A sweet sleep is for sale, not dreams

Updated: 2017-03-03 07:00

(HK Edition)

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Bedding products entrepreneur Motokuni Takaoka reckons that the key thing in the consumer business is to make customers feel the product so they'll come back. He talks to Sophie He.

Motokuni Takaoka couldn't have imagined wading into an industry that has hardly any relevance to a business he was to inherit.

He founded Nukata-gun, Japan-based airweave inc a decade ago from a company that used to be his uncle's firm making fishing net machines, and turned it into one that now boasts producing a wide range of fancy bedding products, including mattresses with price tags of up to 12,000 yuan on the Chinese mainland.

What he discovered was that the plastic resins used in the production of fishing lines could be used for making mattresses as well.

"The company was born with a desire to do things differently. We make mattresses using very different technology compared to other companies," says Takaoka, airweave's chairman and chief executive officer.

Everybody knows the bedding business is one that's very hard for newcomers to dig their hands into, he points out, but airweave did manage to rake in annual sales of more than $100 million for several years in Japan alone.

For 2016, the company' revenue in Japan is projected to hit $130 million - up 18 percent on the previous year.

People should realize, Takaoka says, that although bedding products are consumer oriented, they're very unique. Normally, people would buy consumer products and then try them out and, if they like them, they would return.

"But, for bedding products, if you go to a bedding shop, you may have already decided to buy something, otherwise you wouldn't go there. So, people would usually get the feel of two or three products and if they find the price is fine, they'll buy them."

Then, the consumer will have the product home delivered and sleep on it. Only then can they understand its value. And, since people can't sleep on the mattresses at a store, they won't have the chance to know other products, Takaoka asserts.

Like most aspiring enterprises, airweave isn't prepared to miss the boat when it comes to the huge Chinese mainland market, and is poised for a big push into the country over the next few years.

The key marketing strategy in the trade, he contends, is to "push marketing". When a customer comes to the store, bedding companies don't push sales - they just show their products and offer some discounts or incentives. But, as the customer may have already decided to buy something, it's better to close the deal at the store.

At present, airweave doesn't have many stores - only small shops. In order to get into the industry and let more people know and trust what it sells, the company has to come up with a different marketing strategy.

"We've to educate people to visit our shops or website. We don't offer discounts, if they like and trust our brand, they'll buy."

Brand building crucial

To win the trust of consumers, airweave has to be constantly on its toes in building up its brand. Since Takaoka firmly believes its products are great, it has started providing them to athletes competing in the Olympic Games. People can thus see for themselves that if the mattresses are good enough for Olympians, they should be good enough for them.

According to Takaoka, just before the London Olympics in 2010, the Japanese government had asked airweave to develop mattresses for Japanese Olympians and the athletes took the mattresses with them to London.

"Since the products are good, we don't have to pay anything to get the athletes to use them. They just try them out and then start using them."

Apart from Japanese Olympians, airweave had also supported Olympic athletes from other countries, including the United States, Germany and Australia, in last year's Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Airweave's major market at present is still Japan, but is striving to reach out to other countries like China, Singapore and the US. The company entered the Chinese mainland market in 2012 and came to Hong Kong in March last year.

Takaoka believes the company's mainland effort has only just begun, with revenue generated from the mainland standing at between $1.5 million and $2 million last year. For Hong Kong, its revenue was less than $1 million.

"For the first one to two years, we're just testing the waters (on the Chinese mainland) in the past two years. We're hiring more local staff there and we're very positive about the future."

Olympic pride

Airweave has been a sponsor of the Chinese mainland's Olympic Committee since 2016, and it'll continue to team up with top-tier hotels and airlines, says Takaoka, adding that its brand recognition is gaining weight in China.

The company's current tally of brick-and-mortar outlets on the mainland stands at about 10, most of which are in department stores in Shanghai, Beijing and Suzhou, besides those in Hong Kong. Its mattresses are priced at between 6,000 yuan and 12,000 yuan.

"If we can get more revenue from the mainland and Hong Kong markets, we aim to launch some mid-range products which will be slightly cheaper," Takaoka says, explaining that for a new market, high-end products have to be brought in first, otherwise, it would be very difficult to switch to the mid-range bracket later.

He says although having shops in department stores is good for the brand, the foot traffic in department stores is less than ideal, so airweave is contemplating other venues, like shopping malls or places with heavier foot traffic.

E-commerce is another sector that has to be relied on as far as the mainland market is concerned as online purchasing is fast becoming the in-thing.

Doing business in China has also enabled Takaoka to take a leaf from Chinese beliefs and culture. Red, which is normally associated with good luck and prosperity, seems to be the favorite color of mainland consumers even when it comes to cushions.

"I didn't know that before. Now I understand that doing business in China, one has to understand what they like, including their favorite color."

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(HK Edition 03/03/2017 page9)