Faces of the New Japan

Business - June 2nd, 2006
Ryu Murao

Ryu Murao — Building Brands in Rural Japan

by Kirk R. Patterson 

Ryu Murao (32) is a ‘social entrepreneur.’ Born and raised in Tokyo but edu­cated overseas, he advises small businesses in rural Ja­pan on how to survive and thrive by building distinctive brands.

Please tell me a bit about your background.

From when I was a child I wanted to do something different, so I knew that I had to follow an unusual course in life. In junior high school I decided to leave the traditional Japanese edu­cation system and so I convinced my parents to send me to a boarding school in Oregon, U.S.A. I then went to a high school in Orange County, California, liv­ing with a home stay family. I was more interested in skateboarding than studying though!

I then went on to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), to do a B.A. in international politics be­cause 1 wanted to be a politician. While at UNLV. I was president of the Japanese Student Association, organ­ized student festivals, and worked part-time.

What did you do after graduation?

I got an offer to work at the Japanese Embassy in Wash­ington, D.C., but just before I started that job Honda Motor asked me to join their marketing department. So I moved to Tokyo and worked for four years marketing power products in the Middle East and northern Africa.

I soon realized that I didn’t want to spend my life working in a big corporation, so I entered an MBA pro­gram in Hawaii. I didn’t finish the program because while I was studying I started a company exporting Ha­waiian products to Japan. One of the products 1 export­ed was something called BodyMint, an oral, full-body deodorant. I got the Japanese distribution rights for BodyMint so I came back to Japan and set up my own marketing company. I was able to get BodyMint sold in Sony Plaza, Loft, Tokyu Hands, and many other trendy outlets. It became a big hit, with ¥100 million sales in just its second year. That’s when I sold the company to a friend and decided to become a brand consultant for small companies.

What do you do as a brand consultant?

Looking around Japan, I saw lots of small companies with no clear identity or focus really struggling to survive. Yet in Italy and many other European countries, there are small but successful companies with a strong mission and brand.

My focus is on consulting small companies locat­ed around the ‘two-hour belt’ of Tokyo: Yamanashi, Gunma, Nagano, Ibaraki, and Tochigi. Many com­panies in this area choose to engage in a variety of businesses unrelated to their initial focus just to stay alive. They lose their sense of direction. I encourage my clients to identify one core business, to stay fo­cused on that business, and to develop a base of loyal customers who are willing to pay a premium for the company’s product or service.

I’ve helped many companies go back to their tra­ditional strengths so they can successfully compete against large corporations and mass retailers. Small companies should not imitate the strategies of big companies; they should rather find ways to distin­guish themselves.

Who are your clients?

I often work for local towns or local chambers of com­merce, which ask me to advise managers and entre­preneurs in their area. Although the format varies, I usually give a 30-day series of one-hour seminars, with each seminar focusing on a certain topic, such as corporate positioning, understanding risk, mission and vision and so on.

The way I present myself and the way I look is very different from the people who attend my semi­nars. They look at me as if I am somebody from outer space! But by the end of the seminars, the partici­pants have the courage to refocus on their traditional strengths and to build distinctive, competitive, and profitable businesses.

You said earlier that you wanted to be a politician. Have you abandoned that goal?

No, that is still my goal. I feel that business experience is excellent preparation for a successful political ca­reer. I see myself as a social entrepreneur. My primary goal is not to make money but to contribute to society through business. I am especially interested in how we can improve the economic and social situation of Ja­pan’s small towns.

Kirk R. Patterson is the Dean of Temple University, Japan Campus. He can be contacted at patterson@tuj.ac.jp