Jul 6, 2016

How sushi chain Akindo Sushiro reels in customers

Behind the scenes of Japan's biggest conveyor-belt sushi chain and its empirical approach to marketing.

Image: Akindo Sushiro
Image: Akindo Sushiro

A lot of marketers in Japan target consumers based on a plethora of untested assumptions. But Akindo Sushiro, Japan’s biggest conveyor-belt sushi chain, has been reaping the benefits of focusing on backcast marketing, which draws on empirical purchase and other data from its restaurants.

Established in 1984, the company operates 419 restaurants around Japan and six in Korea. It is Japan’s sole big sushi chain without a central kitchen; it prepares all dishes within its restaurants. That commitment to freshness helped the company garner the top spot in the food and dining category of the Japan Customer Satisfaction Index in 2009 and 2011.

The company is renowned in restaurant circles for its marketing innovations. In 2002, for example, it deployed a system that captures data from electronic tags embedded in sushi plates to project demand in real time at each restaurant, reduce losses from waste, and produce diner bills faster.

What prompted Akindo Sushiro to deploy backcast marketing? “We concluded that conventional marketing techniques are simply not up to scratch," said Yoshihiro Morii, the company’s chief marketing officer. "They take tons of time to prepare, with very little to show in terms of spending in restaurants. And that’s even if you get sufficient recognition among target consumers through TV commercials or other vehicles. Because marketing is about reaching sales goals, we found it more useful to analyse what our customers have actually chosen and why they have visited our restaurants. By working backwards, we can refine our advertising messages to generate consumer recognition and spend.”

The company finds that backcasting works best when it combines two data sets. "One is the information that advertising agencies amass—recognition, consumer preferences, and behaviour," Morii said. "The other is the customer traffic and spend information that restaurant chains like ours, retailers and other companies accumulate.”

Akindo Sushiro can mine from a huge data trove. Every year, it serves around 120 million customers who consume a billion plates of its food. It knows the proportions of adults to children in its customer base, the number of people visiting each restaurant, and when, as well as what dishes they choose. Touch-panel devices at each table gather order details.

Another data accumulator is the Sushiro smartphone app, deployed in 2015. There have been more than 3 million downloads of the app, which allows people to book seats and know exactly when they will become available, avoiding long queues inside restaurants. The company combines this data with Sushiro app registration information, as well as what it learns from owned and social media, the email magazine, and other data-delivery channels.

The company is drawing on the app to build a customer-specific content marketing platform that links the email magazine and push notifications with consumption data at restaurants, offering points, mileage, stamps, and other incentives for each customer category. Morii said that the company went this way after concluding that restaurant chains have lost ground by clinging to coupon-driven CRM approaches that he thinks are inflexible.

Change is everything in Morii’s world. He notes that, “A conveyor-belt sushi chain has to cater for consumer needs that are as diverse as its lineup. You must constantly develop new menu items and enhance services. And because we’re mindful that any data is ultimately about the past, including the backcasting variety, we will likely have to tackle the challenges of deploying forecasting engines and the like to entice more customer spending well into the future.”

(Translated from Japanese by Mark Darbyshire)

English-language case studies from Japan are few and far between. In partnership with AdverTimes, a domestic marketing-industry publication, we aim to offer a better understanding of the type of work that resonates in the country. 


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