An Anthem for Humanity

With Yoji Minakuchi, Chief Design Officer, Suntory Holdings

12. 06. 2024

Tazlu Endo, Japan Content Director

Welcome to Eat Takeaway! In this series we hear from business, brand and marketing leaders on their ambitions and challenges this year and beyond. We explore their day-to-day and what lessons they have in the fast-changing and sometimes overwhelming worlds of brand experience and delivering for customers and employees. Check-out our take-aways at the end! 

In this volume, Eat’s Japan Content Director Tazlu Endo sits down with Yoji Minakuchi, Chief Design Officer at Suntory Holdings – one of Japan’s top global beverage companies with iconic brands including Hibiki, Jim Beam, BOSS coffee and Lucozade in a portfolio spanning nearly 90 markets. We hear about Suntory’s corporate philosophy of continuous evolution and how they strive to design and deliver campaigns that truly resonate.

Please note this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Tazlu Endo: Thank you so much for joining our series. To start off, could you tell us a bit about Suntory and its history?

Yoji Minakuchi: Suntory was founded in 1899 and originally began in the production and sales of Western liquors such as wine and whisky. Today, we’ve expanded our business to become a comprehensive food manufacturer that includes ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages, soft drinks and health foods.

Our company became well-known outside of Japan when it appeared in the 2003 film Lost in Translation, so there was a time when we would talk about the film when introducing ourselves. In 2014, however, Suntory acquired American company Beam Inc., and the reputation of Japanese whisky has grown around the world ever since.

TE: What is your role at Suntory?

YM: As Chief Design Officer I am responsible for overseeing Suntory's design strategy. Previously, I oversaw product design as head of the design department and later on became head of the advertising design division. Currently, I’m responsible for Suntory’s corporate branding and sustainability strategy, leaving the more detailed project work to the managers of individual departments. Suntory's design department is made up of around 50 employees, which is unusually large for a Japanese food and beverage manufacturer. There’s always a variety of projects going on.

If there’s something unique about Suntory, it’s that we haven’t strayed from our people-centric thinking.

TE: Could you tell us about the creative legacy at Suntory?

YM: We have always particularly valued creative that pulls on one’s heartstrings, for example, catch copy like ningenrashiku yaritaina – which loosely translates as ‘wanting to be more human’ – created by novelist and writer Takeshi Kaiko for Torys Whisky. If there’s something unique about Suntory that makes us stand apart from other companies, it’s that we haven’t strayed from our people-centric thinking. Even in the case of soft drinks, which need to base their appeal on functionality and practicality, we’ve strived to develop emotional resonance through our brand principle of ‘cherishing humanity.’ Suntory has a longstanding belief that advertising should be a sort of anthem for life, so many people may find us resembling the charm of ‘enka’ (traditional Japanese ballads) rather than embodying a sense of effortless cool.

TE: What do you see as the secret to successful global design?

YM: We are seeing more and more products that transcend taste and cultural barriers, such as RTD products in Australia, France's quintessential orange soda Orangina and oolong tea targeted towards Vietnam. For cross-market projects, we work closely with local marketers and designers. While there is rationality in the American approach of ensuring uniformity across markets, values have diversified to such an extent that strict centralised management is no longer possible. Our goal is to influence the whole world with our brand principle of ‘cherishing humanity' while leveraging local nuances. At the same time, it's crucial not to treat local opinions as absolute truths. In some cases, if we dare to challenge norms and biases, we can offer an outside perspective that highlights the novelty of our products and fosters awareness.

Our goal is to influence the whole world with our brand principle of ‘cherishing humanity' while leveraging local nuances.

TE: How do you work in conjunction with marketing to grow new markets?

YM: Without culture, there is no market. While modelling itself on authentic Scotch whisky, Suntory has worked hard to foster a culture of Japanese whisky that is not a mere imitation of Scotch. The process of popularising highballs in izakayas (Japanese traditional pubs) is similar. Because we respect both whisky and izakayas, we were able to propose the highball (whisky and soda) as an alcoholic beverage suited for drinking during meals that is not on the rocks or straight. In other words, forge a new path with a 'yes and no' answer, rather than a 'yes or no' choice. There are many examples in Japanese culture where two contrasting values were combined to create a new trend. This is also why it’s deeply rooted in our corporate culture to prioritise continued discussion rather than immediate decision-making.

TE: How do you reach consensus when working in large teams?

YM: Consolidation of the team starts at the earliest stage in concept development. Our PR department has consistently emphasised the significance of copywriting so even if an idea is visually approved, it’s our PR department that affirms it through written language. When I first joined the company, I noticed how fussy senior team members were when it came to language. For a while, I relied heavily on my dictionary, relearning the meaning of words over and over. Words serve as handlebars when guiding concepts, so Suntory also places strong emphasis on verbal language from the moment a designer is hired. It's vital not to adhere to a script, but to grasp each other's underlying values prior to conceptualization through various methods.

Forge a new path with a 'yes and no' answer, rather than a 'yes or no' choice.

TE: Are there any challenges when managing large-scale company projects?

YM: Numerous departments are involved in developing a product, going through the stages of concept development, design, marketing and advertising, and finally sales. While many companies delineate these roles in detail like an assembly plant, at Suntory, it's as if everyone is working together on crafting one big clay pot. The pot doesn’t have a rigid blueprint but rather takes form gradually on the potter's wheel through repeated efforts. It’s important to have a creative process where we can view the parts and the whole at the same time. The whole isn’t created merely through perfecting the details of its parts. There are many ambiguous and irrational aspects to being human, and Suntory embraces the organic approach, one grounded in our commitment to ‘cherishing humanity.’

Suntory logo and tagline

TE: How was the current corporate logo developed?

YM: In an internal competition across the entire Suntory Group, my original proposal was chosen from over 1,000 entries. However, my prototype was much more rigid in design than the final proposal. I asked Matthew Carter and Akira Kobayashi, masters of typeface design, to help me, and I thought I had proposed a logo suited for a global company that had been in business for over a century. But the chairman said, "This looks like a company that’s reached its pinnacle. We're a more adventurous company, so I want a design that embodies continuous evolution. It's no good if we stop here.” These words made me realise that my ego was too biased towards tradition.

From this new concept ‘ever-changing,’ I then adjusted the design to evoke the fluidity of water. Along the process, the tagline ‘Mizu To Ikiru,’ which translates to 'Living with Water,' was also integrated, reflecting our mission ‘to create harmony with people and nature.’ Though environmental concerns were not at the forefront of our corporate strategy then, the result was a logo ahead of its time.

"We're a more adventurous company, so I want a design that embodies continuous evolution."

TE: What is the brand's vision for the next 100 years?

YM: To continue to evolve, and to preserve our most important values - our commitments to nature and to being human. It may seem like a contradiction, but as long as we are Suntory, we must achieve both of these goals simultaneously. It’s precisely because we have managed to balance these two that we’ve been able to grow the reputation of Japanese whisky over the past century. Now that we have garnered international recognition, we have a greater responsibility to preserve its legacy. It might be easy to do one or the other. But I believe it is Suntory's destiny to continue balancing tradition and innovation.

The Eat Take-Away

  1. Stay human: Features and positioning are both important elements of a product’s sales strategy. However, the greater goal is to move people's hearts and minds - create real emotional resonance. Suntory's brand strives to uplift people in life. Like ‘enka,’ their ads echo the sentiments and challenges of each era, yet still sing universal messages that resonate with one’s humanity, transcending the passage of time.

  2. Foster robust discussion: Novelist and copywriter Takeshi Kaiko advocated for an open and democratic process in his founding message for advertising agency Sun-Ad, part of Suntory Holdings. He dismissed Western theory and analysis as ‘service done in reality for one’s own benefit’ and aimed for ‘unprecedented beauty, wit, authenticity and humanity.’ The tradition of thorough debate and discussion is still alive today in Suntory's ideation process.

  3. The balancing act of localisation: Japanese people can often be criticised for their ambiguous opinions and answers when confronted with Western logic. When it comes to doing business globally, choosing between black and white can seem like the right thing to do. However, balancing both sides is the real secret to successful localisation. Create uniformity across your brand but also allow for local interpretation and flexibility. Consult local opinions yet take opportunities to challenge biases. This difficult balancing act is exactly what sets apart an excellent localisation, leading to a treasure trove of insights.

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