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Toshihiko Miura

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From Contents to Context: The Potential of Context Design Strategy

Toshihiko Miura
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Marketing Theory, Consumer Behavior Theory

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The power of context that surpasses contents

In November of last year, my research colleagues and I published Context Design Strategy (Fuyo Shobo Shuppan).

The concept of that work was "from contents to context", an idea advocated by my co-editor, Tamotsu Harada, Professor at Tama Graduate School of Business. Put another way, it refers to the shift from the design of individual products (contents) to the design of their context instead.

As an example, the case of Xerox Corporation in the USA as told by Mr. Harada is a very interesting one. In the past, although Xerox had detailed repair manuals that could address any type of mechanical trouble with their copy machines, they were somehow unable to provide repair service that satisfied their customers. The reason for this was that even if the same type of mechanical problem occurred, its cause would differ greatly depending on how the machine was used by customers, and their manuals, which determined repair methods unambiguously according to problems as seen on the surface, ended up not being very useful. Xerox then revised its mentality to place importance on restoring the mutual relationship between customers and machines instead of just trying to repair mechanical problems, and it is said that "Don't fix machines, fix customers." became the new slogan of the Xerox repair technicians. That is to say, their work changed from repairing only copy machines themselves (contents) to repairing the customer-machine relationships (context), and it was this context-based viewpoint that allowed them to gain customer acceptance.

In the BtoB workplace, the word solutions has actually been a keyword for more than 10 years now, and this way of thinking perfectly shows the idea of context. For instance, the Xerox company mentioned above sells copy machines, but it does not simply sell those machines as individual products. Along with, of course, repair and maintenance services, it also provides an efficient office as a single solution (context) with added printer functions and overall management via PC. The slogan mentioned earlier can thus be rephrased as "Don't sell machines, sell customer relationships."

Don't sell individual products, sell context

This type of context-based thinking shows even more power when looking at consumer goods. The basic concept is that instead of selling by individual products (contents), selling is carried out using context that illustrates a story (world view) or lifestyle. For example, Suntory's Iyemon tea taken as an individual product (content) may not have striking differences compared to the tea of its competitors (of course, Suntory may have its own specific preferences for tea leaves, water, manufacturing processes, etc., but other companies make efforts in these areas as well). However, through elements such as (Masahiro) Motoki and (Rie) Miyazawa's Iyemon couple, the traditions of Kyoto's Fukujuen, and packaging which looks like a bamboo cylinder, Suntory created a story (context) about the traditions of Japanese tea, and offered consumers a product with completely different values than its competitors. Consumers were not simply buying tea - they were buying the story (world view) of the traditions of Japanese tea, which ultimately led to their success.

Furthermore, although it is only in the idea phase, a lifestyle proposal for a refreshed morning, as related to me by an acquaintance at the Kai Corporation, is also an excellent example of context. If Kai was to sell its razor products simply as individual items, it would have a very difficult time competing against its two top rivals, Schick and Gillette. However, if the context of a refreshed morning could be created instead of selling just the individual product, with the addition of shaving brushes and aftershave lotion as well as uplifting music to set the mood before a new day, it might be possible to acquire widespread consumer support. Again, this means that instead of selling razors alone (individual products), they would sell the idea of a refreshed morning (context).

A variety of context design strategies

Even though creating context rather than selling individual products is what is needed now, there are many different ways to create such context.

One example is Choco-Vege (dipping vegetables in a pot of chocolate sauce, to try to overcome children's dislike of vegetables), a collaboration between Meiji and the Japan Vegetable Sommelier Association, which can be considered a context design based on translation. By translating and adapting the context associated with fondue or chocolate fondue, preparing it oneself and having a fun time eating it with others, a new context of dipping vegetables in chocolate sauce was created and is enjoying success.

Even AKB48 can be regarded as using a process-based context design. When idols made their debut in the past, their image and character were already complete to a certain extent, but in the case of AKB48, the members for each song are not clearly determined, and they grow and change while sharing their struggles and worries with fans, as Yasushi Akimoto is asserting "AKB is still incomplete." Fans, in turn, also grow along with the group, by buying CDs and attending handshake events, or showing their support through member general elections. This process of growth illustrates a grand story (context) that has captured the hearts of fans.

In today's world of commoditization (a condition where products have no significant differences in quality), competition among individual products (contents) is ultimately reduced to a price-cutting war. The key point demanded today is how to combine these individual products and create context (story or lifestyle) which may win the favor of the most customers.

Toshihiko Miura
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Marketing Theory, Consumer Behavior Theory
Born in 1958, Kyoto. Graduated from Faculty of Business and Commerce, Keio University in 1982. Withdrew from doctoral program at Faculty of Business and Commerce, Keio University in 1986, and became Research Associate on Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University. After obtaining positions as full-time lecturer and Assistant Professor at same, has held current position from 1999. Within that time, he acted as visiting researcher at Columbia Business School, visiting professor at ESCP Europe, and visiting professor at Illinois State University. Main publications include: Marketing Strategy (4th Edition) [Maaketingu Senryaku [Dai 4-han]] (co-author, Yuhikaku Publishing Co., Ltd.), Introduction to Global Marketing [Guroobaru Maaketingu Nyuumon] (co-author, Nikkei Publishing Inc.), Context Design of Regional Brands [Chiiki Burando no Kontekusuto Dezain] (co-editor, Dobunkan Shuppan Co., Ltd.), Slow Style [Suroo Sutairu] (co-editor, Shinhyoron Co., Ltd.), and Strategic Principles of e-Marketing [e Maaketingu no Senryaku Genri] (co-editor, Yuhikaku Publishing Co., Ltd.).