by Innan Sasaki, Warwick Business School, and Davide Ravasi, UCL School of Management
Heritage and heritage crafts are sometimes misunderstood as part of a purely nostalgic and inward-looking industry. But those who work in the industry know that heritage crafters don’t simply preserve the past; they revive it, bringing it to new audiences and in many cases, encouraging it to evolve with the times. Just think of the Chinese-Scottish tartan created by the Scottish Tartans Authority in 2006. Incorporating the colours of both the Chinese and Scottish flags, the new design was a forward-looking product that embraced international links between the two countries and took advantage of the Chinese affinity for quality tartan. The culturally-specific nature of real, woven tartan, usually reserved for traditional Scottish celebrations, has found new customers in adapting itself for an international market.
In recent years, we have been studying how heritage crafts industries have made themselves more adaptable, responding to external influences on the way they do business and the way their products are received. We studied, in particular, how small traditional crafts producers in Japan have marketed products that typically only native Japanese customers would fully connect with, to customers from many other countries. Historically, the Japanese crafts industry produced materials for the court and imperial or religious ceremonies, such as kimonos, lacquerware, and Buddhist altars. In an age when hand-made products are less-economical than their mass-produced counterparts, producers have endeavoured to find new ways or marketing and selling their wares. Regardless of how alien their products were to the cultures of foreign customers, the firms we studied all experimented with a variety of different ways of marketing products to new customers with varying degrees of success.
We observed three distinct ways in which Kyotoite heritage craft producers had expanded their marketing methods to target customers from entirely different cultures. Although the reception to heritage industries will inevitably vary from country to country, we believe that the strategies outlined below can provide inspiration to producers around the world in finding new customers for not only for their products, but also for their country’s culture.
Strategy 1: Selective Targeting
The first of these strategies observed the cardinal rule of business; knowing your customer. Many of the firms we studied knew the importance of identifying, targeting, and selling products to international communities that would appreciate Japanese culture and the hand-made products in their original form. After a decline in domestic demand, some of the producers with whom we spoke decided that they were keen to expand the reach of their marketing efforts to other countries.
For example, Kyoto Maimu, a firm making bags and other accessories made of kimono fabric, was struggling to sell their products internationally despite adjusting their design to suit what they perceived to be the tastes of western consumers. The firm eventually shifted back to producing a traditional Japanese design and refined their targeting to concentrate on Italian and French markets, which research and test sales indicated as the most receptive to their products. Their outreach was also helped by targeting culturally specific, international events such as conventions on Japanese pop culture and Anime comic contests where visitors were most likely to engage with the products they offered.
This method has its advantages. Selling products that exist only in your own country means that there is little to no competition in the foreign countries you market to. However, sometimes a degree of adaptation may be necessary to better fit local needs and preferences.
Strategy 2: Cultural Adaptation
The second strategy focused on adapting the design and/or presentation of products with foreign customers in mind so that their appeal, and potential customer base, was wider. To do so, firms often sought the help of foreign distributors, serving as ‘cultural intermediaries’, companies in possession of both a knowledge of Japanese culture and the local market, who could guide adaptation of craft products tom local tastes and uses.
This strategy was primarily driven by the idea that while selective targeting can achieve a certain level of success in exporting heritage crafts, making some small but strategic adjustments to the design, packaging, and features of the product may considerably expand the potential appeal to local customers. For example, Maruwa Shougyou offered its furoshiki (a square piece of cloth that, in Japan, had been used to wrap and carry things for hundreds of years) in a larger size, and successfully marketed it as a tablecloth in the US and Europe. Kyobutugu Kobori, a producer of altar fittings for Buddhist temples, modified their products to serve the rapidly diffusing yoga studios in Western countries. These changes often led to double-digit growth of international sales over several years.
Local distributors also helped educate local customers about the unique properties of heritage craft objects, passionately shared stories about the cultural traditions they were part of, and help customers distinguish original, authentic products from cheap imitations. On occasions, they also repositioned objects in ways that made them more relevant for local needs. A Swedish retailer, for instance, offered numerous examples, including the use of hashi [chopsticks] as hair accessory, ochoko [a sake cup] to hold eggs, washi [traditional Japanese paper] as interior design, and kimono fabric and obi [a broad sash worn around the waist of a Japanese kimono] as curtain or table cloth.
Strategy 3: Cultural Transposition
The third and final strategy saw the firms we studied collaborating with foreign designers in order to help further bridge the gap of cultural understanding between consumers and the crafts producers. We observed the producers working with designers in their target markets to create unique products that were inspired by Japanese craftsmanship but tailored to meet the needs of the foreign consumer. Cultural transposition means applying traditional techniques more flexibly, so that entirely new products are created.
For example, in 2012, the lacquerware producer, Isuke Shouten, began collaborating with foreign designers to propose new products to be marketed in new areas. The firm’s owners invited French designers to Kyoto and asked them to provide designs that they thought might sell well in French and broader European markets. The French designers collaborated with the Japanese craftsmen to develop a new series of products that combined the functionality of modern design with the sophistication of traditional materials. The new products, such as a lacquerware wine cooler, were soon displayed at international trade shows in other countries, reaching the interest of new customers, and also began to sell well domestically in Japan.
Although recently the heritage crafts industry, like many others, has suffered due to the unprecedented circumstances in which we all now find ourselves, imaginative and adaptive thinking can help businesses of all sizes to survive. These strategies can help new customers to see the cultural value of the products that heritage crafts producers have created. Heritage crafts have their part to play in the global economy and with the right planning, international customers can support and enjoy national heritage just as much as local ones.
The study mentioned in the post is reported in Sasaki, I., Nummela, N. & Ravasi, D. Managing cultural specificity and cultural embeddedness when internationalizing: Cultural strategies of Japanese craft firms. Journal of International Business Studies (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41267-020-00330-0
Pre-apprenticeship first contact opportunities for young people and heritage craft businesses
A theory of change advisory document from an Ernest Cook funded pilot project in South West England
Written and compiled by Tracy Hill, The Creativity Chamber, for the Heritage Crafts Association – November 2017
This document provides guidance to any organisation or agency considering setting up ‘first contact’ opportunities for young people who wish to embark upon apprenticeship-style training and employment with heritage craft businesses. It explores the challenges to small heritage craft businesses in delivering these types of training and career opportunities, interrogates the pros and cons of accreditation, and advises on best practice in relation to stakeholder engagement – specifically how businesses, education providers and young people can work together to ensure succession and sustainability for the heritage craft business.
The education system (from primary through to Higher Education), economic development agencies and cultural identity initiatives all have a role in addressing the complicated issues surrounding apprenticeship-style training in heritage crafts.
This document collates learning from the Ernest Cook Trust funded pilot pre-apprenticeship project delivered by the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) in West Somerset, alongside interview and survey data gathered from businesses, young people and education providers. It reviews current delivery of apprenticeship-style training and includes proposals for a Theory of Change model.
Download Getting Into Heritage Crafts (PDF, 2.1MB)
For most of our history, making things by hand was the norm, and the skills were passed from one generation to the next. In this digital age, when so many spend their days in front of a computer screen, the thrill and sense of satisfaction in taking time to make something yourself is that much more important.
Yet there are crafts that form part of our cultural heritage which are in real danger of dying out. The skills and techniques required are known by only a few, in some cases only one, as craftspeople become older and retire from their work, and there is no-one coming into the craft to take their place.
Recent research for BIS shows that over 169,000 people work in Heritage Craft businesses, using traditional hand skills to provide products and services in response to growing public demand. The sector is set to grow in the future; the research anticipates a 12% growth in employment in the period leading up to 2022.
For the first time, the research also highlights the significant economic impact of Heritage Craft, with the sector as a whole contributing £4.4 billion in gross value added (GVA) to the UK economy. This is striking for a set of skills and jobs which are often considered hobbyist occupations or lifestyle choices.
The current threats to our craft skills
In 2014 we were commissioned by the Headley Trust to write an update to the publication Crafts in the English Countryside: Towards a Future by E. J. T. Collins. Our report can be downloaded here. We have also prepared a summary of the key issues here.
The Heritage Crafts Association firmly believes in the importance of these crafts as a fundamental part of our living heritage.
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In December 2009, the HCA posted a survey for traditional craftspeople. It was publicised specifically to craftspeople who had already shown support for the HCA, as well as more publicly on the HCA website and other websites. The survey had 206 respondents.
Click here to view a summary of the report (PDF, 29kb). For a full transcript of the responses, please contact us.
Following anecdotal evidence that traditional crafts were not recognised at local government level, instead slipping between heritage (buildings) and the arts, the HCA conducted a survey into the support local councils (at city, district and county level) in England give to heritage/traditional crafts in their areas.
The survey was conducted by volunteers and members of the HCA, by telephone, between November 2010 and March 2011. Two main questions were asked: (1) is there anybody within the council with a remit for traditional crafts, and (2) are there any council-led (or other) initiatives to promote and protect traditional crafts? The survey was also used as an opportunity to raise awareness of the HCA and to gain contacts within councils.
354 councils were contacted, of which 241 responded, giving a response rate of 68 per cent. Of those 241 councils, only 42 (17.42 per cent) have an officer whose remit includes traditional crafts – 11.86 per cent of councils overall. Just over half of these officers (52.38 per cent) are involved in the arts in some way, with culture also being prominent. However, 134 councils are involved in some sort of activity to support traditional crafts – 55.60 per cent of responding councils, and 37.85 per cent of councils overall. Quite strong regional differences can be observed in these figures.
The survey also produced valuable qualitative data. It became clear that, in many councils, there is a lack of understanding of what is meant by traditional crafts. Work with traditional crafts often happens quite informally and on an ad hoc basis. Councils often associate crafts with arts development services, but many councils are losing this service as arts are not statutory. Furthermore, within the arts context it is common to prioritise the innovative over the traditional. There is also a lack of cohesive strategy between district and county level councils with, in several cases, each thinking the responsibility for traditional crafts falls to the other.
This report concludes that local council support in England for traditional crafts is by no means universal and leaves a lot to be desired. While some councils are doing good work and others have schemes which could be expanded to benefit craftspeople, this report concludes that councils could do much more to recognise this valuable part of their local cultural heritage and to support and promote traditional crafts across the full range of their services.
There is support for heritage crafts at national government level and John Hayes, the Minister for Skills, has publicly given his support for heritage crafts. This support needs to be extended to local government. This report recommends that the HCA continues to raise awareness of traditional crafts and their needs within local government. The results of this survey should be used to produce guidelines and give advice on how councils can support traditional crafts in their areas. It is also recommended that local councils work together on a county and regional level to develop a strategy for supporting traditional crafts to ensure that they do not slip through the net.
Read the full survey report (.pdf, 774kb)
Please see heritagecrafts.org.uk/research/ for a listing of published research.
We are also developing a research agenda for the safeguarding of heritage crafts, including their use in various settings, and would be very happy to speak to anyone working in these areas.
Research questions (order not prioritised, but the first three are sequential)
- Which crafts are at risk? How urgent is the risk? (The HCA is currently bidding to undertake this as a strategic research project in 2015).
- What is the value of crafts? To whom? Why? (i.e. research into significance)
- Which preservation routes (e.g. Apprenticeship, ACST, amateurs, video) are, or could be, available to ensure the continuation of particular crafts? Are the routes to sustainability well enough understood, or is further research needed? Which are the best routes for the crafts at most risk, or most significant? NB the knowledge of those who revived crafts post WW2 needs to be recorded before it is lost
- What are the best ways to improve the financial sustainability of craft businesses?
- How do crafts contribute to tourism? How can this contribution be enhanced, for the benefit of makers, tourists and the tourism industry?
- Who is participating in therapeutic crafts in the UK (quantative research)? A definition of therapeutic crafts could include craft therapy in psychology, craft in occupational health and physiotherapy, craft in Dementia intervention. Activities undertaken as therapeutic crafts shades into recreational craft which has known wellbeing benefits, but are distinguished in that they are delivered as part of a programme with anticipated therapeutic outcomes, rather than undertaken outside a therapeutic setting, by an individual – perhaps with the support of family or friends. What are those engaged in therapeutic crafts doing? Does it work? If it does work, how can it be made more effective? What are the barriers to provision/participation, and how can these be removed?
- How does making contribute to social sustainability / community cohesion? How can this be valued/measured? How can this be enhanced and encouraged? Do different crafts and/or different kinds of engagement with crafts have different social impacts?