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WorldFriday, May 13

Learning from Japan's Brand Strategy

Ethiopians who make leatherwear are trying to tap into the market in Japan. They were invited by a Japanese organization to show off their products in Tokyo. And they're using lessons they've learned from Japanese businesses to create a brand that will sell here.

These leather products from Ethiopia are being sold in shops in Tokyo.

"These look very comfortable to wear because they stretch," says one female customer.

Historically though, selling Ethiopian leather hasn't been easy.

People in the Ethiopian leather industry are trying to establish a new image for their country by producing quality items. They've flown all the way to Tokyo to show off their products at one of Japan's largest fashion exhibition.

They came on a mission to use the logo "Ethiopian Highland Leather" on products to attract Japanese customers.

Ashagre Bekele is a product manager and a member of the Ethiopian delegation.

"It's good now starting the exhibition. We're ready," Bekele says.

The leather that comes from sheep raised in the country's highlands is considered some of the highest quality leather in the world. But Ashagre and others had little success exporting their products. So they decided to learn about Japanese tastes from designer Shunji Nagai.

Nagai has even visited Ethiopia 4 times over the past year.

"The first time I saw their products, I thought it would be difficult to sell them in Japan," said Shunji Nagai of BigHug. "I was pointing out what must have seemed to them like minor points. But, I think they've come to feel that what they were making was becoming really good."

At the exhibition, Ashagre showed off his top products that were designed with input from Nagai. Some 30 Japanese firms have expressed interest in business talks about Ethiopian leather items.

"We follow specification, ideas, everything. Even we'll change work style because they need difference," Bekele says.

The Ethiopians think that in order to increase sales, learning brand management is essential. So the leather producers took a good long look at a successful example of a Japanese regional brand.

The city of Imabari is Japan's number one towel producer. It's been this way for more than a century. But competition from China forced the towel makers to change how they did business.

Some100 towel producers decided to share the same logo -- Imabari Towel -- to strengthen brand recognition. Only products that have cleared strict quality standards can be labeled.

Since the change, the price range for the most popular towels has almost doubled. Now they sell at anywhere from $50 to $100 and production has also rebounded.

"Both our association and each maker were able to get results in a short period of time because we succeeded in developing the regional industrial brand," says Seiji Kondo of the Shikoku Towel Industrial Association.

For the Ethiopians, it was an eye-opening experience.

"This Imabari trend, for us, it's important," Bekele said. "Even the trend, customer, quality, everything is same. So we get to this knowledge. So for us, it's a big change."

Ashagre and others plan to set up criteria for using their brand logo before adding any more producers to their group. Their aim is to establish the brand as high quality and in high demand so they can become leading examples for the industry.