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Hit products take imagination and research

Feb 19,2018
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From left: Yakult Korea’s Cold Brew, Samyang’s Sangkwaehwan, Sempio Jilleo. [EACH COMPANY]
One of Yakult Korea’s best-selling products is Cold Brew, a bottled coffee. It was an almost instant hit upon its release in March 2016 and a surprising one for a company known for yogurt products.

Within three months of its launch, it was selling an average of 100,000 units a day. A total of 13 million Cold Brew coffees were sold in 2017, bringing Yakult revenues of 25 billion won ($22.8 million).

“Soon after the launch, it became trendy to take pictures proving that you had bought Cold Brew and upload them on social media,” explained Han Dae-sung, head of public relations for the yogurt company. “The number of downloads of the Korea Yakult mobile app quadrupled as people tried to find the Yakult ajummas,” referring to the uniformed, middle-aged women who sell the company’s products door-to-door from mobile carts.

Cold Brew coffee is just one example of a product that has become a best seller for companies known for selling very different things.

Samyang, which specializes in sugar, flour and engineering plastics, experienced a similar success with Sangkwaehwan, a hangover cure.

Sangkwaehwan, the Korean word for refreshing, are round herbal pills packaged in boxes the size of business cards. Last year, 6 million packages were sold, raking in revenues of 15 billion won.

Sempio, a company known for soy sauce, had a surprise success Jilleo, one of the nation’s most popular beef jerky brands.

“Jilleo recorded 36 billion won in sales last year, and has sold an accumulated 57 million packs,” a Sempio public relations manager said. “People say that Jilleo has become the ‘national beef jerky’ as the amount of sales we have achieved means that enough has been sold for everyone in Korea to have tried it once.”

The backstories of these three products are similar. The companies who created them have been around for years: Samyang since 1924, Sempio since 1946 and Korea Yakult from 1969. All three were known for signature products and had a strong foothold in their industries.

But all three companies were facing stagnant growth and wanted to break out of it with a new and novel hit product.

“We developed a new product because our revenues and customer base were at a standstill,” explained Kim Dong-joo, Korea Yakult’s marketing director.

When Cold Brew first came out, the coffee market was saturated and there were worries that consumers wouldn’t take a coffee product made by a yogurt company seriously.

Sangkwaehwan’s success was equally uncertain.

“At the time of the launch, hangover relief products in pill form were uncommon,” explained a public relations manager from Samyang. “The level of public awareness of Samyang as a company was also low.”

Sempio tried hard to differentiate Jilleo from beef jerky products already on the market, and to ensure superior quality.

“We tried automating the process by building a factory to manufacture beef jerky in 2010, but the output of the machines fell short of the quality produced by human workers, so we reverted to manual production,” explained a Sempio spokesman. “Because the key to beef jerky production is reducing microorganisms, we oversee hygiene management to the point that factory workers wear a clean room suit on top of a disinfected over-garment and take air showers as well.”

Such efforts helped Sempio become the first company in Asia to be awarded the “Manufacturer of the Year” prize by the Safe Quality Food Institute in 2014.

The makers of Cold Brew focused on the freshness and flavor of the drink. To legitimize the quality of Cold Brew, whose full product name is Cold Brew by Babinski, Yakult worked with Charles Babinski, winner of the 2015 US Barista Championship. Through Korea’s 13,000 Yakult ajummas, Yakult only sold coffee that had been roasted within the past 10 days. This was revolutionary, considering that other coffee products in the market had a shelf life of up to a year.

As for Sangkwaehwan, all the company’s employees got in on testing the product from its developmental stage. Researchers tried the herbal ingredients in their natural state, while company executives tested the product’s potency by taking the pills before and after alcohol consumption. Those endeavors got a lot of publicity, helping the product succeed.

BY HAM JONG-SUN [kim.eunjin1@joongang.co.kr]