Skip to main content

Targeting newcomers: Opportunities for food and CPG companies

After disorientation phase, immigrants are more willing to try new products and step away from familiar global brand

In the new book Migration Nation, co-authors Kathy Cheng (Environics’ vice-president of cultural markets) and Robin Brown (senior vice-president of consumer insights and cultural markets) contend that Canada’s newcomers go through a number of stages in their immigration journey, from the disorientation of a wholly new culture to the sense of belonging and independence that comes with time and experience.

At each step, a newcomer’s shopping needs change. After the initial “disorientation” phase, immigrants are more willing to try new products and step away from familiar global brands. When a settling family is ready for a change, marketers should be too.

Since food and grocery shopping is habitual, CPG marketers strive to make their offerings part of consumers’ habits. And yet the first, Disorientation phase of settlement isn’t a time of habit formation. Disoriented newcomers’ thinking tends to be short-term and reactive: it’s about getting by for now. These shoppers are typically responding to immediate needs, not building routines that meet such considered goals as finding the best product, creating a pleasurable family ritual, or even saving money. (Disoriented consumers are highly price-sensitive but often not in a position to be strategic about getting a good deal.

All of this changes during the Orientation phase: consumers are beginning to form the habits that will stay with them over the medium to long term. They’re finding their bearings, gaining confidence, and exploring their options. Since exploration is part of the pleasure of shopping, trips to the grocery store during the Orientation phase can be remarkably entertaining. The grocery aisle becomes a safe, easy, fun way to find new things and try them out.

Consumers are likely to be very open to samples and in-store experiences, especially those that engage kids and deliver a bit of light education. The risks are low — “That breakfast cereal wasn’t so hot; we’ll try something else next week” — and the rewards are multiple: meeting household needs, learning about local tastes and offerings, and feeling a sense of empowerment at being able to navigate this new environment a little better each week. And as newcomers develop their Canadian habits, loyalty programs that help them build up points and earn rewards quickly may catch their interest (many migrants are arriving from markets where loyalty programs are very popular).

So the Orientation phase presents a significant opportunity for food and CPG companies targeting newcomers, provided they can align their strategy with the needs and mindsets that are characteristic of this stage of the Settlement Journey when it comes to food:


When was the last time you felt curious and stimulated at the grocery store? Unless you’ve recently been in the Orientation phase yourself, your answer may be “never”—or not since you were a kid. For most adults who are familiar with Canadian brands and retailers, a trip to the supermarket tends to happen on autopilot: you check the items off your list (often the same ones as last week or two weeks ago), pay, and get out. You may do all this while paying little attention to your environment.

READ: What newcomers need in the grocery aisle

By contrast, the newcomer in the Orientation phase will shop with eyes wide open, looking for new products and ideas. Our data shows that migrants who’ve recently arrived try a wider range of brands and categories than do more established migrants. While the Disorientation phase is usually a kind of survival mode (“Don’t distract me—this is hard work”), Orientation is a time of openness and curiosity. And with that openness comes a tendency to notice and pay attention to multiple influences, including store promotions and displays as well as flyers or other communication.


Changing household dynamics can contribute to this spirit of exploration. Children can exert considerable influences on a family’s purchases — especially of food — during the Orientation phase. As we’ve seen, kids are sometimes more engaged with mainstream Canada than their parents are early in the settlement process. They virtually act as scouts in the new society, going out into mainstream Canada through the school system (soaking up both classroom messages and their peers’ informal chat) and reporting back on the habits and culture of Canada.

Children can begin to develop a taste for things like pizza and hot dogs at friends’ houses and school events. TV ads and friends’ lunch bags can also spark their curiosity about popular products. When kids make requests at home for the new, “Canadian” foods they’ve tried elsewhere, they can find a more ready audience than one might expect because the Orienting newcomer parents are seeking to learn and explore. Far from being automatically rejected (“No, you can’t have chocolate breakfast cereal”), requests are often welcomed as opportunities to try out local offerings.

Newcomers tend to be open to their children’s food requests for a few reasons. First, while newcomers generally want their children to value their own ethnic culture, they’ve typically come to Canada to expose their children to new influences and opportunities. Acculturation is an explicit goal for many, and that includes exploring new tastes. Second, providing a better future for one’s children tends to be a primary motivator for migration; as parents and kids confront the stresses of settlement together, migrants may feel indulgent toward their children: “We’re all working hard at adapting—why deny them a small treat?” Third, pursuing new experiences as a family can be gratifying for newcomers in the Orientation phase. Migration is both stressful and stimulating; the sense of family togetherness and shared effort it engenders can be powerful. The altered rules of the new environment can also put children and adults on equal footing—or even give children the upper hand!—in a way that can produce fun and bonding.


Many newcomers, especially those from Asia, cook much more after migrating than they ever did back home. One reason is that restaurant meals in both China and India are extremely cheap; eating out is an affordable part of the routine for many people.

More importantly, though, as we discussed earlier, many migrants from Asia have had considerable support in the kitchen prior to their arrival in Canada. Not only is domestic help more common and affordable, but extended family members are more likely to live together or close by and provide help in caring for children—and often this
means grandmothers cooking for the busy young family.

One mother from China told us in a focus group that she tended to prepare about two meals per week before moving to Canada; the rest came from domestic helpers and grandparents. A newcomer from India told us that not only did she not have to chop vegetables in India, she rarely even poured herself a glass of water. So moving from either of these scenarios to a three-meals-a-day kitchen routine with minimal support from relatives—all with an unfamiliar set of grocery offerings—presents a major challenge. People who may have had little responsibility for feeding themselves now have to learn about ingredients and recipes, plan meals for the week, and in some cases even learn the basics of cooking—from boiling water on up.

Given the stress of this experience, it’s hardly surprising that many newcomers welcome convenient solutions in the form of processed foods and frozen meals. To some Indian mothers, having a child ask for a frozen pizza instead of a lovingly prepared roti might feel like the end of the world; to others, on a busy Tuesday night in February, it can feel like a gift.


Although experimentation and exploration may be important parts of the Orientation phase of settlement, familiarity is fundamental to most people’s relationship with food—from tastes to cooking rituals to grocery shopping. As well, while kids may want to try new things and parents may want to join in the fun, some adults in the household may be less enthusiastic as they watch pizza bagels and chicken nuggets come through the front door.

Because of these dynamics, the newcomers responsible for shopping and cooking may find themselves balancing competing desires in their households: for exploration on the one hand, and for familiar tastes—and culinary cultural touchstones—on the other.

Read our first excerpt from Migration Nation, “What newcomers need in the grocery aisle

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:

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds