SIAL 2018: You Should Have Brought Your A-Game

If you’re in the food and beverage business, SIAL China is like Christmas, New Year, and your best friend’s wedding all rolled into one. Billed as Asia’s largest food innovation forum, and the fourth largest food show in the world, this year welcomed 3,400 exhibitors from 67 countries, with over 110,000 visitors. As in years past, rows and rows of goods filled the 14 massive airline hangars of the expo site. On our visits to the site, and conversations with delegations from all over the world, one thing was especially different this year. We would even go so far as calling it a turning point for SIAL.

To understand the turning point, you have to know a bit of history. For nearly two decades, food producers have used SIAL as an entry point to the Chinese market. Most come with beautiful displays highlighting the best their country, region, or company has to offer. Smaller organizations huddle together under a shared display, while the likes of France, Germany, and the United States have entire pavilions showcasing their best. All of this is in hopes of attracting the right local distributor. Some return year on year, trying to crack the China code. For the casual visitor, SIAL is like being tempted by forbidden fruit: plenty of samples but nothing actually available in the market to purchase. Even for a brand consultancy like The Silk Initiative, SIAL offered little in terms of business development opportunities. Sure, there’s always a few cool new products on display. Overall, though, SIAL is a distributor’s paradise.

2018 was markedly different.

We started to notice this back in January as delegations from the U.S., Canada, and Australia all began to ring us. Each were organizing separate events, normal for SIAL. The difference this time was in the preparation, breadth, and size of the delegations. In short, competition was heating up – delegations were getting bigger, they were better funded, and professionally organized. SIAL was evolving from a local, distributor-driven trade show to a forum highly influenced by governments, industry associations, and public policy. Over the next several months, The Silk Initiative worked with the trade representatives of these and other countries to prepare them for SIAL. On the ground here in Shanghai last week, we continued to provide insight to delegations through pre-briefings on the China market and positioning businesses to succeed.

It was clear to us these groups were bringing their A-game to SIAL. Yet, this may have caught most visitors, distributors, and exhibitors by surprise. Far too many were still using the outmoded distributor model, ignorant of the fire nipping their heels. Even fewer were taking their time in China to ask the critical questions any business needs to understand. The most important of these being whether or not they should even be thinking about China. Most continue to opt, instead, to forego their homework, find a distributor, and overzealously jump right in to a market that might not even need them. While that sort of crap shoot might work in Vegas, it’s unlikely to find any winners here.