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Agenda Note talks to Masataka Shirakashi, owner of the Kenbishi brewery in Nada, and analyses the company’s 500 year history through the lens of the 4Ps of marketing: product, price, place and promotion.

The article starts off by asking the reader if they like “sake”. Then asks what they think of when they hear that word, as in Japanese it means “alcohol” in general.

If you go to the “sake” category on Amazon, the top 10 spots are held by beers, followed by whisky, sake and chuhai.

If you narrow your search to “Kobe ‘sake’ ”, things change. Suddenly it’s all sake. You’ve narrowed it down to Nada Gogō, famous for sake production. [Because of its relatively hard water.] And one of the breweries which has stood there for over 500 years, since the Muromachi Period, is Kenbishi.

Product: Flavour and logo unchanged for 500 years

They say that both living things and businesses survive by changing, but Kenbishi is the exception that proves the rule.

Shirakashi reflects that everything called new today is a rerun of something that was popular a long time ago. For example, some people have recently started drinking sake from wine glasses, but there are ukiyo-e prints from the Edo Period showing people drinking sake from bidoro. (Portuguese glassware.) He estimates that preferences come around again about every 50 years.

What’s hard is figuring out how to stay as you are, without change. For Shirakashi, the key is in the parent-child relationship. When the child starts wanting to surpass their parent, they stay true to what’s essential. Something you would only hear from a business passed down through the family for 500 years, where the family philosophy is strong. Shirakashi thinks of it as his corporate governance.

If you chase after trends and allow them to dictate how you act, you’ll eventually fall behind. A clock that’s slow is never right. But a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Customer preferences change over time, Shirakashi muses, but they always come back to the same point, again and again. So Kenbishi has confidence in itself and keeps producing the same flavours in accordance with his family precepts.

What stays the same isn’t just the flavour. Their logo is 500 years old as well. It’s described in the late Edo Period Chōkodōki [Record of Old Stores] as “jet black, the tip of a blade and a diamond drawn with a single stroke horizontally and vertically, unchanged from long ago”, and contrasted with other stores that change their colours every month.

Kenbishi were awarded the Good Design Long Life Award in 2016. The jury commented that such consistency over 500 years was surprising even among long-lived Japanese companies. It’s said the brewery adopted the symbol because rates of literacy were low at the time. The top shape represents a man and the bottom a woman, the harmony of male and female, but the outstanding design still has the power to move viewers today.

This unchanging nature is also reflected in the way Kenbishi brew. In a world that changes at breakneck speed, their secret to longevity is to keep things simple. And if they do have to change, to do so permanently.

Priced so anyone can enjoy it with a meal

Kenbishi has heard many times that increasing prices will increase the perceived value of their brand, but they’re not having any of it. Shirakashi speculates they would lose 500 years of trust – and the brand – in an instant. The family precepts are also against it, as they call for the sake to be priced so that the average consumer can afford it.

Only those inside the company know the cost price. Shirakashi points out that the information is asymmetrical, so the customer may be wondering if they’re losing out. So keeping the price affordable is very important.

The brewery selects its raw materials carefully and spends time and effort on keeping the flavour the same. There is no question of selling the rice growers and the skill and effort of their kurabito cheap. But if the price is too high, it takes the product away from the daily life of the average consumer. And for them, that’s not what sake is about.

Place: Overseas expansion to grow their market – or not?

Shirakashi has recently been travelling overseas, to places like France. You might think that expanding into overseas markets is a response to the shrinking Japanese population, but that’s the only reason. He’s actually using the trips to learn, investigating wine pairing in the food capital of Paris and how others explain it.

When a sommelier finds aromas of the Mediterranean or notes of earth in wine, it means the wine will go well with Mediterranean fish or dishes with mushrooms. The same principles apply when pairing in Japan.

You can say the same for sake, that the way it makes food taste better and makes conversation flow, the way it brings the good times is what it’s really about.

Another thing Shirakashi noticed is that time is the same for everyone. He often saw people overseas drinking from lunchtime, and it turns out that this was also the custom in Edo Period Japan. The ability to buy expensive things varies from person to person, but the luxury of giving yourself time to enjoy something is the same for everyone. And if he can communicate that well, it increases consumption of sake.

Part 2 focusing on promotion coming up next!