The Big Takeout: A Year in Review

18. 12. 2023

Robert Costelloe, Head of Growth

We’ve had an incredible year with our Eat Takeaway series. We’ve heard from CEOs, CMOs and Heads of Brand across the industry landscape – from luxury hospitality, to beauty and cosmetics, to F&B, construction and much more. We have to give our deepest thanks to the leaders who’ve given their time, their insight and guidance in our discussions, sharing lessons that brands should be taking into the strategies they develop and the experiences they deliver for their stakeholders, employees, partners and customers.

With ten volumes of the Eat Takeaway series under our belt, and as we look to the challenges and opportunities to come in 2024, what are the themes that dominated our discussions? What are the common challenges brand leaders are striving to overcome, and where do we see shared ground to tackle them? In this year-end edition of Eat Takeaway, we digest and distill these discussions, focusing on four key areas that our brand leaders consistently saw as priorities for brand exploration and development today and tomorrow.

It’s not all about digital. Real experience is a powerful brand amplifier

As digital channels have continued to pervade into our everyday lives, many brands are struggling to identify how to stand out in a digital ecosystem of noise and how to make truly engaging and compelling experiences online. But while digital channels do provide transformational means to reach new customers and new markets, it’s fundamental to not go digital for digital’s sake. The physical experience and personal interaction is a powerful means to build customer loyalty in your brand, driving repeat purchases and evolving your customers into brand champions that advocate for you.

“Living so much in a virtual world can mean forgetting about reality. But people still want to have a connection, they want to have memories, sensoriality, authenticity, and create their own experiences. We train our beauty advisors, upskilling to be more customer centric and have personalisation top of mind. It’s not really about transactions anymore. It’s really about relationships and experiences” says Cédric Wesner, Global Luxe Retail Customer Experience Director for beauty giant L’Oréal. How is this coming to life in reality? According to Cédric, customers today are more willing to come back to their stores to “have this unique moment with our brands”, experiencing the brand at its best and brightest.

"Living so much in a virtual world can mean forgetting about reality. But people still want to have a connection."

GODIVA, the premium chocolate brand that has been operating in Japan for more than 50 years, has seen substantial growth of its ecommerce channels, providing a clear route to product for customers that may not know where to find it. But the digital channel does not take away from the importance of the face to face interaction. As Godiva Japan CEO Jérôme Chouchan stated, “We still believe face to face communication and the human interaction has a very big role to play. Retail is where you experience the brand the most. With digital, it’s more about that convenience attribute”.

Many brands around the world have walked away from brick and mortar stores for a wide variety of reasons – from skyrocketing rents to slowing footfall, to competition, to challenges with operations. While digital touchpoints can provide a more ‘convenient’, lower risk route to reach customers and pick up sales, the physical experience can deliver the brand at its most aspirational, accessible and desirable. Something to look at with fresh eyes?

Winning top talent is a critical priority for long-term success

This year, global issues such as sticky inflation, cost of living crises and the wars in Ukraine and Palestine have seen some of the bigger corporations in the world make drastic cuts to their employee numbers. These have been seen most visibily with the likes of Amazon and Meta, and most recently the Big Four accounting firms. This has given a false sense that the employer – employee dynamic has shifted and brands don’t have to work as hard to win the best and brightest.

But many of the brand leaders we spoke with this year, see otherwise. It’s not just about finding the right candidates but also winning over the right candidates that are passionate about the industry and bring exceptional levels of capability and specialization. “A prioritiy is finding the right talent who are trained, understand and can deliver that level of service that’s expected at a hotel like The Peninsula” says Carson Glover, Vice President of Brand Marketing and Communications at the luxury hotel brand that opened new properties in London and Istanbul this year.

"With people working from home, you’re not just competing with companies in a five-kilometre radios, you’re now competing with companies across the world who are able to offer remote work."

As Daimler Truck Asia (DTA), one of the largest automotive manufacturers in the world, accelerates its transition to electric and connected vehicles by 2030, Charlene Ede, Head of Product, Corporate Communications and Global Marketing at DTA is explicit about the challenge:

“The competition for talent is insane right now. With people working from home, you’re not just competing with companies in a five-kilometre radios, you’re now competing with companies across the world who are able to offer remote work. We are a company where everyone has a genuine chance at building a career. The diversity we have is amazing. It’s a truly global environment. A lot of companies say that but it’s rate to actually see it”.

Top candidates are increasingly looking for employers that align with their values and can provide a clear path to growth and success. Salary is table stakes. The power is ultimately in the hands of the candidate. But if brands can define a clear purpose at the heart of their organisation, bringing that to life for employees and showcasing that purpose brought to life externally, you are in a better chance of winning the top talent that will lead and deliver the innovation and commercial success you want to realise.

Momentum around sustainability has really accelerated this year

The conclusion of the COP28 climate negotiations in UAE this month caps what has been a huge year of ups and down in the progress towards lowering carbon emissions and keeping the global goal of 1.5C warming target alive. This year, the hottest ever recorded, we have seen nations battle it out to win over the firms that are scaling the clean technologies needed, we’ve seen countries like the UK walk back on its climate commitments and announce new fossil fuel licenses, while the COP28 communique was the first ever to explicitly mention fossil fuels and calls for a transition away from them.

This momentum is also building with brand leaders, with internal and external brand communications strategies being directly linked to the commitments these organisations are making to reduce their emissions and take more climate positive actions.

For iconic Japanese herb and spice brand S&B, the tangible effects of a changing climate are right in front of them: “With a changing natural environment, the spices that go into our curry powder for example many no longer be able to grow. We will be working hand in hand with our producers globally to create ecosystems that are in harmony with our planet through the sustainabile business models we are creating”, says S&B Product Lead Yosuku Morikawa.

And when the building sector contributes 40% of global carbon emissions, leaders like Hanna Hallin, Head of Sustainability at Saint-Gobain Distribution Sweden (SGDS), are stepping up to bring the sector more into public focus: “The construction sector has gone a little under the public radar until recently. It’s value chain is more complicated with less sustainability awareness and accountability. Ultmately no questions are asked by individual end consumers”.

SGDS has set its business vision to be the leading enabler of sustainable construction in Sweden. By working with a massive product portfolio and supplier base, Hanna and SGDS are advancing the sustainability evolution of these suppliers, finding new innovative product solutions that can deliver lower emissions building projects and selling this vision to customers.

"We have this commitment of making a plant-based diet a business direction with sustainability right in the centre of it."

Organisations are also embedding sustainability in their brand purpose. With purpose acting as the ‘North Star’ for executive decision making, making sustainability explicit within it should act as a constant check and balance for what decisions are being taken, why and how. Vitasoy, the 80 year old soy beverage brand based out of Hong Kong, is one such organisation that has taken this step.

“Over the past two years we’ve been working to refresh our purpose statement which now reads ‘To advance the world’s transformation towards a sustainable future through the amazing power of plants’. We have this commitment of making a plant-based diet a business direction with sustainability right in the centre of it”, says Simeon Cheng, Vitasoy Group Director.

The next challenge comes in embedding a sustainability-led purpose in the organisation itself. By giving employees a seat at the table and bringing them on the journey, highlighting how their work is relevant to the organisation’s sustainability goals, a positive, self-enforcing cycle can begin – where sustainability becomes self-advancing from the inside out. 

The Japan market is a returning source of opportunity

This year saw Japan gain new interest on the global stage. Rumours of a ‘new dawn’ in the Japanese economy, the country’s stock index at all-time highs, inbound traveller numbers returning to pre-Covid levels and a surge of investment in Japanese hotel properties unseen in a decade can, on the surface, speak of good times ahead. However, the country this year lost its crown to China as the top automotive exporter, and Germany is expected to displodge Japan as the 3rd largest economy in the world imminently. While collosal levels of government debt, the growing realities of an ageing population and a legacy culture of risk-aversion across industries continue to raise questions about viability long term.

Nonetheless, brand leaders see the market as one that can deliver tremendous scale if done right (with 125 million consumers to access) as well as an opportunity to introduce new technologies and capabilities as Japanese demographics continue to change. For Jessica Tisch, Japan County Manager for The Fresh Fruit Company of New Zealand, this is certainly the case:

“New Zealand is very agile in the horticulture sector and is continually investing in how to do things more effectively. There is a lot of opportunity to bring the technologies and best practices to Japan and innovate there. With the labour issues that exist in Japan as well as an ageing population, it may become very hard for Japan to supply food domestically. So there’s definitely some exciting collaboration opportunities that could be beneficial to Japanese horticulture and agriculture”.

"Japan tends to reach a tipping point and then you’ll see a massive change."

And while Japan has been slow to advance in an area like electric vehicles, Charlene Ede at Daimler Truck Asia sees a pattern that could well happen soon, opening up a massive opportunity in the Japan market for those willing to commit:

“Japan tends to reach a tipping point and then you’ll see a massive change. In Japan everywhere you look you see hybrid vehicles. 15 years ago, you didn’t seem them at all. Now the (Toyota) Prius is on its sixth or seventh generation, but it wasn’t until the third or fourth that it suddenly took off and you saw them everwhere”.

If brands are willing to be patient (if your timeline to see success in the Japan market is less than two years, don’t bother trying), engage with all the stakeholders that need to be brought on the journey early (importers, distributors, retailers…), and are committed to localising their brand to ensure it delivers a relevant and compelling story to consumers, the Japanese market is truly a market of opportunity, and one to consider for growth potential in the year ahead.

Thanks again to all those who have participated in our Eat Takeaway interviews this year! We are excited to share the new discussions we’ve been having, starting with a certain iconic ceramics brand with a long history in the Japan market. That to come in January 2024!

If you enjoyed this piece, subscribe here to The Eat Digest - our monthly newsletter covering our latest insights, Japan brand and marketing news, and much more!