Last year marked Panasonic’s debut at SXSW. The Japanese electronics giant, which is now celebrating its centennial, showcased various conceptual products in an effort to test their viability. A broader aim was to loosen up as a brand and rethink how it markets its wares: firstly by encouraging younger employees to initiate their own projects, and secondly by inviting the outside world in before things are officially signed off.
The company is about to head back to Austin for another round. Masa Fukata, the director of Panasonic’s Game Changer Catapult, a division set up to foster experimental projects and innovation, says taking part in SXSW was energising.
Given Panasonic’s stature in Japan, its approach is something other Japanese companies grappling with ‘transformation’ can learn from. Fukata says taking part in SXSW, and most importantly interacting with others there, forced him to consider “why we are doing business”. Essentially, he says he came to the realisation that people aren’t interested in the product features of home appliances, but in solving social issues. “What we are doing has been about solving social issues from the beginning, but in the meeting room we tend to forget that,” he says.
He gives the example of a food softener for people with difficulty swallowing, a concept Panasonic recently developed. “It may be a small market, but if we talk about it in the US, many people can relate to it. So maybe the worldwide market wouldn’t be that small,” he says.
Fukata says the typical trade-show mindset with which large companies approach events ultimately does little for potential customers or the company itself. He puts emphasis on interacting with people not so much to sell them products or ideas, but to listen. “If we want to invent new services, we need to welcome more people from the outside,” he says.
The other important aspect is building empathy, he says, especially if the company wants to appeal to younger customers. Without empathy for an idea, people will never be prepared to pay high prices for something. That starts with interaction with the developers, not dealers or sales people.
“Our guys had to go to SXSW and explain their ideas personally, then have a discussion,” he says. “People like to listen to the actual people who develop the ideas. It’s not about businesses but about people making ideas. People like the exchange of opinions and [this can lead to] the creation of communities.
“Typically we talk about product planning and marketing—we talk about lots of techniques, but in the modern world, it’s more important to think about how to create empathy between people. The story behind a product idea or the people behind it can be very important.”
It’s as if Panasonic’s experimental work aims to yield stories. One concept in progress is the globalisation of Japanese rice ball culture. Promoting rice balls and pickles in the US would ultimately sell more rice cookers, but the hardware becomes a secondary focus to the cultural element of changing what schoolchildren eat for lunch, for example. Something else Panasonic—improbably—thinks has global potential is the fundoshi: traditional Japanese male underwear.
It’s big picture thinking and much of it may prove too far-fetched, but Fukata believes airing these ideas publicly is important. He still faces challenges internally. While the company is generally supportive, “lots of people still don’t get these ideas so we continue to push,” he says. “Many people still say, what is the actual business you created? Financial people expect financial return in the short term, but [that leads to] small ideas. If we want to make something big, we can’t expect a short-term return.”
He points to the academic theory of exploitation versus exploration at big corporations. “Many spend too much time on exploitation,” he says. “It’s important to spend time exploring.”