasia.com.

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