Debailleul is a chocolaterie and patisserie founded by a French patissier in Brussels. The company aims to appeal to all senses, creating high-quality products with a unique visual identity. Its managing director joined the EU Japan Centre’s course on Distribution and Business Practices (DBP) in 2007. With the tagline ‘business strategy for customer satisfaction in Japan: creation of added value in retailing and marketing’, this 1-week training consisted of company visits and lectures on the Japanese retail market, economy, marketing, etc.
Business: Chocolate, ice cream, patisserie
Debailleul was founded in Brussels in 1983 by French patissier Marc Debailleul. Trained in a time when ‘handmade’ was still the norm, he developed a talent for discovering the best raw products and turning them into beautiful and flavourful pastries and chocolates. In 2004, the company was taken over by managing director Hans Pauwels and creative director Reinhilde Gielen. Ms Gielen has used her background in fashion and design to give the brand a particular look and feel, not just through packaging but also the products themselves and their presentation in stores. Mr Pauwels built on his experience in the international food business to further develop the brand internationally.
Debailleul produces handmade chocolates, patisseries, viennoiseries and ice cream in its workshop in Brussels. Its products are sold in high-end department stores, delicatessen stores, luxury hotels and restaurants worldwide.
Debailleul started exporting to Japan simply because the opportunity presented itself. Japanese distribution company Kataoka had performed, during several months, a market research of the available products in Belgium they could be interested in. From this research, they concluded that Debailleul products were the best match with what they were looking for. Even though Debailleul had not been planning to target the Japanese market, the decision was definitely not made on a whim: thanks to its Japanese partner, there was a certain guarantee for success.
Mr Pauwels took over the company in 2005, at which point there were nine Debailleul stores in Japan and around ten to twelve pop-up stores each year. Japan was the Company’s largest single export market. Even though they were doing quite well on the Japanese market, Mr Pauwels felt he lacked the theoretic background to address it in the best possible way.
Over the past ten years, Debailleul and Mr Pauwels have dealt with several challenges in their dealings with Japan. First of all, they learned that demands from Japanese partners (and customers) are much tougher than those of European business partners. This is true with regards to the quality of products, but also more practical matters; shipping your goods on the exact date as agreed, for example.
Secondly, the different way of communication led to some misunderstandings and frustration for Mr Pauwels. He soon realized that it is really just a matter of knowing what you are doing, and that to overcome this challenge he would need someone with a knowledge of the Japanese culture. Therefore the company decided to hire a Japanese employee to handle everyday contact with Japan.
Finally, due to the hierarchical structure in Japanese companies, the decision making process can take quite a long time. On the bright side, once a decision has been made you can count on it being followed through. This is a contrast with the European way of doing things, where decisions made (too) quickly often need to be revoked.
These are all areas where doing business in Japan is quite different than in Europe; issues which take some getting used to and which you have to take into account, but the company has learned how to deal with them and how to avoid making mistakes.
For Mr Pauwels, his participation in DBP confirmed some issues that he had encountered in previous years, and taught him how to understand and deal with them. He learned that he should not try to behave in the same way Japanese business people do, because he would inevitably make mistakes, but rather try to comprehend their point of view and adjust his actions accordingly.
It also provided him with some valuable insights in the Japanese market, more specifically its structure and the fact that it is a market which is easily segmented. In other words, it is a market where you can choose a very specific target audience and direct your marketing strategy at this audience. This is something that would have taken Debailleul a very long time to realize if it had not been for DBP.
In that sense, the course has had a very direct influence on the marketing strategy of the company. A strategy to specifically focus on the deployment of pop-up stores was put in place.
Every year, Debailleul opens over 50 temporary stores in Japan, managed and staffed by their Japanese partner Kataoka. These are usually shop-in-shops in department stores or corner stores in shopping malls or large office buildings. The idea behind these pop-up shops is to maintain a presence in the market through the year, but to increase this presence by a great deal during high-demand periods such as Christmas or Valentine’s Day.
Although the company has long had pop-up shops, they started focussing on them about five years ago. The shops are part of a much larger strategy encompassing the entire chocolate production, which now consists of four different collections:
Although all shops offer the four collections, the pop-up shops are usually opened at the same time a special collection is available, so the shops are usually centred on this collection. This includes decoration, store displays, communication… the entire experience, so that each time the pop-up stores are completely different. The staff of each shop is briefed in detail by Debailleul, through Kataoka, about the story behind the collection and how the chocolates are made.
The story behind the collection, and the sense of history and authenticity behind the brand, are a crucial part of what makes Debailleul chocolate a real luxury product. Japanese consumers are quite similar to a lot of European consumers in the sense that, when it comes to luxury products, they are not looking for the most expensive product which everybody can see that is was costly (as opposed to, for example, Chinese consumers). Rather, they prefer discrete and refined luxury, visible only to their direct environment. Accustomed to high-quality products, the Japanese luxury consumer requires products that have something extra to offer, a sense of origin, elegance and sophistication. For this reason, Debailleul’s French history, influence and source of inspiration is of invaluable importance.
When a company chooses Japan as a target market, they need to be willing to aim for success in the long term; the Japanese market is not one where you can succeed in the short run. You cannot simply go to Tokyo for a few days and think you know what you are dealing with, it is a long-term investment which requires both financial and human resources. You need to take time to find out: how does this market work? Where can I position my product, how can I do that and who are the best partners for me? Once you have earmarked those, you can start the process of convincing them that you are a capable business partner with a good product. Altogether, this can take several years. However, once you have managed to enter the market, if you keep up your efforts you can start to build a strong position in a long-term market.
Interview made with Hans Pauwels