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Establishing Japanese-Style Innovation Theory to Bridge Technology and Marketing

Tomoko Kawakami
Professor, Graduate School of Business and Finance (Waseda Business School)

Achieving corporate competitive advantage through marketing

Working in product development at Minolta Camera (now known as Konica Minolta) after graduating college opened a path for me to become a marketing researcher. At Minolta, which had an established reputation for its technology, I was blessed with an opportunity to engage in marketing at a newly founded department aiming to develop new businesses in the basic research institute. Fortunately, I had the chance to experience developing and successfully marketing the world’s first copy machine in the global market. Passionate to study marketing more in-depth, I attended graduate school and obtained an MBA while having my baby looked after. I then went on to the doctoral program and earned my Ph.D. under the supervision of Professor Junzo Ishii (currently Professor Emeritus at Kobe University), whom I sincerely respect, and became a faculty member of Kansai University.

I have had a sustained interest in how to boost the competitive advantage of Japanese companies possessing high-tech prowess through marketing, an area that has been considered a weakness until now. Japanese companies are highly technology-oriented as they believe that well-manufactured products will sell well, but we are no longer in an age when businesses are able to sell products through technology alone. In order for companies to survive, it is vital that Japanese companies change their mindset, from just producing and sell products to encouraging engineers and researchers to innovate products by listening to customer voices.

One of the well-known marketing methods in Japan is, for example, Philip Kotler's Four Ps or Marketing Mix: product, price, promotion, and place. Many technical books on marketing are also available. Principally, these methods are designed for marketing non-durable consumer goods such as food and daily necessities, an area in which U.S. companies are strong. These are not sufficient for Japanese companies that mainly compete over cars, electric appliances and other durable consumer goods. Recently in the United States and European countries, various academic studies have been carried out in a wider range of marketing, but unfortunately, these are not fully introduced into Japan.

Among diverse areas in marketing, I specialize in product innovation, an area that focuses on how to create an innovative products and markets. For Japanese companies noted for their technological capabilities, innovation-oriented marketing is essential to gain competitive advantage. Innovation-oriented marketing, which is different from sales-led marketing, needs to be designed as a company-wide strategy covering all processes from basic research, planning, development, production and to sales. I have proposed a theoretical framework to encourage interaction between marketing and R&D over three stages of discovery, development and commercialization as suggested in the prior studies of product innovation. I believe this framework is helpful for companies to achieve long-term competitive advantage (See Figure 1). If companies appropriately implement marketing from the viewpoint of customer values, they will open up new markets beyond the boundaries of existing ones.

Figure 1: Marketing Innovation Process (MIP) Diagram (created by the author)
This diagram will be included in Marketing, written by Kawakami, Iwamoto, and Suzuki, which will be published in 2017 as part of Chuokeizai-Sha's Basic Plus Series.

Building research bases for Blue Ocean Strategy in Japan

I stayed as a visiting scholar at the University of Washington in Seattle for a year in 2003-2004. This opportunity became a turning point to clarify my interest as described above. The more I learned about overseas research, the more I became convinced that there is something truly special about Japanese companies and manufacturing, which are underpinned by its advanced technology that cannot be imitated elsewhere. Furthermore, innovation research from Japan should be disseminated more proactively. I came to constantly conduct research with global dissemination in mind, enthusiastically submit articles to globally recognized journals and actively took initiative for co-research with researchers in other countries.

In 2005, based on the content of my doctoral thesis and articles published in international meetings and journals, I put together research results in a book entitled Customer-Oriented New Product Development: Marketing-R&D Interface. I retrained my research skills during the stay in the U.S. so that I could present the results at global level. In the book, I developed my original theory based on the detailed studies on Japanese manufacturers. To my delight, the book was highly evaluated, and I received two academic awards: one from the Japan Society of Marketing and Distribution and the other from the Japan Academy of Business Administration. The book has been selling well and seems popular among businesspeople.

Customer-Oriented New Product Development: Marketing-R&D Interface written by Tomoko Kawakami (Yuhikaku Publishing, 2005)


Among 100+ papers presented at the 23rd Innovation and Product Development Management Conference (IPDMC) held in Paris in 2013, Professor Kawakami’s paper won the Best Paper Award. This was the first time she won an award at an international academic meeting, which encouraged her even more to disseminate research to the world.

The next turning point was my encounter with the Blue Ocean Strategy proposed by Professor W. Chan Kim and Professor Renée Mauborgne at the INSEAD Blue Ocean Strategy Institute (IBOSI). Besides red oceans, where cutthroat competition turns the ocean bloody, there are blue oceans or uncontested market space without any competition in the world (See Figure 2). Focusing on the fact that some companies have successfully created a blue ocean and monopolized competitive advantage over the years, the two researchers studied the conditions under which they achieved such success. As soon as the English version was published, Blue Ocean Strategy was immediately translated into Japanese. It became a best-seller, selling 3.5 million copies worldwide and bringing the strategy into the spotlight.

This photo was taken in front of the Blue Ocean Strategy Institute, located in the ISEAD building in the suburbs of Paris.

In fact, I visited INSEAD, where IBOSI was launched, in the suburbs of Paris when I went to France in the summer of 2010. At that time, Professor Kim happened to be in his office, and I was personally able to meet and speak with him. He brought up examples from Japan such as QB House and DOCOMO's i-mode in the book. As I discussed my interests with him, he said, "Let's dig up companies that have succeeded in Japan applying the blue ocean strategy together."

The Blue Ocean Strategy is an excellent theoretical framework for implementing strategies, but is not well understood in Japan. With intentions to have the essence of this strategy understood properly, I started my research on Japanese-style Blue Ocean Strategy. In April 2016, just one year after I was transferred to Waseda from Kansai University, I founded the Waseda Blue Ocean Strategy Institute (WABOSI). Professor Kim gave permission to use the term Blue Ocean Strategy and advised me to prefix the institute's name with Waseda. Many diverse members from inside and outside the University as well as from overseas participate in the institute, not to mention the Waseda Business School's faculty. I am now collecting BOS cases from various Japanese companies and writing case studies targeting at MBA courses to be distributed worldwide.

Figure 2: ERRC Grid, which denotes conditions that lead the Blue Ocean Strategy to success (Source: Prof. Kim and Prof. Mauborgne, 2013)

Figure 3: A Japanese translation of Blue Ocean Strategy, Expanded Edition: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, written by Professor Kim and Professor Mauborgne and published by Diamond in 2015. With new content added to it, this is its first new edition in ten years. Associate Professor Akie Iriyama, a member of WABOSI, was responsible for supervising the translation of the book.

Ensuring that theory and practice will develop together

Before coming to Waseda, I taught undergrads full of vitality at Kansai University in Osaka, west Japan. When I was a member of the faculty, I launched a full-fledged special overseas program for potential business leaders in collaboration with the University of Washington, in which students stayed in Seattle for a week, during which they took lectures, visited companies, gave presentations etc. as practical training at the University of Washington and Seattle-based companies such as Microsoft. The entire program was held in English. Hoping that such students would acquire the necessary knowledge and experience for future innovators, I put my heart into this program so much that the students described my lab as “seriously demanding that there seemed to be no time for sleep.”

At Waseda, my career took a sudden turn, and as a professor at the graduate school, now I am teaching working-adult graduate students who come from a wealth of experience in the business world as well as students from other countries. They provide inspiring information for my studies, enabling me to acquire profound knowledge of marketing and management on the spot through discussions and research activities. This is more fascinating for me than anything else. I plan to hold a large symposium on Blue Ocean Strategy in March 2017. For this event, I am working with top management at six companies. The age during which universities were called an "ivory tower" ended a long time ago. We aim to ensure that theory and practice will mutually grow so that businesspeople and academics can learn together.

Tomoko Kawakami
Professor at Waseda Business School (Graduate School of Business and Finance)

Tomoko Kawakami graduated from Osaka University with a bachelor’s degree in literature in 1988 and a Master’s degree in business and management in 1997. She obtained her Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Business Administration, Kobe University in 2000. In 1988, she joined Minolta Camera Co., Ltd. (current Konica Minolta), where she engaged in developing new businesses and marketing at the basic research institute. Dr. Kawakami joined in Kansai University in 2000 as a faculty member and was appointed professor at the Waseda Business School in 2015. She has held posts such as affiliated professor at the Foster School of Business, the University of Washington. She is the Director of the Waseda Blue Ocean Strategy Institute, ACI fellow at Nanyang Technological University, member of the editorial board for the Journal of Product Innovation Management, scientific member of International Product Development Management Conference, managing director of the Japan Marketing Academy, and director of the Japan Society of Marketing and Distribution.