Soju breaks new ground

25 January, 2023

Hite Jinro is working to bring South Korea’s beloved spirit to the rest of the world, Shay Waterworth talks to the company’s overseas market managing director.

It’s well documented that soju is consumed in vast quantities in South Korea. However, category giant Jinro appears to be breaking boundaries overseas with the potential to add significant volumes to its already impressive inventory.

“Hite Jinro recorded the highest sales performance ever in 2022,” says the company’s overseas market managing director, Hwang Jung-Ho. “This seems to be more meaningful because sales of soju have continued to grow not only in the Korean domestic market, but also in the overseas markets.”

According to Drinks International’s The Millionaires’ Club, Jinro added nearly 20 million 9-litre cases to its sales figures from 2017-21. That’s the equivalent of around 240 million 75cl bottles.

Hwang adds: “When it comes to the Korean domestic market, we have been focusing on the off-premise for the past few years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, from last year, the Korean government eased a set of policies to prevent the spread of infection, such as restrictions on business hours, meaning sales in the on-premise market began to recover as usual, demonstrating the strength of Jinro’s representation.”

Last year, Jinro became the first Korean spirit to sponsor a major festival in the UK at London’s All Points East Festival – the beginning of a much wider export strategy.

“In the overseas market, we were able to continue the growth of sales by reflecting the major trends of global consumers to our strategies and promotional activities. First of all, most countries have a larger portion of the off-premise market, and so we focused on entering convenience stores and supermarkets. As a result of the expanding distribution channels, there was a significant increase in the proportion of overseas local customers drinking our products, not just Korean residents in foreign countries.”

Hwang believes that the performance of these strategies and activities was the main reason for maintaining continuous growth during the pandemic. However, expanding the product range was also significant.

“In April last year, we continued to strengthen our product portfolio by launching Jinro peach-flavoured soju in overseas markets, joining existing products such as Jinro Grapefruit, Green Grape, Plum and Strawberry.

“Soju used to be considered an alcoholic beverage which was popular only in Korea or in some Asian countries. But now it is proudly recognised as a name that can be used commonly in the global market.”

Jinro was first released in 1924 and will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. Yet, despite its history, the wider category hasn’t had much international recognition.

But in 2022, based on the Nice agreement, soju was listed as an official product name that can be used internationally through the World Intellectual Property Organisation, which represents a big milestone for the category.

“Overseas exports sales of Jinro soju, which were concentrated in Asia – Japan, China, and Southeast Asia – in the past, have recently shown a steady growth in western countries such as the US, UK, Russia, Australia and Germany. These achievements can also be interpreted as getting closer every year to the ‘vision of globalisation of soju’, which is the final goal of Hite Jinro.”

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