What it means to be made in Saskatchewan

Made in Canada. Made in the US. Made in China. They are all labels that say something about a product, and labels that many consumers pay close attention to, but what about made in Saskatchewan? How is the province marketing its products to the world, and is anyone noticing?

By Colleen MacPherson

That was what David Zhang set out to explore last summer. With a $35,000 grant from the Alliance for Food and Bioproduct Innovation, the associate professor of management and marketing in the Edwards School of Business spent time interviewing farmers, value-add producers, government agencies and other stakeholders looking to document and examine their efforts to build a Saskatchewan brand. But what he found was not quite what he expected.

"I teach international business and international marketing," said Zhang, "and I've been aware of the recent Chinese emphasis on changing the global image of ‘made in China.' They're trying to change people's idea of what made in China is all about and I think we (Saskatchewan) are in the same boat."

There are a number of "solid products" coming out of the province, he said, among them durum wheat used largely for pasta production, and lentils "which have a very prestigious reputation in the Middle East, in Turkey, in India." The problem Zhang sees is that those products are not heavily promoted as made in Saskatchewan. Through his research, "I wanted to find out what each of the various groups is doing to market products and to find a common theme" with an eye to strengthening the province's marketing strategy."

Zhang was also looking for evidence that the made in Saskatchewan label carried with it messages like clean air, clean water, sustainability, "all the good things, the buzz words that make Saskatchewan different from all other producers. That was my plan. It sounded pretty good but that was my ivory tower scholar kind of perspective coming in, and it didn't turn out as planned."

What he found instead was almost no emotional attachment to the made in Saskatchewan brand, a very complex relationship between primary producers, quasi-governmental agencies and the agrifood and bioresource industry, and virtually no cohesion in marketing Saskatchewan products. In fact, when Zhang asked farmers about branding what they grow, they replied it was of little consequence compared to the fate of the Canadian Wheat Board.

"Apparently their priority of concerns is much more immediate—how am I going to sell my crop? The wheat board wasn't even on my radar so this shows how some things become important and others take the back seat at different times. It's change dynamics playing out in the real world. If there's a unifying theory to my research, it's the complexity theory."

But Zhang still sees a lot of potential to advance the Saskatchewan brand, one being a Saskatchewan lentil variety called Green Giant. Twice the size of conventional varieties, it is very popular in the Middle East but is not sold as Saskatchewan Giant, a missed opportunity, according to Zhang.

"One example of what I mean is French wine. People respect French wine and they (French wine makers) make sure you know it's from France. These are important messages and you want those messages to be sticky. I think there are future opportunities for a message of the Saskatchewan origin of a product integrated into the brand … but we're not consciously doing it."

While he did not find the kind of made in Saskatchewan marketing momentum he had expected, that is not to say there is nothing to be learned from his research. Zhang's findings point to the need for packaging and actively selling Saskatchewan products in ways that demonstrate their benefits. There is also more work needed to determine whether made in Saskatchewan is, or should be, a sub-brand of made in Canada, or a brand of its own.

Zhang will continue to work with his data, he said, intent on publishing and also on presenting to various groups his conclusions about opportunities for direct communication with consumers that will create the kind of affinity for Saskatchewan products that France has created with its wine.

On a personal level, "my initial anticipation was a little off but the journey of discovery is a valuable one. I now know more about lentils that I did before," Zhang joked, "which makes me almost a Saskatchewan farm boy."