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marketing blunders in Japan

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. 

What worked and didn't - some examples reflecting a lack of cultural awareness and marketing savvy, along with government restrictions offer some lessons for the future.

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 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? 

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 was 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, home baking increased when compared to the late sixties when this product was introduced.  Even though more Japanese homes acquired some type of oven, cake mixes didn't catch on.

One reason was the Japanese obsession with gift-giving and presenting them beautifully wrapped. Japan is world renown for its packaging expertise, so a confectionery gift from a home cook didn't have the same cache as one from a famous shop.


General Electric - Non-tariff Barriers

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.

Coca-Cola & Pepsi - Different Approaches

Coca-Cola is one of the great success stories.  Many feel that their success comes from their constant message of "an idealized American Lifestyle" that has great appeal in Japan.  Their slogan "I feel coke" was been extremely successful.

Pepsi, on the other hand, struggled and "The Pepsi Challenge" did not catch on in Japan.  Pepsi first opted to run U.S.-type ads featuring MTV-style promotions of Michael Jackson and others.  The spots were only 15 seconds, not the usual 30-60 seconds, and lacked cohesion.  

Pepsi also attempted to introduce competitive product advertising, doing taste tests with Coke.  This type of advertising was viewed as arrogant and inappropriate in Japan.  The Japanese FTC required that Pepsi cover the Coke can in the ad--the message was lost. 


Proctor and Gamble - Cultural Differences

Proctor and Gamble experienced some difficulties with the diaper market.  The Japanese apparently changed diapers far more frequently than Americans, but still did not purchase the larger boxes of disposal diapers because of storage problems.  P&G started marketing diapers in smaller boxes and the market took off.

When Proctor & Gamble started to market Camay Soap in Japan, the company tried to use an ad, which had been successful in Europe, showing a woman bathing, the husband entering the bathroom and giving an approving touch to his wife.  The Japanese felt this behavior to be inappropriate and in poor taste for television.  The mistake was soon corrected.


Levi Strauss - Superstars in Advertising

Levi Strauss was losing sales to other "designer Jeans" makers despite the higher prices of the competition.  When James Dean became the symbol, sales took off.  Dean was something of a cult hero to young Japanese and the company succeeded with such slogans as "Heroes Wear Levis" and "Cry your heart out, Calvin Klein."


Kentucky Fried Chicken - Location, Location

KFC initially positioned their shops in the suburbs, and modeled them exactly after those in the U.S.  The shops were too large, and the Japanese were not accustomed to drive-through windows.  

In the early stages, there were times when sales did not reach $35/per day.  KFC fortunately responded quickly and opened smaller shops in urban centers, near train stations, much as McDonalds had done. 


Barbie Doll - Tailoring Products to Fit a Market

Barbie Doll, introduced by Mattel, did not do well in the beginning.  Toy specialist, Takara, was brought in and soon discovered the problems.  Among other things, Barbie's legs were too long, and chest too large.  The eyes went from blue to brown and she took on a more suitable look that appealed to the Japanese child's sense of aesthetics.


Potato Chips - Re-classification of Products

Many market entry issues were attributed to customs classifications.  One well-known story was potato chips.  During the test market phase, they were classified as "vegetables, prepared or preserved" and carried a 16% tariff.  

When the product began to sell well, they were re-classified as "pastry, biscuits, cakes and other fine bakers' wares" and carried a 35% tariff.  After an emotional appeal to the Joint U.S.-Japan Trade Facilitation Committee, they were allowed to keep the original classification.

Campbell Soup - Adjusting to Local Tastes

The company was very successful selling corn soup at fast food and other restaurants in Japan.  The Japanese love this kind of cream soup, called "potage".


Ore-Ida - Packaging Savvy

Ore-Ida frozen potatoes were successfully marketed in smaller packages suitable for keeping in Japanese refrigerators and cooking in smaller ovens.  They also substantially reduced the amount of salt.


Pizza Hut - Niche Marketing, Japanese Style

Dominos Pizza successfully carved out a niche in Japan. Interestingly, market research indicated that home delivery of pizza would not succeed. The owner of the franchise decided to go with his "gut feeling". One reason, he felt, was the fact that more and more women were working and did not have time to spend in the kitchen.

The owner was right, and Dominos became big business in Japan. He changed the size of the pizza, added different toppings that appeal to the Japanese, such as pineapple, squid, etc. The delivery truck, a three-wheeled motorcycle with a pizza warming container on the back, was ideal for zipping through Japanese gridlock traffic.


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