Friday, March 22, 2019

Stepping into the South Korea Market

Chris McGann

Washington delegation in Seoul: Amy Teo (F.C. Bloxom Co.), Debra French
(Dairy Farmers of WA), Julie Johnson (WSDA), Sean Connell (EDASC),
  Bryan Sakuma (Sakuma Brothers) and James Smith (JBR International)
If you’re a Whatcom County dairy looking for new artisan cheese customers -- or a blueberry producer, beer broker or maybe you specialize in selling hot sauce and pet food -- a huge overseas market such as South Korea could sound intriguing.

But Seoul is a long way from Ferndale.

And for all their opportunity, markets like South Korea are complex. Stepping in can be overwhelming and very intimidating.

Enter Julie Johnson, WSDA’s export development and outreach trade specialist.

Johnson and WSDA’s International Marketing Program is ready to help connect sellers with foreign buyers and help Washington companies navigate everything from busy airports to trade restrictions in some of our largest export countries.

Fried chicken and beer Seoul style. Watch
out, it's got a bite!
She can even help with little things.

What if a buyer in Seoul invites you out for a fried chicken and beer dinner? No problem, it’s a trend right now, Johnson will explain. But be careful.

“It looks like American fried chicken, but they put their own spicy spin on it,” Johnson said. “It’s got a bite!”

Last month, WSDA’s International Marketing Program completed a first-of-its-kind outbound trade mission to South Korea. It was, in a way, a pilot program.

Although WSDA organizes many trade missions, the trip last month was the first to focus on new-to-market and new-to-export companies going to learn about opportunities, import rules, and the consumer preferences of South Korea.

The program wanted to know if companies interested in entering the market would be willing to pay their own way to go on a mission. The resounding answer was, yes.

Johnson quickly identified 17 companies that were interested. Five of them, including the before-mentioned dairy, berry producer and specialty product brokers, participated in the outbound mission organized by WSDA and the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (EDASC). Dairy Farmers of Washington, Port of Skagit, and Economic Alliance of Snohomish County also made the trip.

A clear potential

South Korea is the sixth largest U.S. agricultural export market with exports of $6.9 billion in 2017, according the United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service.
Dragon’s beard candy (Ggul-ta-rea).

“For businesses out there looking for new markets, South Korea is full of opportunities,” Johnson said. “South Korea is open to our products because we have excellent food safety and high quality products. It’s one of Washington's top five export markets.

“There’s a lot of potential there, for sure,” she said.

But to tap into it, businesses must understand the legal requirements and cultural norms to determine if it would be a good fit and build an effective strategy to entering.

“It’s really key to go to those markets so you can learn about the customs and the culture,” she said.

Expert help on the ground

“The great thing about working with WSDA to explore new markets like South Korea is we have someone on the ground ready to help,” she said. “South Korea is a big bustling place. It can be complicated.”

Washington delegation poses in front of the 40th Anniversary Monument
of King Gojong’s Enthronement in Sejongno, Jongno-gu, Seoul.
Based in Seoul, Danny Kim is one of WSDA’s four contracted overseas trade representatives.

“Danny met us at the airport, made sure we got on the right bus and got to the right hotel. It took a lot of the nervousness out. That’s a big help, especially for people who had not traveled internationally,” she said.

“We got really great feedback,” she said.

International Marketing, a good fit 

Johnson is one of four trade specialists in the International Marketing Program, but her role in the program is unique.

While other staff are assigned to specific markets and product sectors, Johnson's position is focused on “export development and outreach,” meaning she primarily works with companies that are at the beginning of their explorations into overseas markets.

Johnson has worn many hats at WSDA. She’s worked here on and off since high school.
But she’s really found her stride in the International Marketing Program.

“It’s great,” she said. “I’ve been allowed to do some international travel so that I can learn about the markets. It’s one thing to talk to somebody about a market, but when you’ve actually been there and experienced it, it’s a lot easier to really tell them what the markets are like.”

Daniel Wavrin (Ferndale Farmstead), Julie Johnson (WSDA),
 and Danny Kim (WSDA contract representative).
Downsides? Johnson is a self-proclaimed picky eater, so sampling the pickled radishes, fermented kimchi and other traditional Korean cuisine is not her favorite aspect of the work.

But that’s just a quibble.

“I love the outreach,” she said. “I love people. I get excited about companies that are interested in exporting. I feel like it’s a really good fit. I work with new-to-export companies, getting them the resources they need to become export-ready.”

For more information check out the International Marketing Program.