At the ripe old age of 123, Yoshinoya can lay claim to being the oldest fast-food chain in the world: a survivor of Japan’s low-end culinary battle for a 24-hour meal on a budget. The competition between ladles of cheap and comforting bowls from gyudon the beef over rice is intense and Yoshinoya has always prevailed.
But a dismayed nation is now wondering: is the secret ingredient in this beloved dish actually a big pinch of contempt?
Yoshinoya’s fall from grace was caused – at least superficially – by Masaaki Itōa managing director of the company dubbed a “marketing guru” by the Japanese media in a way that ensures the description looks dirty.
Ito’s offense, which Yoshinoya condemned as “completely unacceptable” (but only after the social media outrage became unsustainable), occurred during a lecture he was giving at a university in elite to a public of professionals paying handsomely for this privilege. The challenge, he reportedly said, was to come up with a strategy that “gets clueless young girls off the hooked sticks. gyudon like drug addicts. The window to secure such a dependency, he continued, was short because these ingenuous rednecks would no longer want gyudon once men started treating them to more expensive restaurants.
The existence of deep-seated sexism in Japanese companies was not the big reveal here, although the volume and immediacy of public outrage was heartening. Rather, it was Ito’s inclusion of the particularly jarring and visceral words for “young girls” and “addicted”—terms that gave his verbal image such repulsive liveliness. And this is where things get complicated.
Ito, accompanied by a creeping apology from the company, was promptly fired. Yoshinoya is clearly hoping this is a move that will allow him to disguise the episode as a one-man madness, rather than expose the trade secret that the game the fast food company is in (and that it winning for decades) requires deep reserves of cynicism and ugliness. .
Consider — without forgiving his vocabulary — Ito’s marketing challenge from an investor’s perspective. Japan’s population is irrevocably shrinking and the men, by and large, need no convincing that a bowl of fatty beef over rice, gobbling up on a lighted counter, is worth $5 well spent. If there is national growth for the business to be found anywhere, it is among the young, cash-strapped female population who have yet to realize what they are missing.
Then there’s the fact that, even if they resist saying the words out loud, investors can see the appeal of the kind of customer addiction Ito was aiming for – especially in the fast food industry. , where fortunes in R&D are spent to painstakingly calibrate flavor, texture, fat and sugar content to make products addictive.
Yoshinoya is far from being at the forefront of this. A World Health Organization 2016 paper lamented that while the food, marketing and digital industries had access to fine-grained analysis of children’s behavior and exposure to foods high in fat, salt and sugar, external researchers were excluded from this information, “[increasing] power imbalances between industry and public health”.
For a Yoshinoya shareholder, firing Ito will be seen as an absolute necessity in terms of restoring customer confidence, but a blow to the company’s efforts to forge ahead in the years to come.
But the rage caused by the incident reveals the extraordinary secret success of the Japanese marketing industry. Even now, much of the public may choose to conclude that cynical, brutally conceptualized disregard for customers is somehow the exception rather than the rule.
One of the pillars of this success has been the industry’s relentless weaponization of the concept of kawaii — the “cuteness” attributed to cartoon megastars like Hello Kitty and used to sell just about anything to consumers of all ages. The triumph of this approach, and its ability to launder some of the dirtiest marketing gimmicks, lies, to some extent, in the complicity of consumers.
Most telling of all, however, is Yoshinoya’s spring campaign that just launched. The major image overhaul aims to appeal to younger female customers with a calculated, cute slogan and a range of dishes that are supposed to be more suited to their tastes. At the forefront of this campaign is an actor-model with a huge teenage fanbase and a firm grip on the kawaii current crown. This, of course, was something Ito will have overseen in his role as marketing supremo: cast from beyond the career grave, built on a thought process that revolted a nation, and that will almost certainly kawaii himself straight to the heart of his target audience.