The soybean curd tofu has grown from being an Asian specialty to become a popular food in western markets. In this month's just-food interview, Rupert Sutton met with Shingo Ito, the president of Japanese tofu producer Otokomae Tofuten, which earlier this year took its unconventional approach to selling premium tofu into the US.

Even before meeting Shingo Ito, it is apparent that his company Otokomae Tofuten is anything but conventional. At the factory gate stands a large statue of "Jonny", a punk rocker lookalike and the hero of the tofu producer's eponymous Jonny brand. The reception is full of Jonny merchandise and fridges crammed with tofu for local sales, while all the staff sport T-shirts with a variety of Otokomae slogans and images. This seems to be the wrong place to be wearing a suit and tie.

"Jonny is my nickname," the charismatic president of Otokomae Tofuten explains, "and it is also the name of our lead tofu brand." Ito goes on to say that his passion for tofu was inherited from his father who also had his own tofu business. "When I set up Otokomae, I decided that taking the conventional approach, for example just focusing on the quality of our mineral water, the source of our soybeans, would not be unique. I wanted to be different and I wanted to sell high-quality tofu."

The tofu market in Japan, while large, has not been growing and in the last 30 years, over a third of producers, mostly regional, have gone out of business. Indeed, Otokomae Tofuten was formed in 2005 when Ito bought a bankrupt tofu producer. Ito puts the stagnant market and the business failures down to the commoditisation of the category, as manufacturers have just focused on price. Significantly, Otokomae's tofu retails at almost three times the price of other brands in Japan.

Initially, Otokomae Tofuten, which literally means "good-looking man's tofu shop", began selling in the Takashimaya department store in Futako Tamagawa, an upmarket residential area in the west of Tokyo. "When I saw the large car-park at that store, which was almost completely filled with imported cars," Ito recounts, "I knew consumers could afford premium items."

Otokomae developed packaging using its own designers, and not having any funds for traditional advertising, created an offbeat website featuring Japanese punk music. Even if you don't speak Japanese, a visit to www.otokomae.jp provides an insight into how to make a functional and health-orientated product relevant and attractive to young, affluent and fashion-conscious consumers. "Many punk bands have no other way to promote their music than to make very attractive and impactful CD sleeves," the 38-year-old entrepreneur explains. "I had to do the same with my tofu."

Otokomae Tofuten president Shingo Ito

Marketing initiatives like the website, developed in-house in Otokomae's rather idiosyncratic style, feature prominently in the company's overall marketing strategy. And Ito also has little truck with market research and other traditional methods. "We do not follow the approach used by most food companies," he says. "Initially many other retailers told me I was crazy, but I persisted and because Takashimaya Futako Tamagawa is frequented by Japanese celebrities. My products got noticed and the word spread." Sales snowballed from there, and in two years the company's turnover has grown to JPY6bn (US$50m). Otokomae now has four manufacturing plants in Japan and employs more than 350 people.

The vast majority of Otokomae's consumer base in Japan is female, which is ironic given the Jonny brand's overtly masculine attributes. The packaging is in the shape of a surfboard for example. Such is the success of the brand in Japan that the company can sell Otokomae-branded merchandise on its website, and has even had orders from overseas.

But Otokomae's success is not just down to clever marketing. Ito maintains that the commitment to developing the quality and taste of the product is just as important. "We continually develop and refine our products. In our factories we use tofu machinery developed by outside suppliers, but we make our own adjustments and improvements to further improve product performance."

There is a strong element of secrecy about this. When asked if he has registered patents to protect his processes, Ito says: "No, because in registering the patent, we have to reveal core elements of our know-how, which I don't want to do. That's why I won't let machinery suppliers into the factory otherwise they will see what changes we have made."

There is something of the zealot about Ito in his commitment to making quality tofu and demonstrating just how good this food can be. And while there may be financial objectives behind developing the brand overseas, Ito clearly sees spreading the word about tofu as a mission. "I want to make foreigners understand what delicious tofu tastes like," he says. "If one child can learn what good tofu is, then it will become part of their diet and the market will grow."

The priority export market for Ito is the US even though he speaks no English, and it comes as no surprise that the route to market has again been somewhat unconventional. Ignoring official Japanese export agencies, a method favoured by the vast majority of food and beverage companies from Japan, Ito personally approached Yaohan in New York and persuaded the retailer to buy direct. Yaohan later introduced Otokomae to the Hakata-based fish exporter Kyushu, so the two could combine shipments. "Tofu must be fresh and so must sashimi," Ito explains. "We are now shipping four times a week."

So far in the US, the company has focused on Japanese/ethnic retail and restaurant channels. Since launching in New York, Otokomae has expanded into Hawaii, Dallas, San Francisco and will shortly debut in LA. Further expansion is planned.

But the company is non-committal about building a plant Stateside. Ito explains that many Japanese Tofu makers have failed overseas, "mainly because they got into a price war with other Korean or Chinese tofu brands, rather than focusing on superior product benefits". Otokomae is anxious to avoid falling into the same trap.

Finally, when asked whether Otokomae would look to build on its strength in tofu and expand into other categories, Ito's response once again shows a rather single-minded commitment to tofu as a product. "No," he says simply, "we just want to focus on tofu." So far, that dedicated approach appears to have paid off.

 

Rupert Sutton is president of Exigo Marketing, an international management consultancy specialising in consumer products.