Koshihikari, Akitakomachi, Sasanishiki.
Do these names mean anything to you?
Maybe not? In Japan these are instantly recognizable household names.
The above are all brand names for Japanese, short-grained rice. The interesting thing, however, is these all are technically the same variety of rice.
They three brands of rice have been bred specifically to emphasize and prioritize certain traits—sweetness, stickiness, etc.—but as all are equally delicious, and require a level of skill on par with a connoisseur to pick out from a taste test, it’s really their marketing which sets these branded rice varieties apart.
What’s most unique about this is the fact that the brand is not just the name of a region, state, or geographic location (think San Marzano tomatoes or Idaho potatoes). Koshihikari, for example is grown in multiple prefectures. And they aren’t created through a specific production process such as the various styles of green tea. These are cultivars like apples, all belonging to the same species of rice, Japonica, which have been selectively bred for their chosen traits.
In the US rice is thought of as a commodity (kind of like coffee) by and large.
But that’s not how rice is considered in Japan.
Rice is actually an incredibly complex topic, believe it or not, that’s been explored from every discipline and specialty from anthropology to political science. While it may sound like an exaggeration, rice is sacred in Japan. And that is the level of respect that is shown towards rice by Japanese people.
So what does that have to do with marketing and branding?
Well, given they take rice so seriously in Japan it only makes sense that there would be a lot of emphasis how producers and growers promote their rice.
And this makes sense, because in reality, like any food product, these brands of rice are all substitutable for one another. It’s like, yes, you probably should use a red potato for potato salad (in our opinion), but any type of potato will get the job done.
With Japanese sticky rice, the brands are arguably even closer than the above example.
As we pointed out earlier, these rice brands—as well as all other Japanese branded rice—do have distinct qualities, resulting in different tastes, but they are relatively nuanced. We are not talking the difference between basmati rice and Japanese, sticky rice. No, it’s similar to how Yukon Gold is probably better for mashed potatoes, but a Russet potato will be more than good enough if that’s what you have on hand.
Yet despite all this, you’ll find that Japanese consumers can be very particular and choosy when it comes to the rice that they buy.
Throw in a bit of regional or hometown pride and it gets even more personal.
In terms of popularity, the Koshihikari brand is widely considered to be the gold standard, the most popular, and the one to beat. A lot of other brands such as the previously mentioned Sasanishiki or Akitakomachi brands of Japanese rice may have those who would argue otherwise though.
Another important thing to point out is that rice has been an incredibly important product throughout Japan’s history, at one time it was used as currency, but white rice as a true, staple food for most of the population is a relatively modern convention.
That being said, the biggest surprise is that despite being the staple food of the Japanese diet, it’s actually quite expensive for a staple food.
In fact, this has a lot to do with Japanese agricultural practices and political issues such as tariffs on imported rice (which is a whole other subject), but the long and short of it is that Japanese rice is not cheap, imported rice is taxed heavily—so much so that it’s not cheap either—but still less expensive than Japanese rice, yet people in Japan still prefer Japanese, domestically produced rice and they have specific brand preferences.
It’s an incredibly interesting topic.
How did these rice producers accomplish this?
It’s textbook branding.
They’ve emphasized and highlighted the qualities of their respective brands resulting in a significant increase in perceived value.
It’s not rice itself that is the premium product, say like caviar, it’s the specific cultivar and the brand that has value in the eyes of Japanese consumers.
In other words, it’s the brand identity that they’ve been able to create around these products that is what’s most impressive. And is what helps certain cultivars sell more, and at higher prices, than others. Remember, these are all Japonica rice at the end of the day.
And as far as marketing agricultural products in Japan, it doesn’t end with just rice either. Plenty of agricultural products have become synonymous with a certain region—e.g. matcha from Uji in Kyoto Prefecture—and this name recognition continues to have positive effects on these products ability to sell not just in Japan but abroad as well.
When it comes to agricultural products, food stuffs, and grocery items, the battle for relevance in the Japanese market is fierce. Japanese domestic producers invest a lot of money not only in research, cultivation, and production of these agricultural products, but also in their marketing and branding activities. For many it’s the only way to stand out in a densely crowded field.