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Auckland students help firms crack Japan

Tapping into two social phenomena in Japan – growing numbers of weight-conscious young men and 12 million pet dogs – is giving Auckland University MBA students something to cut their strategic teeth on.

A plant-based weight management supplement developed in Aotearoa New Zealand, and a natural petcare range are among Kiwi firms partnering with MBA students from the University of Auckland to make inroads into the Japanese market.

Japan is the third biggest market for weight loss products – after the US and China – and so following Calocurb’s launch in New Zealand in April and the US in May, Japan was an obvious next target. Calocurb is a weight management supplement developed by Plant & Food, partially funded by a $20 million MBIE grant. Its active ingredient is extracted from a special hops varietal grown in Motueka, near Nelson – the “bitter brake” that curbs appetite (a clinical trial showed Calocurb reduced consumption by 238 calories, or 20 percent, when taken an hour before eating).

A team of MBA students have been working with the Lifestream, which sells Calocurb, to develop its business plan for Japan. This week, the team travelled to Tokyo to do consumer research and meet with potential partners.

Lifestream chief executive Sarah Kennedy says the students’ insights are invaluable.

“The target consumer is coming up younger and weighting towards men, and we’ve discovered that people in Japan are far more up front about weight loss – it’s been fascinating. We’re delighted,” she says.

Meanwhile, another team of MBA students are asking Japanese dog-owners about their pet-grooming needs. There are 12 million dogs in Japan (nearly one for every 10 humans), and Wellington-based Washbar wants their humans to hear about its all-natural, GMO-free petcare range.

Washbar products are widely available through pet shops and vets in New Zealand, and the firm already exports to nine countries, including Japan. Co-owner Lou Knight says she hopes the MBA partnership will deliver “a better and deeper understanding of what the consumer needs in the Japanese market”.

“We see Japan as a key market because of its number of dogs and the way people look after their dogs – there’s a trend we’re seeing there and in other countries towards the ‘humanisation’ of pets – treating them more like ourselves than pets. We hope to gain an understanding which products will sit best there– we could develop products specifically for a worthwhile market like Japan if we knew it would be a good fit.”

In total, 42 students representing 11 businesses went to Tokyo. Associate Professor Daniel Vidal and Senior Lecturer Dr Antje Fiedler accompanied the students. Says Dr Vidal: “The goal is to provide specific recommendations to these businesses on how to approach internationalisation with the least possible risk and investment.”

Dr Fiedler: “The students are gaining hands-on, real-world experience in implementing a lean start-up approach to market entry.”

Says MBA student Candice Robertson: “Being able to put ourselves in the shoes of the entrepreneur in such a rich and diverse country has been an experience that we will never forget. Nothing beats the challenge of being on the ground, interacting with consumers and possible partners face-to-face, and knowing that our efforts can create real opportunities to grow the business of the clients we are representing.”

Other businesses represented on the trip included Hawke’s Bay-based LilyBee Wrap, which produces an eco-friendly, reusable beeswax and cotton alternative to plastic food wraps; Auckland-based Lanaco, which develops wool-based functional products such as air filters; Christchurch start-up ABI Piers, which makes an award-winning earthquake-proofing building foundation system; and Nelson-based Chia, which produces highly nutritious beverages made from chia seeds or electrolyte-infused coconut water in natural juices.


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