In the June-16-22nd issue of The Economist, the Schumpeter page has an interesting article entitled Zen and the art of carmaking . After spending over half of the page extolling the traditional craftsmanship, fine engineering, and high quality of Japanese-built products, the author abruptly moves to criticizing the Japanese for poor marketing, excepting Nissan, which apparently has a marketing budget as large as their R &D budget. The article comments on Toyota’s response to this by saying that “Toyota’s officials shake their heads at such flim flam. It is as if Japan’s two largest carmakers, one run by a diffident scion of the founding family, the other by a fast-talking French-Brazilian, were as different as East and West”.
How long can the “West” continue to encourage the “East” to act like they do? Detroit companies certainly have put a great deal of emphasis on marketing, as opposed to major innovations in their products, and look at what it did for them? The article mentioned Honda as an example of a traditional Japanese company. Honda has never acted as though it wanted to be an “American-style” automobile company. I am a long-time Honda fan, and my wife is more of one, having had a long love affair with a Honda CRX, and now an Acura TSX. The cars are reliable, nicely designed and finished, and hugely fun to drive. Honda’s hold on the motorcycle market has been strong for many years and they have moved nicely into outdoor power equipment including outboard marine engines, general purpose engines, generators, lawnmowers, pumps, snow blowers, tillers and trimmers for commercial, rental and residential applications..
I am not against marketing, but I would rather be Honda than General Motors. The Schumpeter article states “In emerging markets such as China, Japanese products and considered either over-engineered for the budgets of ordinary people, or lacking the baubles that delight the newly rich”. My response is that maybe there is a bit of sour grapes here. Historically, China does not love Japan, and it perhaps wishes that the ordinary people had more money and that the newly rich had less.
The “West”s attitude towards the “East”, has always been warped by lack of understanding. We are comfortable with eastern institutions that act more like the West, such as large global businesses. But when things approach Zen, or any other philosophy that is unique to the East, we can’t figure out why people don’t copy our values. I first visited Japan in 1956. I was in the Air Force, and a friend of mine and I had saved up a month’s leave, so we caught a military hop to Tokyo, ditched our uniforms, and played wandering college kid for a month. Having been raised midst anti-Japanese propaganda, and the villainous nature of the attack on Pearl Harbor, (I later learned it was only villainous if viewed through “Western” eyes. According to many philosophies of war, it was brilliant) I was unprepared for a culture with the history, sophistication, and aesthetic values of Japan – nor one that ate fish for breakfast, did not go to Church on Sunday, and could be so warm and friendly to representatives of those who blew away Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Also I was amazed at the success they were having in recovering from the war, especially in re-tooling their industries. A very impressive group of people, and I would hate to see them become as frantic about growth, short-term profit, and the selling of mediocre products as we have. A while ago I bought an aluminum step ladder at a reputable hardware outlet. The good news is that it is very light weight. The bad news is that it is incredibly fragile, and the pivots are all rivets that were set too tightly, so the process of putting it up or taking it down requires large forces which tend to bend structural members. It was made in Mexico. The name (brand?) of the ladder is Louisville – a common Mexican name? It is less than a mediocre product.
Although I certainly understand the importance of marketing to keeping the economy stirred up and allowing fast growth and large size for companies, I am pretty fed-up with marketing as it effects me right now, and am not at all looking forward to increasingly annoying pitches based on information-based utilizing data culled from myriads of sources and reduced by large mysterious companies such as Acxiom Corporation . The Schumpeter article reminded me of why I like Japan and its people, and other cultures that make outstanding craftsmen into National Living Treasures. Go-Honda.