Japanese Miso strides up the superfood charts, but can it last the pace?

For a food whose origins date back to China and 7th Century Japanese Buddhist monks, Miso isn’t a precocious culinary upstart.

Miso paste

Last year in Japan there were 480,000 tons sold, nearly 50,000 tons more than 2013. Given the static demographic headwinds here that’s some achievement.

Sales have been boosted by Miso’s growing health credentials. A doctor on a well known TV station has been waxing lyrical about its benefits and even public broadcaster NHK states that Miso is the ‘source of long life.’

Power to the beans!

Last year Japan exported around 100k tons of Miso and other condiments, the biggest markets were the US, China and Korea. In Europe, perhaps surprisingly the UK topped the charts, a nod to Washoku’s British penetration.

Miso is an easy word for foreigners to pronounce, unlike many Japanese food descriptions and is served de rigeur in iconic bowls. This has made the category memorable. Whether consumers can recall any Miso brands is less clear.

The challenge as with many Japanese foods, is that most brand owners have little category growth expertise.

Take Marukome, the market leader. They established a Thai subsidiary in 2013 and earlier this year announced plans to launch an ‘Antenna’ shop in Bangkok. It’s a great idea but the naming of the outlet ‘Hacco Labo’ will mystify most (Hacco is the Japanese word for fermentation).

Marukome Thailand’s Miso advertising

Japanese producers need to do more to emphasise the authentic origins of their product. And quickly to avoid being copied! Itsu is a London based Washoku chain, owned by British entrepreneurs, who are already selling a range of Miso products in up market supermarkets. I am not even sure it’s made in Japan.

Itsu Miso

There is no shortage of Miso innovation in Japan. Recent trends have included sweet Miso, freeze dried and also liquid varieties marketed on a freshness platform. The venerated TV doctor recommends red miso.

Let’s see if the Japanese Miso industry can keep up the pace.

Watch out! Costco Japan snaps at the heels of industry giants Aeon and Ito Yokado

How times have changed! 

Early in my Japan career I remember when Costco’s arrival into the retail market was sneered at, even dismissed by the cognoscenti. “It will fail,” they said, “Japanese don’t buy bulk, their homes are too small.” 

Costco Amagasaki, Japan

Well in 2019, twenty years after its first arrival, Costco Japan has sales over JPY500b (US$4.4b) and is poised to enter the top 10 ranking.

Anyone who has been to their stores over the weekend knows a long queue awaits at the car park. Some of their bigger turnover outlets average a million shopping carts a week; Costco has become a destination shopping venue. 

It runs a laser focused operation: 3,500 SKUs per store (an Aeon or IY GMS average 4-5x more); pallet only displays; and negligible POS. Staff numbers are far lower not to mention rents. Costco Japan has 26 stores, all located in low cost suburbs.

Costco Japan, fresh food & meats

There is over US$200m revenue from membership fees, members number over 6m households, a massive 80% renew. 

When Costco Japan started, direct trading was almost unheard of. The cross shareholding links between retailers, trading houses and large wholesalers were a closed shop. Costco started bringing in well known brands from overseas which forced suppliers to review trading arrangements. Costco likes exclusive packs and many big brands produce exclusive SKUs, further driving traffic.

Toblerone: Costco Japan exclusive SKU (it was massive!)

Whether Costco is the best way to expose a new brand to the Japanese shopper is debatable. The retailer’s supply chain focus is so acute that popular items can be out of stock and slower sellers are never invited back. The company also strongly encourages suppliers to use its “Club demonstration services” – which is a separate business unit, and reportedly expensive.

Costco Demonstration Services

Most of the publicity about Japan’s changing retail landscape has focused on Amazon which is over 3x bigger. However, in food and household products where Amazon Japan is struggling to build scale, Costco has been much more successful.

Interested to grow your business globally? Check out Export and Expand

Marketing chocolate the Aussie way: say G’day to TimTam

Created over 50 years ago, and with domestic sales around US$100m, TimTam biscuits are an Australian icon.

I’ve recently started seeing lots of them here in Japan, especially in Hokkaido, where they’re a hit with hungry skiers and locals alike.

Inspired by the UK’s Penguin brand, TimTam’s creator jazzed up the product creating a wider range of indulgent and chewier fillings, plus came up with a catchier brand name.

It’s not just Japan. TimTam has become popular in Indonesia, where it’s even been on promotion with MacDonalds, a great way to grow brand awareness and penetration, and been launched into the US, along with 40 plus other countries.

What further plans Arnotts/Campbells has for the brand, I’m not privy to, but they may want to think about some high traffic locations like popular department stores and other sites popular with tourists.

Want to learn more about export expansion? Check out my book here

Will Hokkaido’s Kinotoya be Japan’s next export hotcake?

I was in Hokkaido last week (great snowboarding!) and on the way back passed through Shin-Chitose airport.

The airport is one of my favourites for its superb collection of eateries and delicatessens. One of these is the Kinotoya bakery.

Kinotoya is Sapporo born and bred and is famous for its cheese tarts.

Another Hokkaido confectionery success has been Royce who have gone global with shops as far away as the Middle East.

Is it Kinotoya’s turn next? Check out more here