Story time 15: emergency ethnography for the Coca-Cola Company in Japan

Nagano_torchThis is the latest installment in an occasional series of stories drawn from my experience as a professional marketer. Usually, "story time" runs on Friday and it aims to reveal something about the practice of marketing, and, in this way, the models of marketing.

In 1998, Nick Hahn and I were sent to Nagano, Japan on an emergency mission. The Torch Run sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company (TCCC hereafter) had proven unexpectedly successful, and Sergio Zyman, then VP in charge of marketing, wanted to know why. More simply, TCCC had hit a marketing gusher and the question was "why did this happen and how do we leverage it?"

The Torch Run is a relatively recent innovation at the Olympics, emerging in the Amsterdam and Berlin games of 1928 and 1936. The formula is now simple. A new flame is lit in the Greece. The flame tours Greece, and is then transported, usually by plane, to the site of the new Olympic games.

In the Nagano case, the flame had come ashore at three points in Japan and, over the course of a month, was making its way by three routes, touching en route almost all of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Eventually, about 2 weeks from now, the three torches would become one, and a single flame would be carried into the stadium to mark the beginning of the Winter games. The stadium torch would burn for the duration of the game and would then be extinquished during the closing ceremony.

The surprise was this. TCCC had hoped that the Torch Run would bring people out to urge the torch bearers forward. Precedent and best estimates said that people would come out in the 10s and 100s. Instead, they came out in the 1000s and 10000s, demonstrative, weeping, applauding, exulting. The Run proved unexpectedly emotional. Word went back to Atlanta, and Nick and I were dispatched. We were accompanied by Ewen Cameron of the advertising firm Berlin Cameron.

Torch bearers were a variety of people: local school children, public officials, athletes, notables of one kind or another. A Taiwan TV celebrity, Pai Ping-ping was chosen. She was running, she said, to demonstrate to her daughter, murdered a year before, that "Mum is back on her feet again." Chris Moon, a British activists who had lost an arm and a leg to a mine in Mozambique and was now working to end the use of land mines, also participated. A junior high school teacher Yasuji Niwa carried the Olympic flame in Gifu Prefecture by the Pacific Ocean route through western Japan. Niwa, 28, had suffered a terrible injury and had been in a coma for 3 months. Kazuo Kawamoto, a social worker who seven years ago survived heart surgery, completed his 1-km trek with his wife, a nurse he met at the hospital.

Nick’s team had a week to do the research, write the report and present, first to TCCC Japan and then TCCC USA in the intimidating person of Sergio Zyman. The idea was to come up with actionable findings while the Olympics were still in play. This meant doing our interviews, visiting the Torch Run (still in progress), doing analysis, yelling at one another, undertaking the idea generation, writing the report, and yelling at one another, almost all at once while in transit with jet lag all on a just-in-time, what-should-we-do-next, where-should-we-go-next sort of spontaneity. It was as if the 2 minute drill from football had come to marketing.

The Japanese loved the Torch run for several reasons. This Olympics came at a time when some Japanese were feeling that scandals, banking difficulties, and other frustrations had diminished the country’s position as a master of capitalism. The Olympics would not restore this vaunted position, but it would augment Japan’s international profile. The Torch Run was the first opportunity to contemplate the Olypics and Japan together.

There was also a certain admiration for the logistical perfection of the Torch Run. Getting three torches from far flung places by 1 kilometer intervals through thousands of hands for simultaneous arrival in Nagano is not easy. Americans might have taken the thing for granted, but some of the Japanese I talked to were deeply impressed. It was as if the exquisite calibrations of the Tokyo subway system had been scaled up to fit an entire nation. (And the Tokyo subway is of course a system so perfectly organized that it dares tell you that the next train will arrive in 5…4…3…2…1 seconds. At the stroke of 0, a train pulls up and the doors open. I coulda plotzed.)

The Torch Run also impressed because it was so deeply local, touching many, tiny little towns that would normally be allowed to slumber in obscurity. The idea that the far margin should be articulated with a national center and that this center should be articulated with an international event, there was an embedded hierarchy here that impressed some respondents almost into speechlessness. It is a tough idea to represent with words, but I began to see that what really made it tricky was that it was emotionally powerful and brought some people close to tears to see played out. (You would have to know more about Japanese culture to know how the Torch Run interacted with Japanese notions of center and periphery, traditional and current. Clearly, something was going on here. I couldn’t be sure what. More exactly, I could get the "what" but not the "why".)

And then there was the choice of all those people who had very personal and sometimes tragic stories to tell. This made the Torch Runners like so many panels in a comic book. Each runner his/her own story, all runners a collectivity. Differences visible, identities undiminished. (Or in the language of Weinberger’s magnificient title: Small pieces loosely joined.) Here too it was clear that something was at work in the play of individualism relative to the collective. If I had had something more than 7 days, I might have found what.

There was also the sheer heroism of some of these runners. They were civilians who had endured difficulty with courage and this, at a stroke, made everyone an Olympic hero, and this in turn made the preliminary "run up" (sorry) to the Olympics fully continuous with the Olympics. The runners were, in some emotional sense, Olympians too.

In sum, the emergency ethnographers were able to report back to TCCC Japan and TCCC Atlanta and suggest some of the things that had ignited the success of the Torch Run.

I had the distinct sense that Cameron was handling us. He is a very sweet guy and a great travelling companion. But he appeared to have made up his mind what it was we would discover, and he seemed to have a fixed idea what creative strategy we ought to pursue. Indeed, he suggested a great idea to leverage the success of the Torch Run, but I couldnt help feeling that he was dusting something off, some creative armament he had long wanted to get into a TCCC cannon.

But then this is daring work, and we can be forgiven working prefab. The pressure is pretty spectacular. We were working across time zones, countries, cultures, and languages. It was not easy. Nick is good in these circumstances. He was "other worldly" enough to commune with the creatives and "this worldly" enough to keep us on target, on schedule and on budget. But everyone is pressed to the limit on one of these things. I remember rocketing back to the hotel lobby to join the team. Nick said, "he’s always just a little bit late." And indeed I always was, not least because I was in my hotel room treasuring a last few seconds out of the sheer, relentless press of getting things right.

Actually, this was the trip in which I discovered that I dance in elevators (and absolutely no place else). The elevators in the Imperial hotel in Tokyo have little video cameras in the corner. This was enough to prompt me to think about what I was doing, and to discover, to my astonishment, that I was dancing. I am not a good dancer. By which I mean I’m Canadian, but there is something about being in those suspended little cubicles that brings out the disco artist within.

Certainly, the Torch Run study looks like an exercise in the ad hoc and episodic, and not at all the sort of thing we would expect to be become a part of marketing orthodoxy or due process. But if marketing is moving away from the soap opera to staging many, smaller, short lived, events that must be ventured, recalled, rethought, reissued…if marketing is going to become, that is to say, more creative, experimental, innovative and iterative, then emergency ethnography might well become the order of the day, useful for the study of unexpected successes and sudden failures alike.

A couple of posts ago, we praised Motorola for it’s use of small, fast, teams in the creation of the Razr.  It may well be that these very teams are the things we use to investigate our innovations after they have been released into the world. 


McCracken, Grant. 2005.  The Malamud effect: Ideas and the Corporation.  September 23, 2005. here.

post script:

I did promise Thursday that I would look at the similarities between the worlds of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II and I now promise to do that Monday.  Sorry.

3 thoughts on “Story time 15: emergency ethnography for the Coca-Cola Company in Japan

  1. Ennis

    You really should look at “Rational Ritual” by Michael Chwe … you’d find it interesting and relevant to this case.

  2. Pingback: Ed Batista

  3. Peter

    I can recommend Chwe’s book also — Ideas of common knowledge are now important in distributed computer systems.

    One of the interesting consequences of Japan’s phenomenonal success in doing things, such as making the trains run on time, is that public discourse is lacking in words and idioms for failure. When things go wrong, people literally do not know how to talk about the situation. I think this is part of the problem of the Japanese economic malaise — people are not used to describing failure and error, and feel unable and uncomfortable doing so publicly. In the early 1990s, I lived in Germany, whose trains also run on time, and saw the same phenomenon. In such circumstances, having a public event to celebrate can be a great consolation.

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