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The best kind of “organic” growth

As agency people, you’d know that Island East is dead on Sundays except for the few brunch-goers at The Newsroom.

But that was more than a year ago.

Since last September, however, the desert transforms into a vibrant outdoors organic market that entices with the smell of freshly baked rolls, independent musicians striking a few cords on stage, face-painted children playing on man-made grass and more than 50 white-canopied stalls selling home-grown vegetables, yoghurts, baked goods as well as handmade crafts and clothing.

Though the Swire-sponsored Island East Markets has grown from a stage when founder Janice Leung Hayes and her team would beg for vendors’ participation to now receiving more than 200-plus applications at every open season and, on 14 December, setting up a pop-up market in Wan Chai, Leung Hayes said her main marketing channels have only been “social media and word of mouth”.

“I think our success has a lot to do with timing and the execution. Hong Kongers like to go to shopping malls, where there are a lot of activities aside from buying things. So we took a similar approach: when people come to our market, they can also sign up for cooking demos, workshops or listen to music,” she said.

“But obviously, all the activities available need to be in-line with our vision of going green and learning to take things into your own hands. We want it to be a whole-day-out activity where dogs can come, children can run around – these are rare experiences in Hong Kong.”

Prior to Island East Markets, Hong Kong only sported a few farmers market – most were in New Territories and one was at the Star Ferry Pier – which is perhaps why only mere social media and word-of-mouth were sufficient to get people excited about something they’ve been yearning for such a long time.

Aside from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages as well as an official website, Island East Markets gets help from Swire Properties – which owns the strip Island East Markets is on – to  spread the word with posters at the lobbies of Tai Koo Shing Residences and inside One Island East.

“Because of budget we couldn’t really afford advertising, but we also want to create an atmosphere without being too forceful. Even at the markets, we don’t have any flyers or active advertising. We want visitors to really experience the virtues of local farming here and learn about local food and local produce.”

Since its inception, however, others like The Pawn – which just hosted its own famers market over the weekend on its rooftop – and The Green Queen, which usually sets up a paid-admission camp in The Space in Sheung Wan – sprouted.

Yet, Leung Hayes said Island East Markets works to spread the message rather than being a “real business”: currently, vendors’ rents are still the biggest revenue for her.

“If we’re an investor, this is really not a prime investment. It’s definitely more of a vision. We want to inspire people to do similar things, so no, we don’t really see these people as competitors.”

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