E-readers and tablet computers

Tablet computers and e-book readers are some of the hottest devices right now. 

Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad have both been hugely popular and sold millions in the US alone.  Tomorrow morning (May 28th) Apple will begin selling the iPad overseas in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Switzerland and the UK.  With the success of the iPad and the Kindle, everyone from computer manufacturers to major booksellers is rushing to release a similar product.  Just recently Dell announced its own tablet Streak and Dublin firm Pandigital introduced the Novel.

According to the Boston Consulting Group, e-readers and tablets are set to become wildly popular and successful consumer devices.  The study also suggests that e-readers and tablets are not a niche product for early adopters, but could become the MP3 players of this decade.  “Grandmothers will soon be carrying them around.” While I’m pretty sure my grandma (or any grandmas in Japan) won’t be toting around an iPad or Kindle anytime soon, these devices are without a doubt more than just a quick fad or trend.

What about here in Japan?   The iPad is set to go on sale tomorrow and there will no doubt be hundreds of people lined up outside Apple stores around Tokyo.  Despite the hype among Apple fans and curious consumers, these new devices are also apparently causing Japanese publishing companies some anxiety.  Although Tokyo (and Japan) is often perceived as being high-tech and super modern, it is also a rather analog city filled with bookstores and newsstands (disappearing in the US) and where people read and purchase books, newspapers, magazines, etc. on a fairly regular basis.  It will be really interesting to see if these devices catch on and if or how they might be used by Japanese consumers.


The bento goes global

Recently the number of Japanese who take lunch (called a bento) to work has been increasing.  Men and women both young and old are making and taking their lunches to work not only to save money, but also to be a little healthier.  Right now there’s a “bento boom” going on in Japan.  Morning television programs and cooking shows all seem to feature segments on how to make dishes to fill up the little compartments of your bento.  In general, the Japanese “bento” refers to a box that holds your entire meal of rice and several side dishes.  However, with the bento boom, the bento is no longer limited to a square or rectangular box.  There is now a wide variation of sizes, styles and shapes including everything from insulated canisters to boxes made from traditional materials like bamboo to bowls.  Japanese enjoy trying to make each bento unique and apparently there are more and more people who spend time thinking about and preparing their bento in advance.

A Japanese newspaper recently ran an article on the increasing interest in bentos in the US.  Bentos began to catch on in the West around 2001 with “laptop lunches,” containers about the size of a large laptop computer with several smaller containers inside.  The idea was to make people think about nutritional balance using a Japanese style bento box.  In cities like New York and London Japanese restaurants had become incredibly popular and often served a lunch that they called “OBENTO,” leading some to think that a bento was OBENTO.  Today this OBENTO (which is usually a particular type of box lunch called Makunouchi bento) is popular in Asian supermarkets, Japanese restaurants and even on Japan routes of American airliners.

This time around the bento seems to be popular because it’s an easy way to pack a lunch that’s both healthy and eco-friendly.  In the US where many people drive to work, many also take their lunches to work, but not necessarily just to save money.  With a bento box you have less garbage to throw away than with a brown bag filled with Saran wrap or Ziploc bags.  Plus, you can eat leftovers from the previous night even if it is something that won’t easily fit into a plastic bag.

Another reason for the increased popularity of bentos is that parents can adjust their children’s eating habits by using the containers as a way to control portions and prevent kids from becoming overweight.

Today the word “bento” is becoming common language even outside Japan and cooking specialists and recipe sites are sharing “bento knowledge” with each other.  An interesting example of a Japanese custom that’s gone global.

An detailed explanation of bentos (with pics):


LA’s food trucks – gourmet meals on wheels

During a recent trip to Los Angeles, I came upon some of LA’s food trucks, a big trend and fairly popular in recent years.  Unlike your typical hot dog stand or ice cream truck, these food trucks are high-end, hip and clean, and they offer menu items you would expect to find in a restaurant.  New trucks pop up almost daily and offer everything from Japanese beef sliders to Korean BBQ tacos and gourmet cupcakes to Vietnamese sandwiches (just to name a few).

Where can you find one?  They usually park on streets around LA during the lunch, dinner and late night hours.  In order to find out where they will be and when and if there’s a line, all you have to do is follow them—on Twitter.

Although a lot of other countries sell street food, these food trucks are a step above with their gourmet meals and snacks and their use of the latest in social media and technology.  By mainly using Twitter to market their businesses, these food trucks often have long lines even at 10pm on a weeknight as well as hundreds or sometimes thousands of fans or followers who will drive all over town to find them.

Who knows how long the craze will last, but to someone who’s lived abroad for several years, it seems that America’s taste for new, creative, gourmet food has come a long way.  Japan has only recently discovered Twitter so I was amazed to see just how businesses are using Twitter to market themselves and how consumers have made Twitter a part of their daily lives.

Check out some photos of LA food trucks on the Travel Channel website and see how Kogi BBQ uses Twitter to update fans.

Ukon no Chikara (aka the Power of Turmeric)

Japan’s House Foods has been expanding sales of its “Ukon no Chikara” (literally Power of Turmeric) drink in the US.  It’s a supplement that claims to prevent hangovers.  The 100ml bottles come in several different flavors and are usually sold for around 200 yen at convenience and drug stores.  Ukon no Chikara has been a hit in Japan likely because of the country’s drinking-communication culture and it’s already available in Hawaii and the West Coast of the US.  As a very “Japanese” product, it will be interesting to see what kind of reaction it gets in the US.

One of our Japanese partners is a loyal drinker of another supplement/energy drink, Otsuka Pharmaceutical’sOronamin C.”  Because of the high sugar content, it’s not something you can drink every day, but she buys the drink fairly frequently.  In recent years, Red Bull has also entered Japan and become a competitor.  Not only foreigners, but also young Japanese businessmen can be seen purchasing Red Bull at convenience stores.  Thanks to product placement in American TV dramas and Hollywood movies, as well as the brand’s active sponsorship of sporting events, the Red Bull logo appears fairly often in the Japanese media.   According to our partner, Oronamin C is the “king” of energy drinks in Japan, but outside Japan it’s clearly Red Bull.  Oronamin C has become more visible in East Asian and Southeast Asian markets and as a fan of the product, our partner hopes it continues to do well.

According to an investment firm, one of the reasons for Red Bull’s global success is its massive efforts in creating sports sponsorships, advertising and other PR activities.  Red Bull was originally created in Thailand as a competitor to Lipovitan D, a Japanese product that was the first in Thailand.   The flavor was changed to fit the tastes of the local people and sold as a canned carbonated beverage, which was a big step for the brand.  Also, the product name was easy to understand.  Although it wasn’t targeted just at men, the image of the energy drink consumer was male.   The original “red bull” name and package design were kept as-is and that is one of the major reasons for its success.  Many corporations try to avoid using proper names for brands, but by using a brand name, awareness level increases quickly and there’s a “friendly” sort of feeling more than with using a category name.

We wonder if the product will be sold as in the US as “Ukon no Chikara” or “Power of Turmeric.”  Product naming for new markets is often the key to successful marketing.  Hopefully Ukon no Chikara has developed a name and design for the US and other markets that is easy to understand like Red Bull.

From Krispy Kreme to Zen

Until last week, Krispy Kreme was selling its doughnuts in a makeshift store in front of the Shibuya Mark City Starbucks.  Not far from this spot is a larger, actual Krispy Kreme store.  Perhaps Krispy Kreme was selling doughnuts in front the Starbucks to entice customers to pick up some as “gifts” to take home.  From today, another shop called “Zen Doughnuts” is now selling doughnuts made without oil.  Although we don’t know much about Zen, we were surprised at how quickly this makeshift store changed from the high-calorie Krispy Kreme doughnuts to the healthy Zen ones.  We wondered what kinds of customers stopped to buy the doughnuts.  Was there a difference in customer for the two?  Was Zen trying to take on Krispy Kreme?  If the next seller to use this store space is also a doughnut shop, does it mean that this space is somehow a good match for doughnuts?  Maybe it’s because Starbucks is selling coffee, the perfect match for doughnuts, right in front of this space?

There are certainly many differences between Krispy Kreme and Zen other than the way they make their doughnuts.  The packaging is also different–Krispy Kreme places its freshly made doughnuts into a bag or box and Zen wraps its doughnuts one by one.   Zen doughnuts are also sold on the internet (through the Japanese shopping site, Rakuten) and are a good fit with Japan’s gift culture of wrapping everything individually.

It’s interesting to see Western things “transformed” in Japan.  Even in the same city and the same place, seeing these transformations is a valuable experience.