What Japanese restaurants can teach you about positioning and marketing
Despite its reputation as a highly progressive and innovative country, most of Japan is in fact very conservative, and entrepreneurial culture is only slowly starting to develop here. Nevertheless, there are some aspects of Japanese life and business that we can learn from as startup founders.
The feature of Japanese marketing I’d like to draw your attention to today is konseputo (コンセプト), a loanword from English meaning ‘concept’.
Whereas in English, you’d rarely hear anyone talk about a concept outside of car shows, real estate slogans and furniture stores, the word is near-ubiquitous in Japan, and takes on a much more tangible meaning.
「コンセプトは何ですか？」, “What is the concept?”, is often the first thing you’ll ask when you first visit a cafe or a restaurant. If you don’t, you can be sure that your friends or waiter will explain it nevertheless, or that you can at least find a concept section on the place’s marketing flyers and website.
At it’s very basic, a ‘concept’ is a unique differentiator of the establishment, or in startup speech, its unique value proposition (USP).
For example, here are some of the crazier concepts I’ve come across so far, all real:
- Eat lunch with a giant plush moomin sitting with you at the table.
- Have cake & coffee surrounded by cats/puppies/owls/you name it.
- Eat yuzu ramen that we cooked in front of you to the sounds of Swedish hip hop.
- We only serve alcohol, but also offer free WiFi and 10 bowls of ramen on a first-come, first-served basis between 4 and 5 PM.
Not all restaurants are this creative, of course, but they will all have some concept ready to pitch to you if you ask.
Let’s look at a few of the basic building blocks of a Japanese restaurant’s concept pitch, and how they can be related to your startup’s positioning:
1. The humble beginnings
This section may be skipped or condensed in a spoken explanation, but most online concept pages will start with a story about the restaurant’s founding, early struggles, and eventual runaway success.
Here is an example from the Thai Coca Restaurant in Japan:
Coca Restaurant was established in Bangkok, Thailand in 1957. It is famous for its authentic Thai cuisine, and particularly, “Thai-suki,” its signature dish, which is a Thai style hot pot. Coca Restaurant is known worldwide. […] Coca started from humble beginnings as a small Cantonese restaurant with only 20 seats. Using a Chinese style hot pot, its owner, Mr. Srichai, discovered “Thai-suki.”
If you’re a young startup, pre-revenue and without a product-market fit, you may struggle to inspire confidence in potential investors and customers. According to sales expert Whitney Sales, your best bet is to leverage an inspiring origin story: “The inception of any company is inevitably linked to the challenge the founder first faced and addressed. This part of the narrative is too often forgotten and it’s key to connecting with a customer.”
Takeaway: Start with an inspiring founder’s story.
2. The secret sauce
What usually follows is an explanation of the restaurant’s signature dish, secret ingredients, or an innovative way of preparing a Japanese staple:
“Thai-suki” is a “freestyle” hot pot that allows you to enjoy your favorite ingredients in the order you that you like. Here are the secrets to its taste.
— The secret Coca sauce, with its spicy and tangy flavor, is certainly at the heart of Thai-suki’s popularity.
— Everything that goes into a Thai-suki meal is of the freshest quality.
— The texture of the fish cakes and meatballs imported from Thailand is amazing!
— You can enjoy the dish in two ways; after you cook your favorite ingredients in the Thai-suki soup, you can then add rice to create a rice gruel dish from the savory stock!
The common evolution of a startup’s landing page is as follows: In its first iteration, the site talks about the product’s features, with screenshots, feature lists, and video walkthroughs all there and above the fold. Then the founders read about the importance of presenting a story, selling a cure, and decide to throw all mentions of their product out with the bathwater.
As always, the right approach is somewhere in between, and unless your product is highly experiential, your customers will want to have a basic idea of how it actually works, before they sign up for a trial.
Takeaway: Clearly explain how your product is different.
3. Experience over results
Another section that you’re almost bound to find in a Japanese concept is the tabekata (食べ方), or ‘the way of eating’. It’s often presented as an illustrated manga comics, and can be most commonly found in either the menu, or on a sticker glued to your table.
— Select your favorite ingredients from an abundant list of seafood items, various meatballs, vegetables and meats.
— Fill in your order form. (About 4 or 5 dishes are suitable for one person.)
— Cook the ingredients in the hot pot.
— Dip the ingredients in the spicy Coca sauce and enjoy!
— Finally, cook some rice or spinach noodles in the delicious soup stock.
Just like a complex initiation ceremony, the emphasis on the process makes the dish seem and taste special, no matter how simple it is. It also gives you something to chat about with your friends before and after the dinner.
Most startup founders are product designers at heart, or become product-obsessed after countless sleepless nights delivering on feature requests from their users. But rather than build the most powerful product that meets everyone’s needs, your goal as an entrepreneur should be to create the ultimate, holistic experience for a particular segment.
You must find a clear proposition that appeals to one niche in the market and differentiates you from your competition, then make sure that everything from marketing slogans, through product design, to customer service transpires with that positioning. As an example, BMW’s “Ultimate Driving Machine” is not just a marketing message—every detail inside the car is aimed at the driver, and your first dealership experience further reinforces the message.
Takeaway: Think about the holistic user experience, not just your core product.
4. Feel right at home
Many concepts are highly relevant to their particular clientele, or their immediate neighbourhood. Some restaurants cook meals with ingredients unique to their part of the country, others use produce from their neighbours or get inspiration from local landmarks and geographical features in their presentation.
Going back to the Thai Coca Restaurant, the concept page explicitly describes how the global chain came to Japan:
Mr. Kojima, the owner of Coca Restaurant Japan, first encountered Coca Restaurant in Bangkok approximately 15 years ago. At that time, aware of the global health and fitness trend, he was inspired by Coca’s spicy and exciting cuisine, which was also not heavy or oily. The moment he tried the food at Coca Restaurant, he fell in love with the concept. He was so excited to work with Coca that shortly thereafter, he visited their headquarters unannounced.
Since Mr. Kojima was not on the schedule that day, he was turned away. However, he did not give up. One week later, he was able to arrange a meeting with Mr. Pitaya, the owner of Coca Restaurant. Mr. Pitaya wanted Mr Kojima to somehow show him a sign that he was truly passionate about working with Coca in Japan. In order to show his commitment, Mr. Kojima quit his day job at a large Japanese trading company and quickly established Coca Restaurant Japan.
Whether you’re pitching your business to venture capitalists, presenting your product to potential clients, or advertising on Google AdWords, the best way to get their attention is to make yourself relevant.
Coca Restaurant didn’t copy and paste their marketing text in nine countries where they currently operate. They rewrote their story for the Japanese market, emphasizing how the chain got to Japan. Similarly, don’t use the same slides and narrative for every meeting. Research your audience, then make your presentation relevant to their background and interests.
Takeaway: Modify your marketing pitch to appeal to your audience.
5. Focus over all
Last, but not least, Japanese restaurants are always smart to choose one signature dish and make it central to their concept, and their marketing. Indeed, in stark contrast to restaurants in the US, many of the best Japanese establishments will only serve variations on one single dish.
Despite all being noodles, you would go to four different places to eat udon, soba, ramen and soumen. You also wouldn’t order sushi in a char-grilled unagi (eel) restaurant, or coffee in a Japanese tea house.
Event restaurants with a diverse menu, like Coca, will keep laser-like focus on their distinguishing dish at all times:
Thai-suki was first brought to Japan in 1992. At that time, few people knew the dish, let alone how to eat it! It was a big mystery! However, there is a saying; “once you try Thai-suki, you’ll love it.” And that is exactly what happened. Thai-suki became a hit because of its delicious taste. At our Coca restaurants, you can come with your family and friends and enjoy Thai-suki in our friendly and relaxing atmosphere.
Beginner entrepreneurs strive for feature-parity with their competitors. But as any freshly minted MBA will quote you from Michael Porter: “Strategy is about setting yourself apart from the competition. It’s not a matter of being better at what you do — it’s a matter of being different at what you do.”
If you listen to every request of your customers, you’ll soon become a jack of all trades, and a master of none. Not only will you struggle to maintain the same level of quality across your offering, but you’ll also lose all the virtues of marketing simple products.
Takeaway: Specialize at one thing and stick to it.
The common theme you’ll notice in all parts of a typical Japanese restaurant pitch is that they are not selling food — a commodity. They are selling a holistic dining experience. And to make that experience stand out, the food must be presented, ordered, interacted with, and consumed in a way unique to the establishment.
This is an important lesson when building a startup, and one that took me a long time to fully internalize as a founder:
You cannot compete with a commodity that is just better than your competition, but have to come up with an offering radically different from what’s on the market. The best part is that you don’t even need a different product: You can innovate and uniquely position yourself in all aspects of the business, be it instant delivery, self-service setup, or unexpectedly over-the-top customer service.
I recommend every entrepreneur to visit Japan, drop by a few local restaurants, and listen to their concepts. It’s a very humbling experience, because the smallest neighbourhood joints will often grasp differentiation better, and have a more convincing pitch than many a well-funded startup.