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 Creative’s Japan Content Director Tazlu Endo sits down with Yosuke Morikawa, Product Lead in the Marketing Planning Office at S&B Foods – one of Japan’s most famous brands which has been enriching Japanese dining tables with their spices and herbs for a hundred years! Yosuke provides rich insights into the intricate process of product planning and responding to the unique customer needs in Japan.
Please note this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tazlu Endo: We so appreciate you joining our series Yosuke. To kick-us off, please give us an insight into the S&B Foods company and brand.
Yosuke Morikawa: So, we are one of the leading spice and herb producers in Japan. S&B was the first domestic manufacturer in Japan to successfully produce curry powder for the domestic market and since then has developed a wide range of products including pepper, wasabi, seasonings and instant foods for our customers. Beyond being a manufacturer, we also have a role to promote a global food culture in Japan as an import and sales partner. For example, we distribute luxury French tea and seasoning brand Fouchon, mustard brand Maille, as well as the portfolio of products from Hong Kong’s Lee Kum Kee – the first company in the world to commercialise oyster sauce which is a staple of cooking across Asia.
TE: And can you provide us with an overview of your role and day to day?
YM: Ultimately I focus on developing the new concepts for how we will bring our products to market. It’s the marketer’s fate that the boundary between on and off duty with work becomes blurred. For example, I visit supermarkets to do product research during my days off. When I am in this situation of being a consumer, there are so many small but important insights I get. Our team examines customer needs which can highlight a wide range of challenges, as well as planning new product launches or renewals of existing products based on new hypotheses or research analyses.
It’s the marketer’s fate that the boundary between on and off duty with work becomes blurred. For example, I visit supermarkets to do product research during my days off.
TE: When developing new products, what do you focus on?
YM: We have the larger macro elements to inform new product development, be it demographics or evolving social conditions, but we put a lot of time and attention into developing products with benefits that our competitors cannot offer. This is done by drawing on our deep strengths in spices and herbs – it is these product areas that attract customers to our brand. It’s our understanding of customer needs and expectations that acts as the starting point for defining the direction of our product development.
TE: What do you see as the secret to success when it comes to new product concepts?
YM: Beyond the era of mass marketing, it’s now possible to recognise, define and engage more fragmented customer groups and needs. An example that comes to mind is our S&B Spicy Curry Powder that comes in it’s iconic red tin. When it first came to market in Japan in the 1960s, it came in a larger container that could cater to families of three generations – grandparents, parents and children – gathering together for a meal.
While we have work to do in building our understanding of the differences in food culture between Japan and elsewhere in the world, we hope that our knowledge gained from fighting for our position in the Japan market will support our international goals.
However, as we saw the composition of households in Japan change, we experienced a long-term reduction in use of our curry powder. We particularly saw those moving into the older demographic groups – people in their 50s and 60s – moving away from our product as they came to the end of their time raising their children. We looked into their grievances and eating habits and developed a new curry powder which is wheat-free and has less fats and oils. This has hugely helped with customers that may be prone to an upset stomach, as well as a smaller container that reflects the smaller family sizes found in your average Japanese household today.
TE: Are there ambitions to expand the S&B business internationally?
YM: Yes indeed. To deliver the growth in sales we want to achieve over the next 20 years, we are planning to open a number of new offices overseas and shift to a more local-market based sales approach. We are already starting to see where the global opportunities are emerging. In the UK, katsu curry has become one of the most popular of Japanese dishes on offer, while in the US, chilli oil is being used in sushi rolls.
While we have work to do in building our understanding of the differences in food culture between Japan and elsewhere in the world, we hope that our knowledge gained from fighting for our position in the Japan market will support our international goals. We are getting feedback from our local sales departments in overseas markets that will inform the development of new products that are exclusively for those markets.
The Osaka Expo in 1970 triggered a surge of Italian and French restaurant chains appearing in the country. This led to the development of Itameshi – Italian-Japanese fusion cuisine – during the country’s economic bubble of the late 1980s.
TE: Can you give some insight into how eating habits and taste preferences have changed in Japan since S&B was founded?
YM: Well, international food culture is well established in Japan. In more recent decades for example, the Osaka Expo in 1970 triggered a surge of Italian and French restaurant chains appearing in the country. This led to the development of Itameshi – Italian-Japanese fusion cuisine – during the country’s economic bubble of the late 1980s. While the latest popularity of ethnic dishes has created a further cultural diversity of Japanese fare. In all of these instances, there has been an encounter with new spices and herbs.
For example, in order to drive interest in pepper on Japanese tables, we blended black and white pepper to suit Japanese palettes. This was a new product innovation in Japan, which we coined with a new term - ‘kosho’ - written in katakana form that is typically used for words of an international origin. The product was a huge hit and led to a renewed interest in a range of other ingredients by giving them new katakana names. One example being ‘ninniku’ – the traditional word for garlic - an ingredient that had been shunned for a long time but gained new popularity, particularly with food trucks, in its katakana form ‘gārikku’.
Through all these developments we can see the spread of spices and herbs playing a substantial role in Japanese food culture.
The launch of our signature product, Spicy Curry Powder, in the 1950s, ultimately laid the foundation for curry and rice to become one of Japan’s national dishes. So through all these developments we can see the spread of spices and herbs playing a substantial role in Japanese food culture.
TE: A fascinating history. As we look at the future, what are your goals as S&B Foods enters a new 100 year period?
YM: Ultimately as one of the top spice and herb companies in Japan, we will strive to differentiate ourselves from our international rivals by promoting our technologies and the added value we bring to our customers. Spices and herbs have health benefits that in many cases are still to be revealed.
We will be working hand in hand with our producers globally to create ecosystems that are in harmony with our planet through the sustainable business models we are creating.
As these are natural products, we also have to consider sustainability. With a changing natural environment or unpredictable weather, the spices that go into curry powder for example may no longer be able to grow. Our goal is to contribute to people’s health and happiness for the next hundred years. We are committed to promoting a delicious, healthy and safe food culture around the world. We will be working hand in hand with our producers globally to create ecosystems that are in harmony with our planet through the sustainable business models we are creating.
The Eat Take-Away
Think like the customer: No matter how great your product is, if it’s not meeting the needs of your target customers, it won’t be successful. Building a mentality of looking at your brand and your products from the perspective of the customer is essential for the success of new products. Look at demographic trends, social conditions, market research to develop your strategy, and pull on the small, surprising insights that emerge from your research as a great source of ideas.
Localise with innovations: There’s a great opportunity to deploy less commonly used spices or herbs in a form that is easily integrated into the preferences and habits of Japanese customers. Examples like mixing black and white pepper, or reframing garlic, all worked to change preconceptions and reveal new value in products that had been ignored. There are many customers that enjoy some novelty in the brands and products they buy, novelty that has now become the norm in their buying and food habits.
Learn from the customers you’ve lost: Rather than giving up as your market shrinks, be sure to engage with the customers you’ve lost and build your understanding of why they left. This can provide the insights and understanding that allows you to adapt your proposition and build your brand with new customer groups.