Marketing professionals often look for a ‘hook’ to connect with the consumer, so as to build that trust about the brand that triggers repeat purchase. Here’s a story about how Nestle used ‘emotional branding’ to get the Japanese to like and consume its coffee products. The only difference is the time horizon over which Nestle chose to build this – almost an entire generation of kids growing up to adults. Nestle’s use of a psychoanalyst to assess the Japanese mindset is intriguing enough but the ability to think and work with such long term plays, even at the product level is particularly inspiring.
“…They’d attempted to bring Nestle coffee to Japan. They’d developed a great product. It was affordable and tested well with its intended audience. But sales continued to slump.
Clotaire had been a foremost researcher on the emotional bonds we form with objects in our culture. They offered Clotaire a handsome fee and flew him out to meet with Nestle’s Japanese marketing team. Clotaire then began doing research.
He assembled several large groups of participants and did a number of eccentric experiments. In one, he had all participants lie on the ground. He played calming music and had them talk back through their earliest childhood memories. He then asked them to describe experiences with different products and what emotions they associated with them.
Then, when he had these participants do that with coffee— he got no response. Most had no memories of coffee. They’d never drank it and thus had no emotional bond to it. Why? Because in Japan they drank tea, as they had for thousands of years. Coffee existed only in small reaches of their culture.
This was a breakthrough moment. And it would drive the next idea, which would be one of the boldest marketing moves of the 20th century.
Rather than throw endless advertising dollars at converting the Japanese public to coffee, they pivoted and took a more long term strategy. They focused on coffee-flavored candies that were marketed to children. Per Clotaire’s guidance, they needed to get children to love Nestle’s flavor from an early age. Not only would this condition them to the taste, it would also imprint the flavor. They would associate coffee with positive emotions. This imprinting strategy was also a good idea because Nestle happened to be very, very good at making candy. The Swiss company had proven itself dominant in markets all over the world.
They tested, manufactured, and stocked shelves with their coffee-flavored candies. They immediately became extremely popular with Japanese youth. The popularity of these coffee candies also had the secondary effect of filtering up to their parents, who ended up testing the coffee flavor out of curiosity.
Years later, Nestle would reenter the Japanese market with a new wave of coffee products. This time, the outcome would be very different. Many of their candy customers were now of working age. They were already consumers of caffeine and worked long hours. Nestle released instant baristas that were easy for home and workspaces. Nestle was no longer marketing roadkill. Their instant coffee was a monster that quickly took hold of the market.
Today, Nestle is one of the top brands in a market that imports 500 million tons of coffee per year. Decades prior, they could barely sell a cup. It all began with a desperate experiment that required a bit of patience. But they proved, yet again, that the path to sales is built through strong emotional bonds with customers.”

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