CTA Business - test CTA 07 10 2021
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Fashion: a multi-billion-dollar industry that’s evolved far beyond putting clothes on our backs. The fashion industry has become a platform for free artistic expression, a haven for marginalized communities, and a driving force for social change.
Believe it or not, it can also have a positive impact on health and quality of life.
Japan’s love affair with fashion stretches back to the introduction of the kimono in the Heian period (794 – 1195) with Western fashion debuting in the mid-1800s. But Japanese fashionistas today, like many of their counterparts around the world, often sacrifice comfort to look good. That means business leaders have a ripe opportunity to make meaningful social impact through health and beauty. Particularly when it comes to the fashion on your feet.
Yasuyuki Umino knew from his university days that he wanted a career in fashion. Now, as president and CEO of BENEXY Corporation, based in Tokyo, he works on the frontlines of footwear distribution, retail operation, and shoe repair. Since getting his GLOBIS MBA in 2019, social impact has become a driving force behind BENEXY’s core value.
Finding Social Impact in Feet
Insights: How did you get started with a career in footwear?
Umino: I’d dreamed of joining the clothing or footwear industry since university. As for why I chose BENEXY, it was the unique company mission that came with a social benefit.
BENEXY is in shoe repair and footwear distribution, including famous brands like Birkenstocks from Germany. But we work to provide end consumers with a physical experience—not just an attractive shoe. That starts with tailored shoe-fitting based on orthopedic expertise, which gives our shoes a lifelong benefit for the consumer.
The positive impact of BENEXY really appealed to me, so in 2005, I joined the company as marketing staff.
Insights: To ensure that lifelong health benefit, do you employ trained orthopedic professionals in stores?
Umino: Our footwear is made with orthopedic know-how, but employing orthopedic specialists is a bit tricky. In Japan, only licensed orthopedists or podiatrists are allowed to recommend footwear from a medical perspective. So what we do is employ professionally certified Shoe Fitters to train all BENEXY shop clerks, who can then advise customers on the best shoe size, width, and fit, as well as how to walk.
Learning to Market the Story of Shoes
Insights: You were appointed CEO of BENEXY in January 2021. Marketing staff to CEO is quite a rise in status! How have you seen things change for the company over time?
Umino: As business got bigger, we started to feel the culture gap between the European style of marketing and that of Japan. The consumer mindset in Japan is more high context, so we learned that we need more storytelling in our marketing strategy, rather than a one-shot marketing campaign.
Insights: What does it mean to incorporate storytelling into shoe sales?
Umino: Consider the role shoes play in Japan vs. Europe: In European markets, most people are taught from childhood how to tie their shoes, etc. There’s a lot of focus on the practical function of shoes. But in Japan, people think about shoes very differently. Shoes are more like hats—you might put them on and take them off several times in a single day. Therefore, Japanese customers tend to choose their footwear based on cosmetic fashion trends, such as tight fit or loose fit. I guess this comes from our tatami floor culture and the tendency to go barefoot at home.
Even Japanese customers who come to our stores are surprised by the detailed fitting services we provide. On average, it takes thirty minutes for one customer to make a decision to buy a pair of shoes at BENEXY—far longer than other footwear businesses. But we think of those thirty minutes as a must. We’ve realized we need to explain, pretty much from scratch, the lifelong benefit of well-fitted footwear.
Insights: It sounds like mindset is key to your approach. Do you rely a lot on word-of-mouth marketing?
Umino: Yes, we make word of mouth a huge priority. And that’s been important for our demographics, as well. We’ve found that female customers can be a bit more stubborn accepting shoes as anything but fashion—they tend to want smaller shoes.
Insights: And did your MBA play a role in the way you adjusted your marketing?
Umino: Before enrolling in GLOBIS for my MBA, I had a different attitude. I felt that we, as a distributor, just sell products, and consumers just consume them. But I began to suspect I needed a more holistic, 360-degree approach to see the social value we were providing.
I learned a lot at GLOBIS, and after graduation I happily accepted the appointment to CEO at BENEXY. The most important takeaway from my MBA studies was how to provide core value. To lead a nationwide distribution network (and 300 employees) under fickle, global-scale market changes, you have to include all stakeholders.
I also learned the importance of continuous, day-to-day exploration. Even after graduation, I’ve tried to expand my understanding of what “social good” is. That’s a big part of creating and communicating our core value, as well.
Marketing Footwear for Fashion and Health
Insights: What do you consider your biggest success so far?
Umino: Unleashing the narrow, limited image of “footwear” and communicating footwear benefits as both health and fashion. We want consumers to understand our products and services from a broader perspective—they need to see that we’re contributing that social benefit. BENEXY supports health by providing comfort in daily walking, improving posture, etc.
I’ll consider our efforts a success if I see fewer people walking on the street with bent backs and toes!