Okuchi Distillery Reaches for New Markets

Okuchi Distillery Reaches for New Markets

Okuchi Distillery CEO Koichi Yamada has been working overtime to find and develop new markets for the company's many premium shochu products. He spends a lot of time flying between Kagoshima and Hong Kong, but these days he has his eyes squarely fixed on Taiwan.

Every Market Presents a New Challenge
Exporting internationally presents some obvious obstacles, but others are a bit trickier to predict. Okuchi Distillery once developed a shochu product specifically for the Chinese market but has since ceased production. When Zipangu asked him why, Mr. Yamada commented,"Our customers here in Japan got jealous and demanded that we sell it here, too." So they stopped bottling it altogether. That is the firm's only true example of creating or altering a product or advertising campaign to fit a particular target market. Shipping to the US requires bottling in 750 ml bottles rather than the 720 and 900 ml bottles more commonly found in Japan, but that's not a calculated adjustment to appeal to a new audience. Okuchi continues to ship its products mostly as is, minor label alterations notwithstanding.

It goes without saying that new markets will require a tailored message to help educate non-Japanese customers about the world of premium shochu. Mr. Yamada and his team are keenly aware of that, and not just because overseas sales have remained relatively constant since Okuchi Distillery started international shipping more than a decade ago. Marketing the company's flagship brand,"Kuro Isanishiki," in the United States and Thailand naturally involves two different breeds of finesse.

"Creating interest in shochu and increasing the amount of foreign-language information available on the Internet are the industry's biggest challenges at this point," he said.

Seeding Shochu Interest Abroad
Mr. Yamada has some ideas though. On August 22nd he helped organize a"Shochu Train" in downtown Kagoshima City where non-Japanese residents could enjoy shochu from several distilleries while touring around the city in an old-school tram. The event was a huge success, and more domestic events are in the planning stages. He hopes to leverage non-Japanese residents' excitement to help transmit information about shochu to their families and friends abroad, and getting tipsy on an antique streetcar was something that the guests were more than happy to write home about.

A similar approach can be found in how Okuchi Distillery finds new export opportunities. Mr. Yamada helps organize and participates in shochu tastings and events that are likely to generate media attention which will eventually be picked up by news outlets abroad. Requests for more information about the company's products routinely reach him via email, and new leads often follow.

Tapping the Shochu Minds at Home
However, the energetic and constantly traveling CEO is also a fan of generating ideas organically from his office and distillery floor staff. He has started a series of free-form meetings where staff are encouraged to share their ideas about new products, marketing, and event concepts. One such meeting took place on August 23rd and featured Koichi Sakaguchi, a graduate school professor at Kyushu University in Fukuoka. His presentation highlighted the ways that shochu is being featured at events around the country and also included information about what major companies worldwide are doing to expand their businesses. A brainstorming discussion followed and Mr. Yamada plans on continuing the meetings to coax new ideas from the people that he employs.

He's also teaming up with 13 other distilleries to charter a ferry and pack about 500 guests on it to drink shochu together this fall. Teaming up with like-minded competitors was a constant theme during our discussion. Indeed, teamwork strategy is likely to pay dividends because transmitting shochu's story, even to places with a strong affinity for all things Japan like Taiwan, will be a real slog for companies attempting to develop new markets on their own.

"Taiwan is an attractive market because the people there are very interested in Japanese culture and products. But all of us, the industry together, we need to do better," he explained."Overseas marketing is just 1% of our costs right now. My goal is to boost that to 10% soon."


Mr. Yamada holds a weekend's supply of "Kuro Isanishiki.


A large traditional kuro joka (black kettle) used to heat shochu over an open flame.


Professor Sakaguchi talks about shochu promotion and innovation at Okuchi Distillery.


An assortment of Okuchi's most famous brands.

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