Walk into any 7-Eleven store in Japan, and you'll see shelves and shelves of noodles—much like you would see shelves devoted to soda in a store in the U.S. Noodles are a lucrative business in Japan and they have spawned thousands of well-known brands. Recently, however, a new packaging trend has emerged in noodle marketing, and it might very well redefine the entire fast-moving consumer goods category.
This is what's happening. There are hundreds of thousands of noodle packs on supermarket shelves, each one featuring a portrait. The portrait is not of just anyone, but rather it features a recognizable local chef. What's more, the noodles take their name from the chef's restaurant and the whole pack is styled around the restaurant's identifying colors and typography.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the popular television program Celebrity Chef has taken over the noodle business, but I'm not talking about a handful of cooking maestros. No, what I'm referring to is a very large group of thousands of celebrity chefs. Surprisingly, food corporations are no longer using their own brand names. Instead they have chosen to represent the many different brands of small neighborhood restaurants.
Since noodles are to the East what sandwiches are to the West, thousands of noodle restaurants have over the years developed their own clientele. In addition to the way the noodles taste, the way they are prepared and served also helps create a loyal following amongst the locals. These regular noodle-eaters have no trouble distinguishing noodles from restaurants a few blocks apart. The connoisseurs are equally adept at recognizing a rice noodle from a buckwheat noodle from a potato noodle.
It was this loyalty that a large food manufacturer sought to harness, and affix to their own declining national brand. The company sent out teams to speak to many thousands of local noodle restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka. They convinced the chefs to share their recipes. In exchange, the manufacturer packaged and personally branded the restaurants' noodles with their name and a picture of their chef.
With the help of the manufacturer, many of these small restaurants have now become national brands. They now have their own merchandising line, nationwide distribution, and of course, whatever notoriety that comes with it. Now every restaurateur has potentially millions of customers, even if their 20-seat establishment can't physically serve them. In theory, every consumer has access to even the smallest of restaurants tucked away in the most inaccessible alleyways.
This trend in Japan is at least one step ahead of the most advanced customized brands in the world—names such as Nike, BMW, and Lego. With their concepts DreamtByMe, BuiltByMe, and DesignByMe, Lego has created products that can be individually designed by the customer. Using downloadable Lego software, customers specify their own kit and design the container that will arrive at their front door.
Keeping the Japanese noodle model in mind, it's easy to see how the most popular online Lego designs soon make their way to the retail store. One can only imagine the pride that comes from designing a Lego item online that finds its way into an offline store. You could take this one step further. Why not put an image of the kid who designed it on the box, and name it after them? That would make Lego the first toy company in the world to brand individual kids, and fully embrace them into the Lego family. Imagine how Twitter and Facebook would ignite with the intricate details of such an event.
Perhaps this sounds like I'm getting a little ahead of myself, a bit pie in the sky ... but just possibly you've had a glimpse into a future, a place where the brands of tomorrow will all be personally customized. Let us not forget that there's a whole new generation of consumers emerging who takes it for granted that everyone of a certain age has a personal page on Facebook. This same generation has grown up with brands like Jones Soda who made it possible for kids to have their own label designed for the sodas they'd have at a party. Not to forget NikeID—"You design it. We build it"—was introduced nearly 10 years ago. It allowed the consumer to customize their sports shoe by selecting materials, colors, and peculiarities of fit.
The notion of personally customized brands is beginning to take hold, and the next step along this trajectory seems blindingly obvious. In an environment where the consumer has become more powerful than the brand, and a single consumer disaster can imperil the revenue of an entire company, smart brands out there will systematically align themselves with the consumer.
Companies will embrace their most loyal fans by giving them a real sense of ownership. The Coca-Cola Company did something similar with Vitaminwater. They began by giving ownership to a carefully selected group of celebrities, including Ellen DeGeneres. This ownership is no longer confined to a small group of celebrities. Every Vitaminwater customer has the potential to claim that right.
After all, if a company can enlist the help of its most loyal fans to build their brand, why not introduce payment for the service? It's not likely to ever match the cost of a conventional marketing spend, and the message would be on target to those most receptive. Only one question remains. Who has the courage to take that big step and fully hand over the ownership of the brand to consumers? It's just a matter of time, but once it happens the brand landscape will shift irreversibly.
Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best—seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.
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