01 June 2010

Sushi and Bicycles - How Marketing Bicycle Culture Should be Easy

The Sushi Bicycle
The Sushi Bicycle - Selling Sushi at Copenhagen Beaches

In a recent post - 'If You Want Cycle Transport, Make Cycle Transport Sexy' by Brian Glover - I delved briefly into a comparison between the journey of sushi from obscurity in the western world to being a mainstream culinary dish.

I still can't find the link to a study I read about a few years back that used the proliferation of sushi restaurants as a yardstick in research to determine how age affects peoples desire to try new things in life. Eating new foods, voting for different political parties, listening to new music.

But it got me thinking about sushi and comparing it to 'bicycle culture'. It's particularly relevant as I so often hear - either whilst speaking in other countries or here on this blog things like "you don't understand... we live in a different culture."

I don't buy that at all, which is why I focus on marketing, anthopology and the fact that the behaviour of homo sapiens - and changing that behaviour - is quite universal. Now, there are differences in marketing in different countries. Canon has a camera that is sold around the world. In Japan, they sell it as the Ixy [cutesy name], they sell it as Ixus in Europe [grand, like a Greek god] and the same camera is called Powershot on the American market.

Carmakers have always battled with finding names that cross borders. A name which sounds great in a dozen languages may flop in one other. Volkswagon discovered that their Sharan model didn't fly in the UK because the girl's name Sharon has negative associations with a 'certain kind of girl'.

The Mitsubishi Pajero is sold as the Shogun in the UK and as the Montero in Spanish-speaking countries and North America because pajero means wanker in Castilian Spanish. The Buick LaCrosse was sold as the Buick Allure in Canada, as la crosse means masturbation or swindling in Québécois slang. It's all called badge engineering.

The products are, however, all the same. They're still just selling cameras and cars to consumers. Cellphones, mobiles or handys all do the same thing.

How did something as bizarre [to the western palate] as sushi conquer the world? Raw fish on sticky rice served with a green, horseradishy paste and dipped in soya sauce? Now available at in Canadian prairie supermarkets and in Moscow cafés.

Surely, if something as bizarre as sushi can become mainstream by leaping across well-protected and fiercely defended culinary and cultural borders then there must be good odds for the bicycle's return to the urban landscape.

The bicycle is universal. I know many people who have never even tried sushi, but I don't know anyone who can't ride a bicycle. Even if they never ride one, they've learned it and enjoyed it.

A couple of generations ago, our families were eating the same, largely unchanged, cuisine as their ancestors. The bicycle, however, was not unfamiliar to them.

So what was sushi's journey to success and globalisation? Can we use the example in marketing mainstream bicycle culture?

Theodore C. Bestor wrote an article in Foreign Policy ten years ago called How Sushi Went Global.

Little mention of any Japanese food appeared in U.S. media until well after World War II. By the 1960s, articles on sushi began to show up in lifestyle magazines like Holiday and Sunset. But the recipes they suggested were canapŽs like cooked shrimp on caraway rye bread, rather than raw fish on rice.

A decade later, however, sushi was growing in popularity throughout North America, turning into a sign of class and educational standing. In 1972, the New York Times covered the opening of a sushi bar in the elite sanctum of New York's Harvard Club. Esquire explained the fare in an article titled "Wake up Little Sushi!" Restaurant reviewers guided readers to Manhattan's sushi scene, including innovators like Shalom Sushi, a kosher sushi bar in SoHo.

Japan's emergence on the global economic scene in the 1970s as the business destination du jour, coupled with a rejection of hearty, red-meat American fare in favor of healthy cuisine like rice, fish, and vegetables, and the appeal of the high-concept aesthetics of Japanese design all prepared the world for a sushi fad. And so, from an exotic, almost unpalatable ethnic specialty, then to haute cuisine of the most rarefied sort, sushi has become not just cool, but popular.

The painted window of a Cambridge, Massachusetts, coffee shop advertises "espresso, cappuccino, carrot juice, lasagna, and sushi." Mashed potatoes with wasabi (horseradish), sushi-ginger relish, and seared sashimi-grade tuna steaks show Japan's growing cultural influence on upscale nouvelle cuisine throughout North America, Europe, and Latin America. Sushi has even become the stuff of fashion, from "sushi" lip gloss, colored the deep red of raw tuna, to "wasabi" nail polish, a soft avocado green.

Fish Boat
In Walter F. Carroll's paper SUSHI: Globalization through Food Culture: Towards a Study of Global Food Networks - (opens as .pdf) he writes about Sasha Issenbergs's book The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy, saying that:

"He suggests that there is much to admire in the worldwide sushi trade and argues that it shows that “'virtuous global commerce and food culture can exist'.

What makes that trade potentially virtuous for him is “on a new landscape of consumption, power is decentralized, and supply and demand are regulated not by moguls but by local ideas about value and taste”.

Carroll continues:

"From beginnings in the Little Tokyo section of the city in the 1950s, eventually “sushi had found its second home”. Although some types of sushi were available in Little Tokyo, sushi’s wave of popularity in Los Angeles came with the movement of Japanese managers and executives to the United States when the Japanese economy was thriving during the 1960s. Their expense accounts enabled them to enjoy the relatively expensive sushi in Los Angeles. It was at this point that nigiri and fish maki began to be available. This led to the launching of new sushi restaurants and the increasing visibility of the dish. Issenberg (2007), from whom I draw this account, also notes some of the barriers to the acceptance of sushi in the United States, noting that “while foreign flavors have long seeped into American foodways, sushi had unique challenges.

Unlike other “ethnic foods,” in America, sushi was not an inexpensive, neighborhood-based food. “In large part because of its celebrated aesthetics, Japanese food was always seen as fussy haute cuisine” and this slowed its acceptance."

Perhaps I got carried away there, but I found it interesting. Sushi conquered the world. Surely the bicycle's journey back to our cities and towns should be a piece of cake.

Sushi was 'trendy' in L.A. and then New York, where it stranded for a while - but didn't go away. The Theory of Diffusion of Innovations came into play. The Innovators took hold of sushi. It moved over to the Early Adopters and then the Early Majority. It's now been embraced by the Late Majority and, in the case of sushi, there are probably many Laggards who will never try it. Nevertheless, it's a success.

The bicycle is 'hot' again, all over the world. With a bit of luck, the trend won't fade and we will continue to sell urban cycling positively, in order to allow the bicycle to tango its way into the lives of the Early Majority. We're well on our way.

I can't wrap this up [in newspaper] without a fish metaphor. Johannes V. Jensen was a famous Danish writer. In his novel Gudrun, from 1935, he compares the cycling Copenhageners to schools of fish:

"If one is bumped by a car, the whole school is bumped. It's a nerve one has in the elbow, a flock function, which Copenhageners have learned so well that it is second nature".

Dead Fish
Disclaimer: This post is about comparing sushi and bicycle relating to marketing and trends. It has nothing to do with overfishing, declining fish stocks, etc. I'll recommend my friend Taras' book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood (Taras Grescoe 2008) on THAT subject.

And I'm probably never going to have the chance to blog this video of mine on a bicycle blog again, so here goes:


Anonymous said...

G'day, My son does not like riding bike, and is not good at it. He also does not like Sushi.


Anonymous said...

Oh but I love both.


Elliott@ Austin on Two Wheels said...

You are totally on target. The US bike industry ignores that chart to their own peril. Understanding how emerging markets work is the only way back to growth for the industry. There's more than one way to approach this, but the industry has shown little interest in getting beyond the early adopters and understanding how to jump to the early majority.

BG said...

Sure, of course you're right, and that's exactly the point I was trying to make the other day -- the badge marketing needs to change locally, but the fundamentals stay the same. Absolutely.

However, sometimes there are insurmountable cultural barriers. For instance, to continue your sushi analogy: the signature local cuisine of Eastern North Carolina, where I live, is a unique and delicious style of pork barbecue. It is not indigenous to Denmark, but I'm sure people there would learn to like it with virtually no adjustment time. It is not indigenous to Japan either, but again, there's no reason people there couldn't learn to like it -- if, of course, it became socially desirable for them to learn to like it. However, if you tried it in the Middle East, you'd have a problem. Bike transportation, for adults in many parts of the world, is like eating pork for Muslims and Jews (much of my family are Kosher-keeping Jews, by the way, so I'm pretty familiar with this stuff). At most, you might tolerate your neighbor doing it; you might even understand its appeal, in an intellectual sense; but the idea of actually doing it yourself makes your skin crawl in a totally irrational but overwhelming way. Basic anthropology will tell you a lot about taboos, as well. (On that topic, it's no coincidence that, as I just blogged here, harassment of cyclists often takes the form of homosexual panic.)

Yes, most people know how to ride a bike. But in many cultures, those same people also underwent a coming-of-age ritual in which the bicycle was forbidden to them, and that taboo was enforced by total social ostracism (where I live, that ritual is called "high school"). As it happens, I do think that the bike taboo is similar in strength to the raw-fish taboo (i.e., not as fundamental to identity as the pork taboo); it can be overcome, but it'll take a long time -- and lots of people here still won't eat sushi. I'd be interested, actually, to see a survey of how many people in my town actually eat sushi, and compare it to the numbers who ride bikes. The number of strip-mall sushi joints is about equal to the number of bike shops, and you can buy California rolls in the more middle-class supermarkets (as you can buy toy-type bicycles in the box stores), but I seriously doubt that a full majority of residents have ever made a purchase in either category, and neither is an everyday staple of life. Unfortunately, it often does take a full majority to build a bike lane.

townmouse said...

BG - that's pretty strong. Pork is haram, forbidden, unclean. Riding a bike is (for some people) uncool. Cool and uncool change - when I was growing up, wearing flares was incredibly uncool, and then, suddenly, it wasn't. Riding a bike is hardly a taboo, except maybe for some women in some very conservative societies (and they usually aren't allowed to drive cars either). Are you really saying that in North Carolina people feel that strongly about riding a bike? As in it's a sin and you'll go to hell?

sobelone said...

Wow!! Sushi and bicycles on the beach!! I need to move to Denmark!

But I must say that in some places of America (*cough* San Antonio, Texas) there are unfortunately people who do not know how to bike (aka San Antonians). Take for instance San Antonio, Texas. It's the epitome of everything you and I don't stand for. It is a sprawling, suburbanized city with no life. It was recently rated the WORST city in America for bicyclists out of the 50 largest cities in America. And it is rated 68 out of 70 in terms of the percentage of commuter cyclists, with 0.1%. That is one in a thousand people!! Also, it is tied for the highest obesity rate in America. Add to that horrrible weather (it gets to the 100s in the summer) and extremely aggresive drivers. I doubt that the idea of Copenhagenization can be implemented here, no matter how awesome that would be. People just don't care here.

That's not to say people aren't trying. We have an awesome mayor, Julian Castro. I've met him a few times and he really is committed to making SA a better place. My councilman, whom I've also met, is also very good. I have given a few speeches to the city council, though I seem to be just about the only bicycle advocate in this city.

You need to come down here and fix this place!! Unfortunately, places like San Antonio will need a shock to their system (oil crisis, anyone?) if they are to use bikes. But I still try to keep a little hope. Believe me, Mikael, if you can copenhagenize San Antonio, you can copenhagenize anywhere!

Your fellow (though lesser) bicycle advocate,

Mikael said...

if selling bicycles as transport is easier than the rise of sushi, then it is a walk in the park compared to selling pork to those religious groups.

overturning 2000 years of tradition ain't easy. returning to a point in history only decades ago is.

sobelone said...

Mikael, there is a problem with that assumption, though. In many places in North America, like San Antonio, not only is biking not mainstream, but there was a conscious effort to destroy and dismantle it and all other non-car forms of transportation. Even if someone wanted to bike, they would have to cross freeways and fast roads. Then there's the fact that the car lobby in America is extremely influential.

It doesn't look good. But I hope your right. I really do.


Anonymous said...

Mmmm...drive-by sushi...

adam said...

How about eating well cooked pork?
A common misconception about pork is that if it is cooked well, these deadly bacteria/worms dies. In a research project undertaken in the United States, it was found that out of twenty-four people suffering from Trichura Tichurasis, twenty two had cooked the pork very well. This indicates ....