The Belonging Phase: When newcomers find their footing

Innovating traditional tastes can lead to strong brand loyalty

According to Migration Nation, a new book from Environics Reasearch Group’s Robin Brown and Kathy Cheng, immigrant shoppers move through several phases of comfort and familiarity with the brands in their new countries. After a period of disorientation and need for the familiar, newcomers slowly start to experiment.

What comes next is a sense of belonging, but don’t mistake this for “assimilation.”

Settled in some ways, still seeking in others

Following the Orientation phase, migrants enter the Belonging phase. At this point, grocery shopping and meal plans will be less experimental and the household will have settled on preferred stores, products, and brands. The routines and loyalties evident during Belonging will have been forged out of the experimentation of the Orientation phase: loyalty to brands that were present and helpful during that phase tends to remain strong.

The mindset of migrants at the Belonging phase is similar to that of the Canadian born — but that doesn’t imply complete assimilation. Migrants at the Belonging phase aren’t likely to be shopping, cooking, and eating in exactly the way a multi-generational Canadian household might: they’ll still be seeking out ingredients associated with the cuisines of their ethnic cultures. But they’re no longer new to Canada or navigating an unfamiliar marketplace; they now resemble other Canadians in the stability of their routines, their openness to new products, and their interest in samples and promotions.

The tendency toward food from home may diminish over time—but not much

Migration Nation

Besides some notable product preferences associated with traditional cuisines from their regions of origin, there’s another important area in which migrants at the Belonging stage stand out from other Canadians: they continue to seek ways to bridge the gaps between Canadian cooking habits and the culinary demands of their ethnic culture—and any help they can get is welcome. For example, people responsible for meals in Indian households may no longer feel guilty about not making fresh roti every day. But they may be quite actively poking around South Asian grocery stores to see which of the frozen flat breads most closely approximate the fresh. Similarly, Chinese families may be accustomed to falling a bit short of the freshness standards that daily trips to the wet market allowed—but they might be quite dedicated to exploring the prepared and frozen foods at T&T (scallion pancakes, meat buns, savoury dumplings) to see which convenient options might act as passable substitutes for favourites from back home.

Opportunities lie in providing migrants at the Belonging phase with innovations that help them enjoy some of the tastes of home in a Canadian environment where shopping habits are different (and family routines are often more pressed, partly due to the lack of intergenerational support). At this stage of the Settlement Journey, less guilt and anxiety is associated with trying to replicate favourite flavours from home. Generally speaking, migrants at the Belonging phase have expanded their repertoire of dishes and have plenty of things they enjoy. Many have incorporated Canadian ingredients and dishes. They’ve steered their household through a new culinary environment and have a justifiable sense of competence and achievement. If they get a little help from the frozen-food aisle or a takeout box from T&T as they work to provide some authentic tastes of home, they feel they’ve earned it.

Settled in a Canadian kitchen, but not assimilated

To reiterate, Belonging does not imply assimilation. Our research shows that the majority of food prepared in Chinese and South Asian Canadian households, for example, are dishes from migrants’ countries of origin. This is especially true of Chinese Canadians. The tendency toward food from home may diminish over time—but not much. We’ve found in numerous studies that a strong majority of meals prepared in Chinese-Canadian homes—including those led by people who’ve been in Canada for a decade or two—consist mainly of Chinese cuisine. Moreover, in a 2013 survey we found that roughly a quarter of Chinese Canadians, regardless of their tenure in Canada, rely on T&T and other Chinese grocery suppliers as their primary source of groceries (most others will supplement grocery trips to other stores with Asian specialty products from T&T or elsewhere).

Tastes can evolve, and children, as we’ve seen, will often nudge families toward popular Canadian foods, but taste preferences are formed early in life and are not easily altered. Nor is there an urgent need to change, since multiculturalism and the sheer diversity of Canadian communities make it practical and socially acceptable for people of all backgrounds to eat what they most like to eat.

Traditional food, new habits

In most migrant households, most food will continue to be of the kind associated with family members’ ethnic culture. But with time in Canada, change does happen around the edges.

One example from our research into the eating habits of Chinese and South Asian Canadians: breakfast. The first meal of the day is the one where families are most likely to adopt foods that aren’t traditional for them. Not only do children tend to be enthusiastic about sugary cereal, but lack of time in the morning also favours the kind of convenient foods (boxed cereals, yogurt cups, granola bars, and so on) that are prevalent in Canada. And unless you’re coming from Britain (where it’s said that to eat well you should eat breakfast three times a day), breakfast is unlikely to be a cherished part of your ethnic culture’s cuisine.

Snacks are another area where many migrants adopt foods that aren’t traditional or prevalent in their countries of origin. Snacks are a way of exploring new tastes and pleasing children without interfering too seriously with the family’s core cuisine.

It’s at the dinner table that the ethnic cuisine of the family is most likely to be maintained. The evening family meal is the heart of the day’s food routine, and the meal for which the most time is dedicated to preparation. Even at dinner there may be compromises—depending on the availability of key ingredients or varying tastes across generations—but more than at breakfast or lunch (especially bagged school lunches), parents are likely to hold the line and serve food their own grandparents would recognize.

Read the first two excerpts from Migration Nation: A Practical Guide To Doing Business In Globalized Canada
• What newcomers need in the grocery aisle
Marketing opportunities for newcomers’ orientation phase

This text is adapted from the new book from Environics Publishing, Migration Nation: A Practical Guide to doing Business in Globalized Canada by Kathy Cheng & Robin Brown. To find out more or order the book please visit: MigrationNation.ca

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