Indonesia is a fiercely competitive market, with many enterprises fighting for a piece of the pie. It is a young, vibrant country. Roughly half of its 250 million inhabitants are under the age of 30, and in recent years its GDP growth rate has been greater than 5%. In 2012, Mitsubishi Corporation (MC) established a subsidiary here called "MC Living Essentials Indonesia (MCLEI)," which oversees the businesses undertaken in this region by MC's Living Essentials Group.
Indonesian society is changing rapidly. In August 2015, MC employee Maki Tanaka was seconded to MCLEI to plan and execute a unique marketing strategy, one that could address the needs and capture the opportunities inherent to the changing lifesyles of Indonesia's citizens. Since January 2017, she has been in charge of MCLEI subsidiary PT. Ichi Tan Indonesia.
Indonesia's food and beverage market is hotly contested by both domestic and foreign manufacturers. PT. Ichi Tan Indonesia has traditionally focused on three products, but this year Tanaka and her colleagues introduced three more, a jasmine tea and a sweet green tea that have been subtly reflavored to suit the Indonesian palate, and Indonesia's first domestically produced, unsweetened tea sold in PET bottles.
In 2017, Tanaka's team also won a local marketing award for its nationwide "Changing Lives for the Better" advertising campaign. "Today, food values are evolving in Indonesia in much the same way that they evolved in Japan 30 years ago," says Tanaka. "Back then it was rare to find water or green tea sold in PET bottles in Japan, but now they're commonplace."
Tanaka lived in India as a young girl, where she witnessed the harsh realities of life in a developing country, realities far removed from her native Japan. Her experiences in India convinced her to pursue a career that could help developing countries to grow their economies and solve their social problems. Today her work is not so much philanthropy, but more a part of sustainable business that improves quality of life. "If people don't really find your products useful, they're not going to spend money on them. That's what makes doing business here both difficult and fascinating at the same time."
In Indonesia, a country comprised of some 15,000 islands, chain stores and other modern retail models are a rarity. Most of the distribution channels are occupied by small, mom-and-pop shops or vendors with hand-pushed carts. The day-to-day competition is intense, as individual retailers scramble to get their products to every corner of the market.
"To get ahead in this country, you have to understand its cultural differences," says Tanaka. "You have to listen to what the locals are saying and think like your customers do. You're always going to have your own ideas about how things should be, but no matter how strongly you argue, the situation isn't going to change. It's tough, but the key is having the flexibility to deal with so many conflicing opinions and getting everyone on the same page. Nowadays that can be a fun process."
A brief, bitter taste is a small price to pay for a lasting refreshing one. The charm of this business and the flavor of the green tea sold by Tanaka and her team would appear to have something in common.
This article appeared in Asahi Shimbun's "GLOBE" feature of October 1, 2017.