Marketing heritage: Successfully taking niche brands to a wider audience

By Professor Davide Ravasi, UCL School of Management

Marketers of all distinctions will be aware that a craft product is never just a product. A craft product is an experience for your customers, and ideally each time they use it, it will tell people the story of your brand. So how can you reach outside of your core customer group and best communicate these stories to consumers with little experience of a brand’s heritage and an entirely different set of cultural references?

Together with Innan Sasaki, from Warwick Business School, I’ve studied how companies in Japan have marketed products that typically only native Japanese customers would fully connect with to customers far beyond the boundaries of the Japanese islands. The companies I studied produced heritage craft products such as kimonos, lacquerware, and Buddhist altars. Regardless of how specialised their products, they all experimented with different ways of marketing products to international customers with varying degrees of success.

I was particularly interested in how they adapted and re-sold their brand heritage and identity to these completely new customers and I believe that there are valuable insights they have learned that every company considering international export can benefit from.

What is your product’s true value?

Before considering taking your product to a new market segment, even one within the same country, the first step is to take time to understand what makes your product of value to your current audiences. Then consider what the new markets may know about them and how much they need to know about them to appreciate their value and excite them about the product.

The unique value could lie in the product’s functionality – what problem in your customers’ lives does it solve better than any other on the market?

Or perhaps – as in the case of many craft products – its value lies in its cultural symbolism, or in the way it connects with customers’ fantasies and imagery about a broader cultural domain.

Japanese producers of heritage crafts were very aware that of the products they made, many international customers appreciated the way that they ‘embodied’ Japanese culture. If there is something powerfully symbolic about your product that tells a larger story about the circumstances that lead to its creation, educating international customers about that story will prove immensely beneficial.

Who is your product’s ideal audience?

Seeking out a specific community whose interests align with your product is clearly important too.  Is there a sizeable community of connoisseurs, collectors or fans that gather together at a given point in time or you can tap into?  A number of the Japanese producers that I studied used pop-up stalls at Japanese culture conventions in foreign countries to market their products to consumers they could almost guarantee were more attuned to their cultural significance.

And if the customers will not come to your product, take the product to your customers. In other words, if your research shows that the market does connect with cultural symbolism of your product but is still not buying it, perhaps a small adjustment to the product will make it more appealing to the local market? A maker of kimonos that I spoke with made the leap from simply making the garments to making other accessories with the kimono fabric, including handbags and wallets. The move into the new product range allowed them to target customers who loved the look and feel of the fabric but had no occasion to wear real kimonos.

How will you target your audience?

Efforts to market to customers in a new area can often benefit from a little local knowledge and help. Sales managers might want to consider beginning a commercial relationship with a local distributor in order to boost sales.

The right distributor will be both knowledgeable and passionate about your products, as well as well-versed in selling to the market into which you’ll be moving. When searching for the perfect match, you’ll need to consider whether they can realistically tailor your offer to local tastes. In another vein, they might be well skilled in their ability to educate people about the nuances of your product. Finding that bridge between your culture and another can be of crucial help.

Involving foreign designers in the development of new products may also provide valuable insights into different cultural conventions and expectations. One example from my research in Japan that comes to mind is the attempts of a Buddhist altar craftsman to market to French customers. In Japanese culture, the expectation is that the alter equipment will be painted flawlessly, but they quickly discovered that foreign customers liked a weathered look to the product. Requiring the product to be painted in a different manner which preserved some flaws made it appear as if the product was more ‘hand-made’ than in the original design, making it more of a hit with French consumers.

Think outside of the box!

You’re targeting people who will potentially have a completely different understanding of your product; they’ll likely favour different aspects of it to your usual customers. Break down your product into its essential parts – techniques, materials, aesthetics – and ask whether you can apply some of them t entirely different products that can better satisfy your new customers.

Examples I encountered in Kyoto included the use furoshiki fabric to produce Western-style handbags, the application of gold leafing decoration to ceramic wall tiles, and the use of lacquerware techniques to produce everyday objects that reflected Western design and aesthetics.

Clearly there are a variety of strategies that can be employed when taking your products onto the international market but each and every one boils down to knowing your product and knowing your audience, and reflecting on what elements of the product could be adapted or re-used to better meet local tastes – importantly – without losing its authenticity. Beginning with the essence of your product, and with it your brand, will allow you to best discover how to get to the end of your journey, in the hands of your customers.

Sasaki, Innan, Niina Nummela, and Davide Ravasi. “Managing cultural specificity and cultural embeddedness when internationalizing: Cultural strategies of Japanese craft firms.” Journal of International Business Studies (2020).