Friday lunchtime. The Great food hall in the basement of Hong Kong's trendy Pacific Place shopping mall is buzzing. Workers from nearby offices are filling its upmarket food court, while foodies are filling their baskets with its gourmet grocery products. They are just some of the 10,000 paying customers who pass through the Selfridges of Hong Kong' on a daily basis in their quest for products that are unique, innovative and exciting. And on this particular Friday they were getting all of that ­ and more. Why? Because the Brits were in town as part of a three-week promotion dubbed Rule Britannia Fare. Nick Reitmeier, the hugely enthusiastic general manager of Great, runs country promotions every couple of months or so. "We are always looking to offer excitement and entertainment, and to be different," he explains. But the £60,000 British extravaganza was something else, both in terms of its scale and the way it was working. "All the new innovations in Europe are coming from the UK," says Reitmeier. "We wanted to get away from the traditional products and the conservative image. We wanted to do something new, something funky. We wanted great products which also had great stories behind them." The promotion was funky alright, featuring in its merchandising characters straight out of the Cool Britannia textbook ­ the most eyecatching a spiky-haired kid in a Union Flag jumper. The promotion also involved 4,500 ambient, chilled and frozen products ­ 1,000 of them completely new to the market ­ food tastings, cooking demos by guest chefs, British fare on the menus of the food court, as well as, er, Morris dancers, a bagpipe band and a waxwork model of that quintessential Brit, Pierce 007' Brosnan, borrowed from the local Madame Tussaud's. And on the Friday that The Grocer was in town, Reitmeier and his colleagues at Great were clearly chuffed by the success of the promotion ­ particularly as some products were quite literally flying off their shelves. All of which was good news for the producers, of course, as well as a massive boost for the new markets team at Food from Britain (FFB) which had spent months helping Great source the products and develop the promotion. The FFB team was confident a successful promotion would have positive spin-offs for the 40 or so producers new to Hong Kong who had been encouraged to come on board. Great, and its rival food halls, have always been seen as the incubators for new product ideas for the wider retail scene in Hong Kong. What the foodies buy today, so the theory goes, the mass market may buy tomorrow in supermarkets. Great is part of Park n Shop, which is Hong Kong's leading food retail chain, and some of those involved in its British promotion have already won listings in those Park n Shop stores targeting expat communities. Proof that theory can be turned quickly into reality. And once products get on the shelves of Hong Kong's supermarkets, the suppliers have made their all important first step towards the Chinese mainland. More of that later. For now Michael Colless, FFB's new markets consultant, is pleased that this ­ the team's largest such project ­ had gone down so well with consumers. "Lots of people think generic promotions have had their day, but they still have a role to play. We will be looking to do something similar in Australia and Singapore over the next year or so," says Colless. Organising such generic promotional activity is a key part of the brief for FFB's new markets team. For instance, it has just developed a series of generic ads dubbed True Brit for consumer press in the Asia Pacific region. "True Brit is largely funded by the recovery funds made available to us after foot and mouth," explains head of new market development Matthew Nash. "We looked at developing the presence of companies already in those markets rather than running promotions about products that were not available to consumers. It was developed originally in Australia, then rolled out to Singapore to coincide with a major food show and from there it came to Hong Kong to coincide with the Great promotion." As well as devising generic activity of this kind, the FFB team also helps suppliers develop their individual brands in key countries. In addition, it gets involved in research ­ again, both in a generic sense and bespoke, for individual companies ­ as well as offering consultancy advice on how best to enter a market or, just as important, develop an existing position for your brands. So far, so what, you may think. Isn't this what FFB has always done? For those accustomed to dealing with its network of offices the answer is Yes, up to a point'. What's different is that when it comes to developing business in emerging countries the emphasis is now very much on using in-market associates' to provide British firms with expertise to meet a specific brief. These associates may be signed up as strategic partners ­ as in Hong Kong ­ or the relationships may be more functional, using local experts to provide research, or help on promotions or brand management issues. Meanwhile, the new markets team based at FFB headquarters in London is the first port of call for UK companies interested in doing business in Central Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific or Australasia. "It is important people have an expert team in London that can provide them with enough information and knowledge so they can decide whether or not they want to take a more in-depth look at the market," says Nash. His team acts as a sort of filter between UK companies and the various associates now in place. "We liaise with UK companies to produce briefs for our associates. This allows them to do what they do best: providing expertise and assistance. It cuts both ways, of course, in that we find the best source for clients and make sure only good companies come to them." He adds: "What we do varies from market to market because each one has different needs. There is no single template for this." This strategy of working with local experts to provide customised solutions for British exporters has been evolving over the past five years ­ and, significantly, has led to the closure of FFB's high profile office in Tokyo. In reality, of course, exporters can still get the benefits of a dedicated office under the new system. Take Hong Kong, where FFB is working with the Qantas consultancy headed up by Bernard Chau. He offers value in a number of ways. Clearly Chau and his colleagues can help bridge the language barrier, but they also help exporters get their heads around the cultural issues of doing business in a country like China. Just as important is the fact that Chau's consultancy has the local knowledge and contacts which are needed if an exporter is to crack Hong Kong and, ultimately, China. Best of all, the Chinese authorities have appointed Qantas as their representative to help steer exporters through the 2,400 or so rules that need to be negotiated before a product is deemed to comply with the country's food standards regime. Bureaucratic nightmares like that all too often put off exporters. Nevertheless, British food and drink firms are shipping between 2,000 and 3,000 SKUs into Hong Kong at the moment, and their exports are worth in the region of £74m. That's partly due to historical reasons, of course. Not surprisingly, Nash and Colless suggest companies should use this as a competitive advantage. Build business in Hong Kong, they argue, and from there move into southern China ­ starting with Shenzhen, Guangzhou and, further north, Shanghai. Their advice does need a small health warning: times are clearly tough for Hong Kong's retailers. As the former British territory adjusts to life as part of the motherland, it is undergoing a period of economic uncertainty that has led to relatively high unemployment (roughly 7%) and 41 consecutive months of falling retail prices. As demand for consumer goods falters, shops are being forced to cut prices across the board to boost sales. One local distributor reckons that the value of Hong Kong's retail food market is 10% less than what is was four years ago. However, none of that should mask the fact this part of the world still offers a massive opportunity for exporters. With a strong expat community, and an increasingly affluent class of western Chinese' consumers, there's still plenty of life in the Hong Kong economy. But it's once you enter the Shenzhen special economic zone that you experience, first hand, the true potential of the Chinese market. Fifteen years ago, Shenzhen was mostly paddy fields. Today it is a city of five or six million which is planning to practically double in size in the coming decade. And as the skyscrapers go up in their hundreds, the economy too has reached equally stratospheric heights with annualised growth of 15% ­ about twice the national average. Not surprisingly, retailers such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Park n Shop have been quick to spot the opportunities, along with international foodservice and hospitality firms. And in non food, the number of furniture stores and DIY shops (including the world's biggest B&Q outlet) is testimony to the arrival of a new middle class with money to spend. The story is much the same in nearby Guangzhou and the other cities of the Guangdong province. And there are plenty of European, American and Australasian food and drink brands building up a strong presence on the shelves of the supermarket chains that are popping up all over this part of southern China. Clearly, many of these exporters are keeping an eye to the future ­ they recognise that with China now a member of the WTO, duty rates and tariffs are set to tumble in coming years. Whether it's fast moving categories of dairy, confectionery, biscuits or soft drinks, other exporting nations appear to be doing it better than the Brits. Shenzhen's consumers are young and cosmopolitan and adventurous when it comes to food, says local distributor Gorden Shen."British products are perceived to be top quality. But they are not readily available. They need to be put in front of consumers." Nevertheless, exports of food and drink from Britain to China are on the up ­ growing 17% last year to £19m. Leading importers and distributors such as Shen recognise there is something genuinely great about British food and drink ­ while, perhaps, not really understanding the true breadth of products available. FFB and Qantas were able to fill that knowledge gap by encouraging their contacts to visit Great, where curry sauces, marinades, chocolates, cheeses, smoked venison and even chilli worm crisps were among products on display. And it was here too that a couple of specialist food producers were able to gauge for themselves the interest in British products. Hugh and Jane Forestier-Walker of Minola Smoked Products, who were in Hong Kong to support the Great promotion, had to arrange for a second batch of their smoked fish to be flown in after running out early on in the promotional period. Marcus Carter, sales director of Patchwork, was also there to plug his family company's pâtés. He is confident of winning a listing with Great and some of the international Park n Shop stores after selling £6,000 worth of pâté during and straight after the promotion. "Sampling is key," he says. "Once the locals understood we were a family business, they were pleased to take our pâté and the expats were just clamouring for it." Carter says Patchwork has only really dabbled in exports in the past but is now keen to expand its horizons further. He talks about how the Welsh Development Agency is helping it work with FFB to target Holland, Belgium and even the Caribbean, as well as maintaining a profile in Hong Kong. It's early days for Patchwork. But its story demonstrates that Hong Kong offers plenty of opportunities for those suppliers prepared to grasp them. n {{COVER FEATURE }}