The thoughts and feelings of the founding family inheriting an old company’s history
In modern Japan, Yamamotoyama is mainly known for its nori (edible seaweed) products, but it was originally founded in 1690 as a tea merchant in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district. The company invented the exclusive green tea-variety gyokuro and helped popularize the sencha tea-variety among the commoners of Edo, and has thus had an important influence on the history of green tea. Despite having such a venerable past, our current business centers around nori seaweed, and I have long wanted to increase sales of the product which is our company’s identity, green tea.
American companies value the connection between design and business
Many companies on the American West Coast, particularly in Silicon Valley, attach great importance to design and its role in business. In Japan, the word “design” is associated with making something look pretty, but it originally refers to a process of searching for solutions to problems with a broad perspective and presenting these solutions in ways that are easy to understand. It was while learning about this process that I encountered the concept of “design thinking”, and first heard of Kunitake Saso. At the time, I was in charge of redesigning our main store in Nihonbashi for its reopening, and I asked Saso for help at an early stage of this project.
Using vision interviews to design a store
Our main store in Nihonbashi had a narrow focus on the retail of gift-products, and was visited by only a limited set of regular customers. Furthermore, there are fewer people today that are familiar with the intricate culture behind making tea and serving nori seaweed than before. One of the renewal project’s goals was to attract new types of customers, and while I had a vague picture in my mind of what the new store should be like, I did not yet have a clear idea of how to proceed. Through talking to Saso, it became clear to me that we needed to provide ways to consume our products in a modern lifestyle setting. It was therefore decided to expand the store’s cafe space, and create opportunities for people to experience and enjoy traditional Japanese food and drink in new ways.
Selecting designers through a competition
Now that we knew what direction to move in, BIOTOPE created an inspiration collage of the renewed store and used it as the basis for a competition between three designer teams. The original goal was to build a creative team in Japan that would work together with me, while I'm based in US.
After the competition, however, we began to also consider designing product packages that appeal to younger generations, in addition to the store renewal effort. It was in this period that our CEO first started using the word “rebranding”.
Deciding a rebranding theme based on research
In order to renew our products, we first needed to know how tea and nori seaweed were perceived in the context of a modern lifestyle. We, therefore, conducted design research targeting both our customers and employees. The research made it clear that while tea is associated with a calm and graceful lifestyle, we needed to make it more accessible to a younger generation who don’t have teapots at home, and to tell them a story about what tea is. I, therefore, felt that we had to make changes to not only the store, but also the package design of the products we sold there, and I decided to renew Yamamotoyama’s product line as part of the rebranding effort.
Classifying and reviewing products based on their profitability and history
Next, we asked BIOTOPE to interview our sales teams, analyze sales data, identify which products sold well and which did not, and calculate the profit margin of each. This investigation caused our company to move away from thinking in terms of total sales revenue, and instead focus on the marginal profit from each sold item. When classifying products, I did not only focus on numbers, but also on understanding the product’s history. This enabled me to place the products in relation to each other and to determine whether to keep a product despite low sales, or to switch it out for a different product. The new product line consisted of three tiers: “Tenkaichi (Premium)”, “Jōkisen” and “Yamamotoyama”.
A package design that represents the reborn Yamamotoyama
Tea comes in a myriad of varieties, and it is a difficult subject to master. Our employees in branch shops all over the country are expected to explain all kinds of things to our customers, but everyone cannot know everything. The new packages are therefore designed to give an immediate and rich impression. They mimic traditional scrolls (makimono) and Japanese wedding-gift envelopes (shūgi-bukuro), and clearly show whether the tea leaves inside are grown in a single area, or whether the product is an original Yamamotoyama blend. Inside the package is a more detailed description of the product’s name and history, to give a deeper understanding. Everything is printed in both Japanese and English, to help spread knowledge of our products to the rest of the world.
Uncovering and retelling history to create new value
This project gave us valuable opportunities to uncover historical assets and stories, both by conducting fieldwork and by looking through historical materials such as old product ledgers and ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Edo-period. We also established a new Business Development Department to create business plans from a novel perspective, and implemented other organizational changes made necessary by our rebranding campaign. In the same period, BIOTOPE conducted workshops for proposing ways to incorporate tea and nori seaweed into the lifestyles of young users, held during the regular sales meetings at selected branch shops. I think that gradually involving the whole company in this manner was very important.
Continuous updates through digital marketing
The goal of this project was to create a path for Yamamotoyama to transform into a company that not only sells products, but also keeps alive Japan’s traditional food culture and ideals in order to provide people with something that makes their lives richer. The rebranding effort has helped in advertising this transformation, but I do not think we have done enough to teach the younger generations about food culture and traditions. In an attempt to amend this, we launched our first social media service, planned in collaboration with Saso. We hired professional photographers, food coordinators and Japanese tea artists, and teamed them up to present modern lifestyles that incorporate traditional products such as green tea and nori seaweed. They have since come up with a variety of proposals.