The “Unique” Value Proposition of the Japanese Traditional Crafts Industry

Kyoto has numerous businesses that have been in operation for hundreds of years, a large number of which are in the traditional crafts industry. I’ve had the privilege of listening to presentations given by a number of representatives from various businesses in this industry as well as having the opportunity to work together with a few on a number of occasions.


The biggest problem all of these businesses face is the decline of the overall industry itself.  This phenomenon is well-documented, not only within Japan but around the world as well, and has been researched quite extensively. Academics and researchers alike point to the same contributing factors for this decline over and over again: changes in lifestyle and globalization.


For these industries struggling to keep tradition alive, the situation is quite serious. Many if not most, are run by artisans and craftsmen, not businessmen; their area of expertise is not in the running and managing of companies. When faced with changing market and cultural dynamics, these masters of traditional methods are at an almost natural disadvantage.


So then what is a Japanese company in the traditional crafts industry to do?


Innovation and tapping into new markets is the oft-given answer, but these things are easier said than done, and that is not what I am writing about today.


Now, on to my main point.


One of the major issues that came up in my dealings with individuals involved in the Japanese traditional crafts industry, was how they chose to express their company or brand’s value proposition. In presentation after presentation, every single one of them said the SAME EXACT thing, which essentially boiled down to them referencing their company’s long history.


Unfortunately, history and tradition only have meaning to customers if they stand for something in addition to being a big number. Very seldom did I hear any mention of the VALUE provided to customers. Instead, companies tended to talk mostly about themselves or their product.


Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe history and tradition CAN help set a company apart from competitors – especially if you can incorporate aspects of your brand into a compelling story or brand narrative. But in Japan, over 21,000 companies are over 100 years old and more than 3,000 companies older than 200 years. On top of completely dominating the list of oldest companies in the world, the oldest recognized business in existence is a Japanese company that has been in operation for 1,400 years, spanning more than 50 generations, and to top it all off, until recently, this company was family-run.


In another country, a couple hundred years of history could potentially be a major tool in a company’s arsenal that separates them from their competition, but in Japan it’s a little more difficult due to the sheer number of companies that boast centuries-worth of experience. Not to mention, in the traditional crafts industry, it is practically a given that any company be of sufficient age to have been around at a time when it would have made financial sense to enter that industry in the first place.


What the case of the Japanese traditional crafts industry illustrates is that a company’s unique value proposition is only as good as the effort that goes into figuring out what actually sets a brand apart from its competitors as well as how this ultimately provides value to customers.


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Categories: Marketing