As the Far East seems to move closer and closer to the West and its 2 billion people open their wallets to brands, it’s valuable to seek some inspiration from the Oriental culture. At least from one part of the Far East, which is as culturally diverse as Europe’s 30-plus countries and as varied as the cultures of the U.S.’s states.
If you are about to hit any part of Asia, you need a culturally aware brand strategy to avoid a negative response to the culture shock your brand may experience. Even if you have no plans to enter Asian markets, there’s a lot to learn from comparing culturally derived attitudes. All have lessons for brands and business.
For example, I’ll never forget my first cup of sake, Japan’s traditional rice wine. In Japan, you’ll observe a gesture typical of the country’s hospitality. The eggcup-sized sake cup is placed in front of you, in a receptacle of some kind, whether an elegant cherry wood box or an everyday saucer. The pourer pours the sake into your cup to overflowing. The sake overflows into the receptacle, which is itself filled to the brim. This overserving expresses the pourer’s generosity, shows gratitude for your presence, and exhibits a desire to give more than you expect.
This vignette opens vistas of meaning; brands must overdeliver and exceed customer expectations. Yet so often, brands simply meet expectations. Overdeliver and customers will associate such a gesture of abundance, hospitality, and respect with your brand. It will create an invaluable emotional tie.
Another lesson I learned in Japan occurred when I was visited a picturesque little village near Kyoto. I’d ordered some handcrafted knives and was told the finishing process would take approximately a half-hour. So I left the store to explore the village, bathed in a rosy glow cast by springtime cherry blossoms. I returned to the knife-maker exactly half an hour later. To my surprise and contrary to my previous experience of Japanese punctuality and exactitude, the knives weren’t ready. Two men were still hard at work on them and remained so for 15 minutes longer. I decide to wait and observe the craftsmen in action.
In the Western world, I wouldn’t have been too surprised to see the men express irritation at the extra work time. Here, their demeanors expressed passion, exquisite care, and professionalism invested in every maneuver that produced these amazing tools. These knives are unique pieces, the antithesis of a tool I’d buy at random from Wal-Mart.
Later, I realized my wait wasn’t unexpected. Observation time was built into the transaction as part of the handover process from vendor to buyer. The intentional interval was an exercise to demonstrate dedication, to show the care that went into my knives. Again, this is a memory I’ll have for life. It made those knives into a story of dedication to a product.
Such passion tends to disappear from branding when a founder resigns. I’m sure there’s a ton of passion behind the scenes when ordering a book on Amazon.com or any other online retailer. But online buying translates the customer-retailer relationship into one of silence and distance. That distance between brands I buy and me is widening. E-mail from Amazon is from the “customer service team.” If an individual’s name appears in front of this retailer’s sealed membrane, it quickly disappears, severing the sense of real connection.
I’m not saying we should let customers wait for service. But the knife craftsmen’s demonstrative dedication is missing in our brand building. Branding is all about creating an emotional engagement between the consumer and the brand. We must see the passion that lies behind every brand, the real people that make it happen. This human dimension not only bonds customers with brands, it raises customers’ empathy level and makes them more patient and understanding when things go wrong.
Recently, I was in India as part of my global BRAND sense symposia. I’m introduced to hundreds of brands every day, and in India it was no different. But one particular brand stood out. Lijjat Papad has as its vision statement: “A unique organization of the women, by the women for the women.”
For decades, the company has outsourced its entire production of bread to thousands of homes across India. Lijjat was one of the first true community-based brands. Women produce bread for the company every day, following strict brand guidelines. When you choose Lijjat bread from the supermarket shelf, you’re not purchasing machine-made bread. You’re buying bread made by an individual, with care, love, dedication. That knowledge is a true branding difference. Better, the reason Lijjat is the best-known bread in India is it’s not only produced by India’s women, it’s owned by them, too, not a corporation.
As in the real world, the Internet is all about communities. Yet brands tend to neglect this very important fact. Many companies still express irritation at communications from consumers, rather than embracing them as brand-building opportunities. Leverage the concept of communities and the loyalty that can arise from the comradeship and common interests shared by them. This can create your brand difference, an emotional engagement that defies replication.
Asian culture, vast and varied, holds thousands of unique, small, useful stories any growing brand can leverage. What they has in common is passion: for people, for materials, for the products. Each great brand is based on these qualities. Remember these three small stories when you next seek your brand’s point of difference.
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