The Lessons of Kikkoman Soy Sauce

The ambassador of Japanese food, the trailblazer of the Japanese food industry's global reach: those are just a couple of the ways to describe 92-year-old soy sauce company Kikkoman. The company is made up of eight family-owned businesses that started making soy sauce and bean paste back in the early 17th century in Noda, Chiba Prefecture; it is now the world's largest soy sauce maker with seven production facilities around the globe, including in the U.S., China, and the Netherlands, and reported sales of 413.9 billion yen.

Until 1957, when it set up Kikkoman International in San Francisco, the company operated for almost 350 years in the domestic market only. What has helped it become a global business that now earns over 60 percent of its operating profit from abroad?

The first secret of its success is its vigorous effort to become a local company abroad. Despite fierce objections from within the organization, management followed a clear vision for the future; instead of becoming just another foreign company in the U.S., Kikkoman actively integrated itself to become a local operation, says Uzaburo Mogi, the company's chairman.

The first secret of its success is its vigorous effort to become a local company abroad. Despite fierce objections from within the organization, management followed a clear vision for the future; instead of becoming just another foreign company in the U.S., Kikkoman actively integrated itself to become a local operation, says Uzaburo Mogi, the company's chairman.

In achieving this, the company kept the number of staff from Japan to a minimum -- even HR managers were Americans. And for Americans who had never experienced soy sauce, Kikkoman tried to make the product accessible. It set up sample counters with steaks cooked in soy sauce at supermarkets, published cookbooks that focused on the use of soy sauce, and sponsored cooking shows on cable TV and singed a sponsorship contract with Disneyworld.

As part of its marketing strategy, Kikkoman boosted its brand image by airing primetime commercials during U.S. presidential campaigns. Research and development was also an area of focus. R&D centers and U.S. distributors developed soy sauce recipes, printed them on pamphlets, and distributed them widely to food critics, supermarkets, and the press. Teriyaki sauce for Americans who enjoy barbecue was a result of one of these efforts.

Kikkoman's efforts to become a truly localized company still continue. Among its latest introductions are a sweet soy sauce developed in partnership with prestigious cooking schools and restaurants for the European market and a premium soy sauce with herbal ingredients developed in partnership with Singapore National University. The company projects that annual sales, currently at 400,000 kl, will rise 1 million kl by 2020.

Kikkoman's success has made a critical contribution to the global success of Japanese food. Mogi points out that it is hard to imagine sushi or sashimi in the U.S. or Europe without Kikkoman. The company has leveraged the growing popularity of Kikkoman by convincing people that the soy sauce complements fancy Japanese food like sushi and sashimi. 

How about Korea? Donning an apron, President Lee Myung-bak promoted Korean cuisine during the ASEAN Summit in Jeju earlier this month. Another measure aimed at taking Korean food to the world was organizing a responsible committee which convened last month.

In the works is a kimchi research center, to be built at a cost of W56 billion (US$1=W1,276), but the project has not made much progress. A spiciness scale for Korean chili paste, which has been considered a first step toward making Korean food globally palatable, is on the verge of being discarded amidst conflict between two companies involved. No Korean food company achieves overseas sales of $200 million for a single food product.

Kikkoman has played a critical role in taking Japanese food to the world. Without a company like Kikkoman with strong entrepreneurial spirit and determination, Korean food can never become truly global.

By Song Eui-dal from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

englishnews@chosun.com / 6 23, 2009 13:15 KST