Why Japan Can’t Woo More Moo’s

Cash Cows. They’re the kind of killer-products that every company craves.

Yet Japan’s premiere blue-chip companies have become increasingly unable to provide “the next big thing.”

Take Sony for example—a decade ago Sony seemed impervious to skeptics of its continued growth. Sony’s walkman and high-resolution televisions were taking the world by storm, and it seemed like no competitor could match Sony’s sleek, hip products.

But now Sony’s grip on all-things-electronic has been attacked by all fronts: Apple has taken the lead in portable music players, Samsung’s LG has taken home the winning gold in preferred television units, and to add insult to injury, Sony’s Vaio laptops have become increasingly MIA from store shelves around the world (no, they aren’t going Dell’s way of online custom-orders, they’re simply deep in the red.)

For all of Sony’s dismal performance of late, Sony still has incredible technological capabilities. The Play Station 3, like the Play Station 2, set the world-standard in next-generation video recording through its Blue-Ray ready drives. Sony’s laptops, though increasingly harder to come across, are so sleek they’d serve as paper cutters. The company’s R&D labs have some of the world’s finest engineers, many of them with decades of experience in the audio, visual, and entertainment industries.

Why then, are Sony’s products doing so poorly? Seth Godin, a marketing guru, says that to conceptualize, create, and market a cash cow, one has to get rid of all the P’s in marketing (like Pricing, Promotion, Positioning, Packaging, etc.)

All companies have to focus is the new P—the Purple Cow.

Here’s Seth’s anecdote about Purple Cows, in—surprise!—his book Purple Cow:

“When my family and I were driving through France a few years ago, we were enchanted by the hundreds of storybook cows grazing on picturesque pastures right next to the highway. For dozens of kilometers, we all gazed out the window, marveling about how beautiful everything was. Then, within twenty minutes, we started ignoring the cows. The new cows were just like the old cows, and what once was amazing was now common. Worse than common. It was boring.” (p.2).

He then goes on to drive his point ruthlessly to the reader, just in case anyone missed his point the first time around:

“Cows, after you’ve seen them for a while, are boring. They may be perfect cows, attractive cows, cows with great personalities, cows lit by beautiful light, but they’re still boring. A Purple Cow, though. Now that would be interesting.”  (p.2).

The point that Seth Godin is trying to make is that a good product just doesn’t quite cut it anymore. The product has to be remarkable. Sony’s walkman had good design and offered good sound. Apple’s iPod may not have delivered better sound quality (in fact, it was probably worse), but the clickwheel? Now that was remarkable, and that was worthy of being called a Purple Cow.

What do today’s remarkable companies all have in common? They’ve got Purple Cow mindsets. They aren’t playing it safe. They aren’t kissing up to the status quo. They are, as Seth Godin observes, “outliers. They’re on the fringes. Super-fast or super-slow. Very exclusive or very cheap. Very big or very small […] the leader is the leader because he did something remarkable.” (p.20).

Sony’s predicament provides a case in point for Japan’s economy as a whole—Japan has all the technological expertise to make a plethora of remarkable products. Yet it just can’t seem to deliver, and it’s because Japan played it safe for the past two decades.

It’s time Japan decided to take one big, audacious gamble.
It’s time Japan decided to become a Purple Cow.

//By Ryo TAKAHASHI

4 Responses to “Why Japan Can’t Woo More Moo’s”

  1. Jun Ohinata says:

    I feel like people are running out of colors to paint cows with.

  2. PS says:

    I have been observing the Japanese companies for quite some time and I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with what you say.

    Now, I think part of the problem also has to do with the issue of “galapagos”. I think Japanese handsets drive home my point. iPhone is about style. Docomo (and the accompanying handset makers) phones are about functionality and tech specifications. I am afraid there is quite a big disconnect between what Japanese companies think the consumers want and what the international consumers REALLY want.

    Another point would be that Japanese companies’ products are overpriced, as compared to products from China and Korea. I have heard many Japanese executives talk about the importance of product quality and monozukuri. Expensive but good products. However, the consumers in the emerging markets such as China, Vietnam and Indonesia, wants cheap AND good products. I recently attended a business conference in Tokyo and I was heartened to hear the CEO of Unicharm remarked that they have lined up a range of products with different price range to target different sets of consumers. Now, that, is flexibility.

    I have faith in Japanese companies that they will once again take the world by storm. It might take some time though.

  3. Shogo Okuda says:

    I have heard that the primary reasons why SONY failed to compete with rest of the players was because of the internal corporate structure. The thing is that a huge gap existed between the sales/marketing department and the engineers. These groups were competing against each other to make better products, when they should have been working together. It is also true that Samsung has recruited numerous SONY workers and that some information was leaked (which led to lawsuit).

    As of the entire marketing strategy, I definitely agree that there has to be something ‘remarkable’ in order to penetrate the fierce competition. Apple made that possible through aesthetics: I found the click wheels of i-Pod much more useful than SONY walkman, and i-phone’s touch screen better than traditional cellphone. But what’s behind Apple is the overall system of linking its hardware along with its services, such as iTunes and Apple TV. Steve Jobs is very clever in a sense that he creates ‘dependency’, which ultimately leads to more users with higher customer lifetime value.

    Japanese has incredibly high work ethic as well as unique culture. I hope to see companies with high motivation, like Uniqlo, appear more in the future.

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