Thursday, October 17, 2013

Monozukuri for Sustainable Brands in the 21st Century

The word Monozukuri has only been in use for almost 15 years. In 1998, the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office set up a "Monozukuri Kondankai", in order to reverse the trend of deindustrialization and hollowing out that Japan was experiencing after the end of the Japanese financial bubble by affirming Japan’s strengths in manufacturing. In general, monozukuri  is the "art, science and craft of making things." While monozukuri is used to describe technology and processes integrating sustainable development, production and procurement, it also includes intangible qualities such as unique craftsmanship and dedication to continuous improvement. In the Japanese tradition of Monozukuri, when an item or human effort is taken into use, there needs to be a benefit for the society as a result while, at the same time, the balance between production, resources and the society should be maintained. Monozukuri should therefore be an inspiration for most global organizations in the 21st century in their effort to create strong, innovative brands, which deliver compelling content through their media channels, especially then it comes to branding and brand storytelling.

Toyota and Nissan lead the way

Companies such as Toyota and Nissan have already tried to elevate their brands or the company’s core interests by creating unique content that exceeds infomercial-like self reverence.

Back in 2011, Toyota chairman Fujio Cho said that Toyota’s mission is to “preserve the Japanese Monozukuri". What does "monozukuri" mean here? It probably captures the Toyota perception of sustainability. According to Toyota monokuzuri, the person doing the making is de-emphasized and the attention is on the ‘thing’ being made. This subtle difference reflects the Japanese sense of responsibility for using ‘things’ in production and their deep respect for the world around them both animate and inanimate. In its application of Monozukuri to the production of automobiles, Toyota has pursued a sustainable method of making its cars ever more safe, environmentally friendly, reliable and comfortable and circulating this perception to its customers.

At Nissan, brand storytelling has been dubbed “kotozukuri,” complementing the Japanese manufacturers’ mantra of “monozukuri”. Brand agnostic stories, intentionally omitting reference to the parent firm or its competitors, or in Nissan’s case, look to raise the profile of the people, products, technologies and relationships as part of infotainment


Why? Actually, it's about Nissan's recognition that traditional media and consumer engagement face more challenges as well as expense amid a growing range of choice. Meanwhile, internal communications, often constituting corporate media or house TV units until now, have expanded from a parochial approach to include more content for mass distribution. The relationship with broadcasters and print media, who often have their own on-line presence, has evolved to include video embeds, undeniably showing return on investment versus the cost of similar paid media exposure. Use by the blogosphere or consumers also has powered the metrics of successful marketing, as “shares” and “likes” offer potential for viral exposure.

It seems that every organization may perceive Monozukuri in a different way. However, "Many names now describe the trend such as brand journalism, corporate narrative or 21st Century Kotozukuri, but all require more sophisticated storytelling and delivery, making ties to traditional agencies"  (Dan Sloan, Nissan Global Media Chief).

Back to storytelling

Storytelling is a well known and ancient art form. Persona-focused storytelling is essential to branding. When it comes to creating a powerful brand narrative, the persona – the articulated form of the brand’s character and personality – comes first, and all other elements unfold from there. A compelling brand starts with a strong, well-drawn, and quickly recognized persona, the essential connection between what a company says and what it does.

This brand persona creates a long-lasting emotional bond with the audience because it is instantly recognizable and memorable, it is something that people can relate to, and it is consistent. Nike, McDonald’s, FedEx are all examples of brands with personas that fit these criteria. In each case, there is a clear personality associated with the brand. These companies understand that it is their clear articulation of their brand persona and their discipline in placing that persona into stories that work with and help strengthen that brand persona is what makes the difference between strong and weak brand associations.

That long-lasting and implicit trust is what distinguishes the great brands from the rest of the pack. It will also protect the brand when it makes a misstep. Nike has a strong brand persona that is all about performance and winning. Their long-used tagline, ‘‘Just do it,’’ is instantly recognizable as is their logo, the swoosh. In 2006, Nike teamed up with skier Bode Miller, which seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, he had won two silver medals at the Olympics in 2002, four gold medals and a silver medal at the World Championship in 2003, and in 2005, he became the first American in 22 years to win the World Cup title. His performance trajectory was clear. If anything, it seemed that the difficulty would be in finding words to match his expected performance.

There was no shortage of words: in TV spots for the 2006 Winter Olympics, Miller was shown talking about performance, talking about his attitude, and talking some more. But there was not much ‘‘doing’’ – he fell short in all five medal attempts. Worse, he did not even seem concerned with winning, an attitude that did not match well with the Nike brand persona. This created a disconnect between the audience and the brand, since the fit between Bode and Nike clearly was not right. Monozukuri here, as a unique value proposition for the consumer, through storytelling, went wrong.

Brand my brain

Brain studies have shown dramatic effects of branding. In one famous study, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see how subjects’ brains responded when they were given Coke or Pepsi. Some of the subjects were given the soda without knowing which brand it was, and were asked to give their preference on taste alone. Others were given the soda and then an image of Coke or Pepsi was flashed at them before they took a sip.

The result? The blinded tasting resulted in no preference for one brand over the other in the group, some preferred Pepsi, others preferred Coke, but they did not know which was which, so the overall results were what you would expect in two chemically and physically similar drinks. The unblinded tasting was something else altogether. While there was no influence of brand knowledge for people who thought they were drinking Pepsi, there was a very strong brand influence when they were shown an image of Coke. Their belief that they were drinking Coke actually altered their experience to the point where some areas of the brain lit up only when they believed it was a Coke that they were drinking. Clearly, branding is a real, measurable effect. Coke lit up the hippocampus and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, areas of the brain related to memory, control of action, and self-image. Our brains love Coke even more than our taste buds do.

How is it connected to storytelling? Actually, a lot of it has to do with the fact that Coke has been telling a good story, using an exciting yet accessible brand persona that people easily relate to. Storytelling has been engaging listeners and readers for ages and Coke figured out how to make that work to their advantage. Researchers have shown that successful storytelling (as a correct Monozukuri version) strengthens the connections consumers have to brands to a great extent.


When it comes to brand development, a unique perception of Monozukuri for each organization may lead our audience in the brand story and its actions. Marketing strategists should always perceive and apply Monozukuri in the optimum way to genuinely connect with the audience and ultimately convert them into loyal customers.