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