At 100, Panasonic's future looks a lot more complex and challenging than much of the past century has been. The company has a history of innovation, and the brand is still strong, particularly in Asia judging by Campaign's latest Asia's Top 1000 Brands ranking.
But as with all large corporations, the pioneer spirit that shaped the organisation can become buried and sometimes needs reawakening. Part of its efforts to do this include the recent formation of a design headquarters in Kyoto, and of a design strategy and insights team in London called Flux.
Campaign Japan spoke to Takehiro Ikeda, creative director of Panasonic Design and director of Flux, about the role design will play in the brand's future. Ikeda joined Panasonic in April after nearly 11 years at Seymourpowell in London.
What does the move in Kyoto and London do for Panasonic as a brand?
Thinking about the Panasonic brand, we want to talk about living an inspired life, a cultured life. For the last few decades, the company has produced products and gadgets to fill out life. Looking forward, people are looking for more human solutions and cultural solutions. Instead of technology, they are looking for quality of life. Technology should be hidden. A place like Kyoto is known as Japan’s cultural capital city. It’s important to have access to that heritage. Kyoto reminds us of the quality of life we used to have in Japan and suggests what we can do to tailor those assets of culture for the next generation.
London on the other hand—we see it as important to have a satellite office there to understand the cultural values Europeans aspire to. Japanese people need to be able to understand that so we can mix the quality of Japanese culture and European assets. We don’t see London as the capital of England but as the cultural hub of Europe.
Most people now seem to look to Silicon Valley for inspiration, so it’s interesting that you chose these places.
We have a few activities there. We’re not ignoring tech innovation but we do think cultural values are just as important. Tech innovation is a way to do things, but what we need to think of is, what’s the value of it for the next generation. We need to think about what kind of life, what kind of culture we want to create for that generation.
Design is not the first thing people associate Panasonic with. What does the discipline mean for you and how important will it be in shaping the brand from now on?
In terms of our design team, we need to think not just about shaping objects. I think there are four steps to the design process: insight, strategy, creation and storytelling. Often, huge teams are dedicated to looking at creation but not necessarily the others. Internal storytelling is really important for Panasonic. We need to have an emotional bond to bring people together and push things forward. Communicating a new concept to consumers is important, but having an internal method of communicating is just as important. This is very new to Panasonic and to any large organisation in Japan. Japanese industry in particular needs this function. Companies like Apple and Dyson have a clear top-down structure. Panasonic is more bottom-up. With that structure, we need more storytelling internally.
What will be key to setting Panasonic apart from other appliance makers in this age of commoditisation?
I think we have a licence to talk about family more than other big brands. I don’t think Panasonic is a brand that shows off. It’s more about ‘us’ than ‘I’. Panasonic is looking at the home as a new business domain that includes sharing and other parts of service. We are trying to think about the big picture: the new requirements for people living in cities, for example. People may want to lease appliances rather than buy them. What I’m trying to say is, we’re not thinking about the home in the traditional manner.
What new categories do you see the biggest opportunity to innovate in?
As creative director I’m looking at a lot of products and services and I’ve identified three pillars—beauty, wellbeing and entertainment. I see these as Panasonic’s main values. But what I think Panasonic’s strength can be is where those values integrate. We can start integrating what we’ve done in the past—entertainment with cooking assets, for example. If we start mixing things, we can talk about how to amplify the dining experience with certain lighting, or music; or certain visual elements that can help with cooking, or enhance the enjoyment of eating. Or thinking about beauty, it could be a smart mirror you interact with. So crossing these values is something at the top of Panasonic Design’s business strategy.
It’s never easy to change a large organisation. In Panasonic, the momentum is here, but it doesn’t last forever. These coming two years or so are pretty critical. If we miss this wave, I don’t think there’s going to be a next one.