Toshiba taps sake to build buzz

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Every year at the Radiological Society of North America's annual meeting, Toshiba America Medical Systems, which builds digital diagnostic medical systems, holds its global customer event. For the past six years, Toshiba has featured a traditional Japanese sake ceremony at its event, selected because of its focus on honoring guests. Dawn Cooper, Toshiba's corporate events manager, is charged with ensuring that it remains unique each year. “[The event] is global in nature, so our guests are from all over the world, which in and of itself presents a challenge for us because what we produce has to be relevant for an international audience,” Cooper said. “It is a wonderful opportunity [to use] a traditional ceremony to honor our customers and to develop an emotional bond with them within a business context.” Toshiba's ceremony consists of two parts. The first half tells the story of the sake ritual. In the second, the company invites four or five customers, dubbed “luminaries,” to the stage to participate in the ceremony itself. Relaying the history of the sake ceremony is tricky because many guests are repeat attendees. “It's establishing how the ceremony came to be, why it's important and what it does,” Cooper said. “This is where the real creative part comes in because it's the same story every year [yet] we have to keep it fresh.” Gathering more then 1,900 international customers at Chicago's Navy Pier last November, Toshiba challenged itself with producing the sake ceremony differently than it had been done before, in a way that everyone—regardless of their language or nationality—would understand. Cooper hired a sand artist, who “drew on a tray of sand that was lit from the bottom and projected onto a large screen. The story was told using voice-over and music. The sand sculptures morphed from one image to the next. It was fascinating to watch.” In past years, Cooper has had the story projected through a water wall, invited a Geisha dancer to entertain attendees, used shadow dancing and told the story of sabers in Japanese history. In the second part of the event, the customers participating at center stage appear in traditional Japanese attire and are each presented with a hammer to break open, a sake barrel. They are toasted with sake, then the audience is honored and invited to share in the toasts. The ceremony takes about 20 minutes, and afterward the “luminary” customers move to smaller stages around the room. Members of the audience—each with their own personal cedar sake cup made in Japan—traveled around the room having their cups signed by each luminary. “People swarm them. They're like rock stars for the night. They love it,” Cooper said. Though the event is populated with Toshiba salespeople, the goal of the event is not about increasing sales but rather about developing the customers' connection to the company. “The purpose is absolutely not to have any kind of hard selling going on. It's strictly to enhance the relationship,” she said. “It's more of a corporate brand message. To acknowledge and to honor our own strong traditional and heritage, but combine it with new entertaining elements all in the context of enhancing our relationships with our customers. We want to establish relationships with a long-term view—relationships for life.” And the investment in customers has paid off. The event has easily become one of the hottest tickets in town. It has grown every year and, though they do not survey attendees, Cooper said it's clear that people enjoy the opportunity to see the spectacle and learn some history from the company's home country. “Invitations are now rather coveted,” she said. “We know they like it because of the demand for the invitations. It gets a little rabid [close to the event]. The requests come fast and furious.” The sales team appreciates the opportunity to build relationships with their customers in a different way as well. “They know that it's not going to be hard-selling event, and that's a nice thing. They can grow the relationships in a different setting,” Cooper said. Planning for the event starts at least three to four months in advance, but Cooper said she spends the whole year looking for ideas that make sense for the event. “The challenge now is: What am I gonna do next year?”
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