Q&A with North Ridge Foods Marketing Manager Drew Alianan on Export Marketing

North Ridge Foods exports, distributes, and promotes Filipino fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) in North America. Exclusively distributing for companies and brands that include San Miguel Purefoods, Nagaraya, Barrio Fiesta, Unilever, Lemon Square, NutriAsia, Boy Bawang, Saranggani Bay, WOW Mani, SABA Seafood, and Goldilocks, among many others, the company creates an international presence for Filipino brands while giving Filipino and Asian communities abroad a taste of home. With warehouses in California and New Jersey and a wide distribution network across The United States of America and Canada, North Ridge supplies many of North America’s top Filipino and Ethnic Asian supermarkets. In the Philippines, it has been recognized by CITEM as one of the country’s top consolidators and exporters of FMCG products.

North Ridge Foods Marketing Manager Drew Alianan, a second-generation entrepreneur, shares with us the marketing lessons that he has learned through the years.

Q1: You joined North Ridge in 2014 when it was still an export consolidator, what prompted you to innovate by adding marketing services and brand building to its menu?

A1: When I joined the business—and even to this day—the industry was pretty much traditional consolidation and export. Once a shipment was in transit, the sale was realized and responsibility was then left to the buyer for what happened moving forward. It was very one-sided and relied solely on the orders generated by buyers, catering to the old style of selling only when there is demand. Business grew mostly by just increasing portfolio size rather than focusing on developing markets or current product lines. This kind of approach has its limits and is not sustainable long-term. Even strong homegrown brands that were doing well domestically were having a hard time with export markets.

Joining the business as a second generation entrepreneur, the challenge was to grow the business even further and to break free from the limitations of the traditional model. Here I found the opportunity to dig deep into my brand management background. Rather than just waiting for orders, we tried to think outside the box. We sat down and analyzed our business model critically, seeing that the potential for growth and sustainability relied on post-sale interactions. Soon, we as a company started to involve ourselves even after shipments reached their destinations. By shifting our focus to uncharted territory—brand building and research analytics—we found our competitive advantage and ensured that each of the brands we carried thrived in the markets we serve.

These days we are the only export consolidator that is active in marketing the products we distribute as an added service. We have set up a trade marketing unit to regularly conduct sampling and demo activities in different trade channels, as well as to execute local promotions and campaigns that we plan together with our principals. Above-the-line initiatives are also done via TV and print placement as required. Constantly innovating this approach so that our brands’ stories are properly communicated and experienced is our top priority. We do not just sell products; we build the brands that we carry. It is because we believe that through the products we serve, we give our consumers abroad a taste of home. That in every product they purchase, it reminds them of this.

Q2: What are the challenges in offering Filipino products to the international market?

A2: In the international market, especially in North America, the biggest challenge and blessing that we face are the second- and third-generation Filipinos. These Filipinos are now mostly foreigners to their homeland but still prefer products from the motherland, having been influenced by their more traditional elders. Given that this new blood is the main driving force in Filipino and Asian supermarkets thriving abroad, most brands and categories start on an equal playing field. Brands that are already leaders locally still have to prove themselves anew, whereas smaller or newer competing brands have an equal chance of performing well. In fact, a number of them actually outperform established brands and local giants.

Another challenge in offering Filipino products abroad is the need for more government support of SMEs and aspiring export brands. We have no shortage of start-ups and fledgling companies with promising ideas or products in the Philippines. However, these companies need proper guidance since they lack the know-how, network, and avenues to showcase their offerings and to make these exportable. In North Ridge, one of our advocacies is to guide promising local companies in developing and preparing their products for export, and eventually selling them. But we can only do this with a limited number of potential brands. Think of what can happen if there was a more solid network for this need. How many more export success stories will we see?

Q3: Who are your consumers in North America, Filipinos or locals?

A3: Filipinos and their families abroad are our primary market. As long as there is a Filipino community, we’ll be there. In North America, Filipino-Asian stores act as community centers—as a meeting hub for Pinoys, and even for others who share the love for Filipino goodies. It’s quite rewarding to see, over the last decade, a growing number ethnicities patronizing Filipino products and gracing the stores we serve. It fills me with so much joy and pride to see our culture being embraced by others.

Today, North Ridge is the primary supplier to a number of North America’s top Filipino and Ethnic Asian Chain supermarkets. Aside from these key accounts, we also have products in select mainstream stores and in a little more than 900 unique stores in the region.

Q4: Your marketing philosophy is “Tantiya, Sukat, at Tuhog”. It sounds very practical, what does it mean?

A4: It’s a simple approach I devised for my students when I taught marketing, using squid and fish balls as an example. Subsequently I shared it with employees and industry partners so that they may better appreciate the marketing behind what we do, since I usually prefer things to be simplified for everyone to understand and function better.

“Tantiya” refers to doing proper research and market analysis so that we can move forward with informed decisions backed by data and insights. When you stand in front of a fish ball cart, you think about your level of hunger: how many pieces will satiate you? Gauge your appetite.

“Sukat” means measuring variables properly and formulating a general strategy—setting targets and goals, establishing KPIs to measure effectiveness, and such. This ensures that we stay on track. Going back to fish balls, this is where you take a stick, knowing full well that once you start skewering them, the eating commences. But when to stop? How many sticks and how long of a time do you have to eat?

“Tuhog” is all about consistency of execution. Everything must be aligned and connected with our strategy. “Lahat ng bagay ay dapat tuhog” is what we usually say. Everything must be integrated, connected, and clean—just like finally skewering your order, savoring and enjoying the smooth explosion of flavors in your mouth.

Q5: You like to talk about “The Art of War”, what key lessons do you like about it?

A5: Being a tactical and strategy enthusiast, I draw much influence from this book both personally and professionally. The most important line that I put to heart is: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, then you will lose every battle.”

These words may sound cliché, but they’re hardly put into practice. What I love about this line is that it reminds us to always be thorough in knowing not only the strengths and weaknesses of our enemies but also that of our own. Many mistakes have been made from jumping the gun, being reckless in execution without even assessing internal conditions, thus resulting in grave errors and, at times, irreversible consequences. I have seen cases where companies were so excited to launch an aggressive campaign that they forgot to check whether capacity would be able to handle a spike in demand; brands making sudden changes to product lines without proper study; businesses jumping into an entirely different category or industry unprepared. All these have resulted in opportunities lost and even entire business units going to waste. If these companies only took a look at themselves, leveraged on their internal competencies, and improved on their weaknesses, their stories would have turned for the better and fate would have been kinder.

Another line from the book is “In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity.” Smart entrepreneurs and managers must remember that in every crisis or change comes opportunity. Anything can happen in today’s fast-moving world. Technology is constantly evolving—directly affecting our industries, how we live and work. To many, this can be overwhelming. In their hesitation to change with the times, they miss their chances. But those who always keep an eye out for opportunity can see a potential goldmine. By analyzing opportunities, researching, and taking the right risks, they have the ability to further grow and better themselves.

Q6: On a personal note, can you share about your experience of “failing fast” and rising from failures?

A6: My story of failing is more of a story of finding opportunities through failure, and the value of what meaningful mentorships can do.

When I first entered college in Ateneo, I was a happy kid excited with the prospect of having so much freedom and choice to do what I wanted. I was naïve then and got so carried away with extracurricular activities—student organizations, athletics, and an entrepreneurial venture—that I forgot to focus on my studies. Eventually I had to transfer schools after sophomore year. It was such a big shock to me and to my family. From being a student at one of the country’s top schools, I had to transfer out. Just imagine my disappointment with myself, and the crushed dreams and expectations my parents had for me. It was definitely a wakeup call to me.

After analyzing what had happened and processing emotions, I took matters into my own hands. Determined, I decided that I will do what I can to make sure that my dreams were realized. This is where that line from Sun Tzu about changes bringing opportunities really hit me hard. I transferred to Chiang Kai Shek College and studied diligently. Here, I was blessed to meet Professor Maribel Chan, who saw potential in me and became my mentor after seeing my passion for marketing. She entrusted me with opportunities, saying that if the right people were given the right opportunities and their heart was in it, anything can happen. I ended up graduating from that school having matured into a real student leader—president of two organizations and captain of the school’s marketing team, even winning a few competitions. I was also blessed to graduate as one of Markprof’s Top Trainees. I couldn’t believe it, but I was really making the most of opportunities given because people saw potential in me.

After college, I was determined to still attain my dream job. I was blessed to be taken in by UNAHCO, doing brand management work for Thunderbird under Ed Mapanao and Francis Martinez, one of the best leaders I have ever worked with and who also became a mentor to me. Sir Isko taught me what it takes to be a proper leader. He taught me the true meaning of leadership by example, of not being afraid to get down on your knees to fight in the trenches with everyone else. It was a dream working for someone like him.

Coming full circle, I graduated from Ateneo with my MBA and joined the family business. In my current role, I try to practice all that I’ve learned since then and to apply these in our company while also learning from my parents. Imagine everything that followed from that failure, from a wakeup call. Everything else started from there. I am really grateful for the lessons I’ve learned, and the meaningful mentorships and friendships I have been blessed with. That is why I do what I can to pay them forward to those I work with every day.

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