TOKYO - Kan Taniguchi, formerly the marketing director of acclaimed independent Japanese agency Tugboat, is launching a consultancy with the primary aim of helping Japanese artisans grow their business internationally.
Taniguchi’s venture is an expansion of Ichigoichie Galerie, which started out as an art gallery and showcases the work of selected master craftspeople. It will also promote Japanese creativity in a broader sense, and help international businesses looking to establish their brands in Japan.
Ichigo ichie is a Japanese saying that derives from the tea ceremony, meaning to ‘treasure every encounter’ when entertaining people. “This is how we want the people we work with and their customers to feel,” Taniguchi said.
Taniguchi spent 16 years at Tugboat, including a stint in London. He began his career in marketing at McCann Erickson, where he worked in alliance with Wieden + Kennedy to launch Nike in Japan. He joined Tugboat around the time of its foundation. The agency is today one of the world’s most highly regarded independent shops.
Taniguchi said his split with Tugboat is on the best possible terms and that he plans to continue to use the agency’s services in his new venture. He said Tugboat’s decision to focus on the Japanese market, rather than trying to grow internationally, was a spur to move onto a new challenge independently.
The new business will function through a collaborative model, which Taniguchi believes strongly in. While Ichigoichie itself is likely to remain very small, Taniguchi plans to draw on a large network for the development and execution of creative work. He gave the example of a recent initiative he led for Pernod Ricard at Tugboat, which combined outside talent with Tugboat’s existing team, as an example of this approach. He noted that over the years, he had built up extensive connections with potential collaborators globally.
“Bringing people together is the future,” Taniguchi said. “You can’t just have creators in your office waiting until they’re needed. It’s actually better that they’re all outside…You need specialists to pull the best out of something.” Still, he admits that finding the exact right talent for a project would not be easy and the model will require time and some trial and error.
Taniguchi’s focus on helping artisans stems from personal interest. “I want to do something bigger than just advertising and branding,” he said. “I want to do something that really helps society. I don’t want to see all these traditional artisans with beautiful skills die out. No one in Japan cares about these things but there’s lots of interest from outside Japan. They have to find a way to show these things to the world.”
A challenge for Taniguchi, of course, will be making money from businesses that have probably never had a marketing budget. Branding has never been much of a concern for Japanese craftspeople, who used to be able to make a living “just by doing what they’re good at”, Taniguchi said. “Now that these things are dying, they need to make more effort to talk and explain to the world. Japan in general is not so good at selling itself.”
He said France offered a good model for this by making local produce or crafts an inherent part of the promotion of regional areas. This helps define the character of different places, rather than presenting everything as simply being French, he explained.
Having once considered becoming a pottery artist himself, Taniguchi is adamant that crafts need explanation in order for people to appreciate them. He gave the example of lacquer ware, which can seem similar to plastic but “costs 100 times more”. “There’s meaning to lacquer, but if you don’t communicate it, people won’t value the difference,” he noted.
Speaking about Japanese brands more generally, Taniguchi said he thinks they make a mistake in still trying to be ‘Western’. With international appreciation of Japan high, ‘Japaneseness’ can be a valuable asset that adds credibility and can actually be a shortcut to becoming international, he suggested. Uniqlo’s katakana spelling of its logo, for example, signals pride in national heritage and “describes the future of what Japanese companies should be”.
“You don’t want to be a rip-off of something else—you want to be original,” he said. But to communicate that originality effectively requires a change in mindset to think more from the consumer’s perspective. “You have to think, ‘how will the target receive this message’, instead of ‘this is the message I want to send out,” he said.