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Brand Inspiration From The Far East


Brand Inspiration From The Far East

As the Far East seems to move closer and closer to the west, and its two billion people open their wallets to brands, it might be valuable to seek some inspiration from oriental culture. At least, from one part of the Far East, which is as culturally diverse as Europe’s thirty-plus countries are, and as varied as the cultures of North America’s states.

For western brands that are about to hit any part of Asia, you need a culturally aware Asian brand strategy to avoid a negative response to the culture shock you and your brand might experience. Even if you have no plans to enter Asian markets, there’s lots to learn from comparing culturally derived attitudes which all have lessons for brands and business.

For example, let’s look at sake, Japan’s traditional rice wine. When you’re in Japan, you’ll observe a gesture that’s typical in the hospitality of the country. It’s a gesture that has relevance to branding and business in general. The eggcup-sized sake cup will be placed in front of you, sitting in a receptacle of some kind – an elegant cherry wood box, an everyday saucer. When your host or companion pours your sake the cup will be filled to overflowing, the receptacle it sits in receiving the overflow and itself being filled to the brim. This over serving expresses the generosity of the host, restaurant or bar. It’s a gesture to show gratitude for your presence. And it exhibits a desire to give you more that you expect. You’ll agree that this vignette opens vistas of meaning – brands must over-deliver and exceed customer expectations. Yet, so often, brands simply meet expectations. I’ll never forget my first sake. Such gestures of abundance, hospitality and respect will be associated by your customers with your brand, creating an invaluable emotional tie between them.

Another lesson I’ve learned from Japan occurred when I was visiting a picturesque little village near Kyoto, in the beautiful Kansai region.

I had ordered some handcrafted knives and was told that the finishing process would take approximately half-an-hour. So, I left the store and explored the village, bathed in the rosy glow cast by the springtime cherry blossoms. I returned to the knife maker exactly half-an-hour later. To my surprise, and contrary to my previous experience of Japanese punctuality and exactitude, the knives were not ready. Two men were still hard at work on them and remained so for fifteen minutes longer than expected. I decided to wait and observe these craftsmen in action. In the western world, I wouldn’t have been too surprised to see the men expressing irritation at the extra work time. Here, though, the men’s demeanors expressed passion, exquisite care, and tireless professionalism invested in every maneuver that produced the amazing tools. These knives were unique pieces, the antithesis of a tool I’d collect at random from Wal-Mart. Later I realized that my wait was not unexpected. This observation time was built into the transaction as part of the handover process from vendor to buyer. The intentional fifteen-minute interval was an exercise in demonstrative dedication, to show me the care that went into my knives. Again, this is a memory I will have for life. It has made those knives into a whole story of dedication to a product.

In the world of branding, such passion tends to disappear along with the founder’s resignation. I’m sure there is a ton of passion behind the scenes when ordering a book on Amazon.com or any other online retailer. But online buying has Passion, Dedication and Care: Branding Inspiration translated the customer-retailer relationship into one of collusive silence and distance. And that distance, between me and the brands I buy is widening. When I receive emails from Amazon, they’re from the “customer service team”. If an individual’s name appears in front of this retailer’s sealed membrane, it disappears quickly again, severing the promise of a sense of real connection.

I’m not saying that we should let customers wait for service. I’m saying that demonstrative dedication, shown by the knife craftsmen, is missing in our brand building. Branding is all about creating an emotional engagement between the consumer and the brand. We need to see the passion that lies behind every brand, the real people that make it happen. This human dimension not only bonds customers with brands, it raises customers’ empathy levels, making them more patient and understanding when things do go wrong.

Recently I was in India as part of my global BRAND sense Symposiums. I’m introduced to hundreds of brands every day, and in India this was no different. But one particular brand stands out. Liijat is a company that has as it vision statement: A unique organization of the women, by the women for the women. For decades the company has outsourced their entire production of bread to thousands of homes across India. Liijat was one of the first true community-based brands and women produce bread for the company every day, following strict guidelines set by the brand. So, when you choose Liijat bread from the supermarket shelf, you’re not purchasing machine-made bread. You’re buying bread made by an individual, with care and love and dedication. And that knowledge makes a true branding difference. Even better, the reason why Liijat is the best-known bread brand in India is that it’s not only produced by India’s women, it’s owned by them, not by a corporation.

Just like the real world, the Internet is all about communities. Yet brands tend to neglect this very important aspect. In fact many companies still express irritation at communication from consumers, rather than as brand-building opportunities. Leveraging the concept of communities, and of the loyalty that can arise from the comradeship and common interests shared by them, can create your brand difference, one of emotional engagement which defies replication.

Asian culture, vast and varied, holds thousands of unique, small and useful stories, which any brand can leverage when growing. What each and every story has in common is passion – passion for people, for materials, for the product. What each and every great brand is based on is exactly the same. So, remember the three small stories I’ve told you today when you’re next looking for your brand’s point of difference.

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Rishi S. on May 11th, 2009 said

Hi, the Lijjat product is not bread. It’s papadum…more of a wafer. It’s called papad in India.

yashesh shethia on May 11th, 2009 said

Great piece Derrick.

There is much to learn from the overflowing sake and the passion of the knife-crafters.

Besides the obvious cues I think the other element that is missing is the art of bespoke. Genuine ‘tailor made’ seems to be on a decline in this space as well.

You agree?

PS: the brand you mentioned should be spelt Lijjat instead of Liijat 😉 http://www.lijjat.com/

Do drop a line when you are here next, would be great to catch up.

Walter on May 12th, 2009 said

Interesting perspective on Asian culture and service, told with the viewpoint of brand differentiation.

As an Asian who has travelled to many parts of the subcontinent, I have to agree that there are good examples of how brand differentiation is done in some countries with a painstaking amount of effort. It’s usually the smaller shops which render a high degree of personalised service which you can’t find in large corporate outfits. However, I find that service experiences in Asia are increasingly being “Starbucked” or “McDonalised” as global franchises spread their influences in our countries. Some of it is good (like having a shorter waiting time, assured quality and standard, and no surprises), but you do lose some of the essence of brand authenticity.

Incidentally, i just finished reading Brand Sense and loved it to bits. Have also blogged about it!

Bhavana Jaiswal on May 20th, 2009 said

Derrick, this article is absolutely beautiful and an amazing piece of learning.

I come from Gujarat – the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi. There’s a restaurant in Ahmedabad which has truly captured the spirit of the Mahatma. This place, the Seva Cafe (http://sevacafe.org), works through volunteers. People volunteer to come and cook there, and there are no fixed charges for the food! The diner is encouraged to pay whatever he wishes to, from his heart. Any profits they make are used for social welfare.

A visit to the place is very heart-warming and leaves you feeling purer and very satisfied in life.

Akash Sharma on October 12th, 2009 said

Yet again sheer brilliance Martin, now this explains a lot what the Asian markets can teach brands.

Being highly populated countries there are still products which do not depend upon mass marketing just communities for eg. Lijjat as quoted above is truly a remarkable aspect of branding and marketing.

@Bhavana thanks for mentioning about Sevacafe, would be delighted to go there when I visit Ahmadabad next time.

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