Many would easily agree that “cool” is probably the most unlikely
choice for a word to describe the city of Osaka. Instead, it is
generally seen as a rather unrefined and monotonous
business city. As we attempt to look at Osaka from a perspective
of city branding, we inevitably face its overpowering stereotyped
image, which is marked with the nonsense comedy industry led by
the entertainment conglomerate Yoshimoto, as well as with the “kuidaore”
gastronomic culture illustrated by common favorites such as takoyaki
and okonomiyaki. While such conventional images indeed depict certain
sides of the city’s characteristics, a number of motivated individuals
continue their efforts to update its antiquated description.
Hideki Tominaga, CEO of SOZ CORPORATION, co, ltd., is among those
people. Tominaga is determined to deliver a new, cool image of Osaka,
expressing his personal attachment to the city in a phrase “MADE
IN OSAKA, JAPAN” and overlapping it with the image strategy for his
own products. With its sophisticatedly designed products, SOZ has
successfully expanded its market worldwide in its casual way of promoting
the international recognition of Osaka. So what is the secret of
SOZ’s successful strategy?
Tominaga, who is in early thirties, took over a toy assembling
business from the printing company of his relatives and founded
his own company in 2004. The name of the company, SOZ, is derived
from the Japanese word, “SOZO (creation).” For SOZ, creativity
is the most important key concept. Their products are inscribed
with the catchphrase, “ART TOY FOR CREATORS,” on their packages.
The company’s feature product series, CARPENTER BLOCK, is a set of
flat blocks, which, unlike conventional ones in cubic form, provide
more freedom to create objects. While the product was originally
marketed as an educational toy for children, the renewal of its packaging
design eventually became the onset of the product branding. The story
began when one student from a design college asked Tominaga if he
could design a new package for the blocks. With his firm belief in
the potential of the product, Tominaga accepted the student’s proposal,
which led to a smart-looking new package that sufficiently appeals
to adults’ sensibility. An innovative, sophisticated image of the
blocks was further enhanced by developing additional products such
as an easy kit and a guide booklet.
The renewed CARPENTER BLOCK gradually started attracting public attention.
Last April, the company opened its direct store in the shopping complex
of Namba, Osaka, where a wide range of customers come and buy the
blocks as a gift for children or as a new addition to a room’s décor.
Depending on the combination of the blocks’ sizes, shapes, and colors,
the product can be enjoyed in a variety of ways to create small objects
such as animals and pen stands or larger items such as lamp shades,
stools, and counter tables. Such diversity is obviously the key to
the product’s appeal to different generations, which is not the case
of traditional blocks.
was born and raised in Osaka. His attachment to his hometown became
even stronger when he lived in Tokyo for about two years in the
late 1990s because of his job at that time. Every time he returned
Osaka, he felt the city looked terribly deserted. When compared
to colorful Shibuya and Harajuku, the dryness of Osaka looked more
obvious and bothered him.
- Didn’t Osaka used
to be brighter?
- This is not what Osaka should
It broke Tominaga’s heart and made him sad to see his hometown
losing its original liveliness. From history books that he often
enjoys reading, he has come to believe that Osaka today should
be a dynamic city full of potential as shown in the past. His passion
for his hometown eventually became the basis of “MADE IN OSAKA,
JAPAN,” an inspiring message that is found on SOZ’s product packages
and paper bags.
Other than the “MADE IN OSAKA, JAPAN” inscription on the product
packages, Tominaga’s commitment to Osaka is found in many examples.
His refusal of any proposals to open a direct store in Tokyo, which
he started receiving as the SOZ brand becomes stronger, tells it
all. “I see no merits in opening a company store in Tokyo just
for profit,” said Tominaga. While the number of retailers dealing
with SOZ products continues to rise nationwide, he has no plan
to open a direct store outside Osaka. Instead, his focus has been
on the global market. He aims to establish access to the world
directly from Osaka, not via Tokyo.
Tominaga tells us about an e-mail which he received one day from
Europe. He was about to delete it along with other spam mails. However,
he had an unusual feeling about the email and decided to read the
message, written in an unknown language, which turned out to be a
business offer from France. The business relationship has continued
to grow since then, leading to the purchase of CARPENTER BLOCK by
Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris as its permanent collection. The blocks
are now sold at fifteen locations overseas, including the museum
shop at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
Tominaga expresses his doubts about the trend in today’s manufacturing
industry to shift production bases to China and Southeast Asia for
cheaper labor costs. “I will stick to MADE IN OSAKA and want to be
true to its name,” said Tominaga. “If we decide to open our production
bases to China, we will also establish a system to utilize ‘soft
powers’ such as ideas and skills that local Chinese people have.”
Tominaga devotes himself especially to the development of the concept
as well as the image strategy for his products, from packaging design
to marketing methods. His efforts for brand control have brought
back the positive reputation of CARPENTER BLOCK as a “cool” item
in overseas markets. Tominaga hopes that a new image of Osaka as
a cool city will grow internationally along with the popularity of
his products. Today, Osaka is still far from being called a globally
recognized city. However, a simple print of “MADE IN OSAKA, JAPAN”
on Tominaga’s products makes us expect that the world may come to
know more about Osaka via this new impression. Our admiration and
encouragement goes to Tominaga and other passionate individuals who
continue with their actions and efforts believing that they can make
a positive change for their beloved city.
|July 3, 2007
Text by Michi Komura, Osaka Brand Center
(original text written in Japanese)