Pocky Heads Overseas: Japanese Snack Brands Earning a Global Following

Economy Culture

So-called “Galapagos” snacks developed to fit local Japanese tastes are now attracting hungry fans worldwide. Manufacturers are finding success abroad by changing flavors and sales promotion strategies to suit national, ethnic, and religious preferences.

Japanese Snack Brands Establish Presence in Bangkok

Should you visit a supermarket in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand and one of Southeast Asia’s leading cities, you may be surprised at the quantity of shelf space devoted to Japanese snack foods.

Brands include Pocky and Pretz by Ezaki Glico, Morinaga’s taffy-like Hi-Chew, shrimp-flavored Kappa Ebisen from Calbee, and Koikeya’s spicy potato chip line Karamūcho. Their conspicuous presence—familiar Japanese packages but with brand names appearing in Thai script—attest to the popularity and penetration of Japanese snacks in the local market.

Thailand is not the only country where Japanese snacks are gaining a following. Brands are spreading around the globe, winning fans in Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and Indonesia, as well as in North America, Europe, and the Middle East.

What accounts for the overseas success of Japanese snack brands? The cases of Morinaga’s Hi-Chew and Glico’s Pocky provide a clue.

Hi-Chew Finds a Home in the United States

Hi-Chew is enjoying surging popularity in the United States. With a curious and distinctive mouthfeel, it is emblematic of Japan’s “Galapagos” snacks—brands developed specifically to satisfy local tastes.

Hi-Chew first gained a foothold through Major League Baseball. Boston Red Sox pitcher Tazawa Jun’ichi brought the chewy candy with him from Japan and shared it with his teammates in the bullpen. The players quickly became fans, leading Morinaga America to provide samples and eventually sign a sponsor agreement with the team.

The company has since signed sponsor agreements with the Minnesota Twins and Chicago Cubs, along with the New York Knicks of the National Basketball Association.

Sales of Hi-Chew have grown steadily, with the candy now earning a permanent place on the shelves of several major supermarket chains. Japanese residing in the United States and Americans of Asian descent account for the lion’s share of sales, but a growing number of Latinos are also becoming fans.

The Secret of Success

However, a chance development involving Major League Baseball does not fully explain Hi-Chew’s popularity in the United States. What made the difference was dogged, localized marketing.

Take the flavors. Globally, the basic varieties of Hi-Chew are strawberry, grape, and green apple. In the United States Morinaga added black cherry and mango to this mix. The latter is an original flavor developed specifically for the US market intended to appeal to the nation’s rapidly growing Latino population. By comparison, Hi-Chew’s flavors in China include milk and peach. Developing flavors to satisfy differing tastes according to nation, region, and ethnicity is an iron rule of localization.

Morinaga’s Hi-Chew on display in a Bangkok supermarket.

Consideration of packaging is also an important factor. In the United States, Morinaga’s 500-gram High-Chew pack sells well at the wholesale chain Costco. Different from the standard 12-piece pack, the larger package was developed with the popular American custom of hosting home parties in mind—the idea being that conveniently placed bags of Hi-Chew allow partygoers to help themselves as they like.

In China, Hi-Chew is sold in even larger packages developed for specialty wholesalers catering to wedding parties. Smaller packs with seven pieces are also marketed for people in lower income brackets. There are plans to sell an even smaller three-piece pack in Indonesia.

Morinaga aims to price Hi-Chew at levels accessible to all consumers. However, rather than making the candy as inexpensive as possible, which would invite a price war with competitors and weaken brand equity, the company prices Hi-Chew at an acceptable upper limit to establish the brand as one that consumers shop for by name.

The choice of distribution channels is also an important determinant of success when breaking into overseas markets. In the case of Hi-Chew, Morinaga first began to ship the product to the United States from a Taiwanese factory for trial sales in 7-Eleven stores. Positive results led Morinaga to expand distribution and place the candy in Japanese and Asian supermarkets. Convinced by the positive response of consumers, the company then ramped up distribution to supermarkets across the country. A US factory is set to begin manufacturing Hi-Chew in the summer of 2015 to meet demand. Going forward, consumers may increasingly come to view the product as an American snack, realizing the ultimate goal of localization and showing that Hi-Chew has truly found its niche in a foreign market.

Developing Pocky Fans Overseas

Ezaki Glico currently sells 200 million boxes of Pocky sticks annually in 30 foreign countries. Similar to Hi-Chew, Pocky was first developed along Japanese tastes. While based on chocolate and cookies, which originated in the West, Pocky cleverly combined the two into a snack that could be conveniently enjoyed in a wide variety of settings.

Glico’s overseas strategy for Pocky highlights the importance of localizing sales promotion. The company has marketed the product under the concept “Share Happiness,” focusing on specific social gathering points in Southeast Asian countries and presenting Pocky as a snack that is always present when fun times are happening. In Thailand Glico has targeted shopping malls, while in Vietnam, where large commercial facilities are still scarce, they have focused on movie theaters. In both cases, locations where young men and women gather together to have fun were selected.

Schools are an important distribution channel in Indonesia, where companies commonly target campuses to promote their products. Bright red Pocky trucks decorated with images of the popular girl band JKT48, who also appear in commercials for the snack, regularly pull up to the grounds of junior high and high schools to distribute free samples. In this and other ways Glico is working to develop Pocky fans from an early age.

Glico is also implementing marketing strategies attuned to the needs of Islamic nations. The daylight hours during the month of Ramadan are a period of fasting for Muslims. Once the sun sets, friends and families gather to eat and shop until late at night. Glico is looking to present Pocky as a way for people to share the happiness of this important religious holiday. If Glico can successfully position Pocky as a snack to enjoy when the fasting of Ramadan is over, this will open avenues for the product in the Middle East as well as the broader Muslim world.

Building Global Human Resources

Japanese snacks that have achieved a level of success abroad share a number of common themes:

  1. They are distinctive to Japan, with few comparable products available in foreign markets.
  2. New flavors are developed to suit local tastes and preferences.
  3. Package sizes are adapted to local customs and culture.
  4. Prices are set to enhance brand appeal rather than to reflect local economic circumstances.
  5. Promotional efforts factor in local customs, culture, and religions.
  6. Human resources are knowledgeable about foreign business operations and are quick to put pricing and promotion plans into action.

Japanese companies are skillful at adopting and combining foreign cultures and foods into products that become distinctly Japanese. It is therefore reasonable to think there are a great number of products in Japan besides snack foods that have a high potential for overseas success.

Regarding human resources, many snack food makers recruit employees with experience in foreign operations from general trading houses or consumer goods makers, as they cannot find suitable talent from within the company. This highlights the need to develop such talent internally in the future.

Ensuring diverse human resources is an indispensable aspect of selling distinctive Japanese products in foreign markets. Business opportunities abound among Japan’s “Galapagos” products, and combining these with global business talent will prove crucial in tapping into their innate global potential.

(Originally published in Japanese on June 23, 2015. Banner photo: Glico’s Pocky on display in a Bangkok supermarket. Photo provided by the author.)

Pocky Pretz Glico Hi-Chew Morinaga Koikeya Calbee Tazawa Jun’ichi JKT48