Perception, branding, health and research were all on the agenda of this year's International Egg Commission (IEC) Marketing and Production Conference which took place in September in Shanghai, the first time the event has been held in China.

The 370 delegates from 36 countries were able to share their latest ideas and, at the same time, see for themselves, how the egg sector is organised in China the world's largest producer.

A phenomenal transformation has taken place in the ways that eggs are now perceived. Dr Don McNamara, executive director of the USA's Egg Nutrition Centre, told delegates, "We can now tell consumers that, if they include eggs in their diets it will lower their risk of heart disease, breast and colon cancers, age related eye diseases, muscle loss in the elderly and satiety, which helps restrain your weight.

"Eggs for breakfast could be the vitamin pill of the future," he added. All the nutrients and enrichments you need, not in a supplement, but in a natural food product. I think a lot of consumers would prefer to get their vitamins from food rather than supplements."

He continued that, in those cases where an individual's nutrition was borderline, eggs could provide a nutrient rich food that provided a spectrum of essential nutrients at a low calorie cost.

"Adding a couple of eggs a day to a pregnant woman's diet could have a significant effect in reducing the incidence of low birth weight," Dr McNamara said.

Eggs have the lowest cost of any animal protein in the supermarket and Dr McNamara argued that the industry should promote this advantage.

"These benefits also offer a world of possibilities for the egg processing sector, as it can now process eggs for everyone, such as egg products for pregnant women, children, athletes, for weight control, seniors and even for pets. You can take any health situation in the population and target the composition of an egg product for that specific group," he said.

The modern consumer responds to messaging and this messaging can be well conveyed through effective branding.

Consumer brand belief

Communications and branding expert Ronald Driesen told delegates, "The most important thing to remember about branding is that a brand is not what a company says it is, but what the consumer believes it is." He continued, saying that strong marketing was building a strong brand in the "hearts and minds" of consumers.

Mr Driesen believes that there are three areas, in particular, that need to be addressed to achieve successful branding. These are: consistency across all communications; consistency over time; and continuous updating of the brand.

Egg producers would gain from looking at exactly how they and their products differ from their competitors'. Additionally, identifying their products' benefits may allow that value to be exploited.

In building a brand strategy, consumers need to be made aware of a product's core benefits, differences that make a product unique, character, brand promise and what a particular company stands for.

Successful branding allows a company to stand apart from its rivals, but brands can only be successfully built over time.

"It is a marathon, not a sprint," Mr Driesen added.


Consumer knows best?

While influencing the consumer is clearly important, looking to consumers to ascertain what they will want in the future is not always easy. Consumer brand expert Herman Konings told delegates, "We not only look at what scientists say, but we temper this with experience. Ask experts what they think about the future don't ask consumers."

Time and money have become the two most important factors driving the behaviour of today's consumer. Mr Konings pointed to studies into the take up of mobile phones to illustrate how consumer demands have changed, but also to demonstrate how consumers were unable to predict this shift in behaviour.

In 2000, he said, only 30% of those aged over 18 in the US and Western Europe had a mobile phone and, at that time, three important groups had no intention of owning a mobile. These were women, people aged over 50, and those in the middle and lower social classes. Mobile phones were considered to be only for men, entrepreneurs and business people.

Three years later, market penetration had risen to 65% and today stands at 93%. The three groups that said they would not use a mobile phone are now the groups that are most interested in them.

Mr Konings also believes that anyone wanting to understand consumer behaviour needs to stop thinking about consumers in terms of their age and more in terms of their generation. "We are all children of our generation, more than we are children of our parents," he asserted.

Understanding consumer behaviour is clearly important to maximising market share, but understanding production processes can be just as important. Value chain analysis (VCA) can help companies to identify the ways in which processes can create value for their customers and also help them to maximise this value, as it builds a team around clear objectives or envisaged outcomes.

Delivering value

Dr Luis Enriquez of Afan International Consulting Group offered IEC delegates a practical approach to evaluating VCA in egg production and processing, with the goal of maximising value creation and minimising costs.

He explained that the concept had now been extended beyond individual organisations as it could be applied to whole supply chains and distribution networks. Delivering a mix of products and services to the end consumer would mobilise various economic factors, each managing its own value chain, he explained.

"A Value chain analysis is a way of thinking through where you deliver value to your customers and also for reviewing all the things you can do to maximise that value defined in terms of outcome," he said.

He reminded the audience that their customers were not necessarily outside their own organisations, as they could be their managers, colleagues and anyone who depended on them or what they did.

"All of these could be considered customers in one way or another, just as long as they directly or indirectly, pay your wages," he commented.

And for those that were keen to increase their understanding of this year's host market and its place in global output, IEC economic analyst Peter van Horne explained that China's production grew 2% last year to stand 25.85 million metric tons, meaning that the country retained its position as the world's largest producer. China now accounts for 41.3% of all the eggs produced in the world.

While China's production may dwarf that of Indonesia, Indonesian growth rates cannot be ignored. Last year, its egg production grew an impressive 8.4%, taking it close to 1.1 million metric tons.