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Marketing in Japan - What History Can Teach Us
A timeless maxim says that history always repeats itself, and those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them. 

Here are a few examples of what did and did not work in the Japanese market.

Betty Crocker in Japan - A Cultural Failure

General Mills and giant confectionery concern, Morinaga, decided that Japan was ready for Betty Crocker.   The assumptions were:

  • Japan was becoming more "Westernized"
  • Things "American" were becoming trendy
  • Betty Crocker was part of American culture
  • The standard of living in Japan was rising
  • Japanese wives now had many kitchen conveniences
  • Sales of Western-style cakes were increasing
  • Consumption of Japanese sweets was decreasing

This analysis of the Japanese market seemed accurate, and both General Mills and Morinaga decided to proceed. At no time during the early research did either company seem to be concerned with the fact that very few Japanese homes had ovens! 

The solution?  General Mills and Morinaga decided they would simply adapt the product to fit an appliance that almost every home had--the electric rice cooker.  Both companies agreed that this was a brilliant move and one sure to succeed.

After considerable time and expense, the team at General Mills came up with a product that was suitable for the rice cooker and called it Cakeron.  This mix produced a rather tasty, sponge-like cake that seemed to appeal to Japanese tastes.  

Sales were good for a brief period, impressive enough that a few other companies decided to jump on the bandwagon with a "me-too product." However, the euphoria was short-lived, but no one could understand why sales suddenly decreased.  

Why did this product fail in the Japanese market? 
Formidable cultural factors were involved.

Focus groups uncovered the problem. Although the consumption for rice had decreased and the rice cooker was free to be used for other things, formidable cultural factors were involved. 

In Japan, rice possesses almost sacred qualities. This is in fact one of the strongest arguments for keeping rice imports out of Japan.  The ladies in the focus groups were concerned about lingering flavors of vanilla or chocolate that would contaminate the rice.

The Japanese are very sensitive to the "purity" of the rice, and therefore would not use the rice cooker for baking cakes.  Interestingly, today home baking has increased when compared to the late sixties when this product was introduced.  More Japanese homes have some type of oven, yet cake mixes are still not popular. 


General Electric - Non-tariff Barriers in Japan

One product that became very popular was the electric tabletop griddle.  Japanese love to cook at the table (teppan-yaki, okonomiyaki, noodles, and others).  Sales were impressive throughout Japan as a result of in-store demonstrations, a focused marketing approach, and massive advertising.  GE had become a household name very quickly.

Shortly thereafter, the Japanese "safety standards" were changed, reducing the maximum temperature for the hand controls.  By the time the product was redesigned and new approval received, several other Japanese makers had similar products on the market that met the current safety requirements.

Continued - PART 2

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