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TOKYO-Apple Japan shot to the No. 2 spot behind NEC in Japan's personal computer market last year as the distribution and brand-building strategy introduced in 1990 finally began paying off.

Despite entering Japan early, only a year after the personal computer market emerged in 1982, Apple found building the business to be difficult. Seven years later brand awareness was still zero, market share was too low to measure, and when asked to pick up Apples, delivery services sometimes sent a refrigerated truck.

"We were completely unknown," admits Hector Saldana, 46, sent to Tokyo in 1990 to improve Apple's business after serving as general manager, Latin America.

As Apple Japan's director of channel & corporate division, Mr. Saldana identified a number of mistakes. The computer's operating system hadn't been adapted to the Japanese language structure, only about 20 software packages were available and distribution was limited, he recalls. "There simply hadn't been enough resources put into Japan to get results. It was clear we had to take a radically different approach."

He also pointed out that while the Apple name and logo are widely known worldwide, recognition in Japan was non-existent. "So we set out to develop advertising and a related marketing program to position Apple as one of the top five computers in Japan."

Working with Dentsu, Mr. Saldana realized there were problems that advertising alone could not solve. Distribution became the first priority as he sought to expand the number of outlets selling Apple computers. At the time, more than 70% of Apple's $200 million in sales were through Canon Inc.

"We needed to do business with more companies, both to broaden our geographic coverage of Japan and to reach into new potential markets, such as government, education and large corporations," he says.

In advertising, Apple showed the Mac being used by well-known professional designers and has since segued into spots depicting the computer being used at home by different generations of a typical Japanese family.

Ease of use has been a key. "Newcomers to computing find a Mac easier to learn than anything else," he says. "They don't have to become computer experts before they can use a Mac productively, whether at home, in the office or at school."

By the beginning of last year, Apple's strategy was coming together. More than 50 companies, including Minolta, Brother and Sharp, were Apple resellers or distributors, and more than 5,000 outlets stocked the brand. About 1,000 different Japanese-language software packages were on sale. The result: Apple Japan's market share shot up to 13.9% from 8.3% in 1992. Sales that year touched $1 billion, the figure originally set as 1994's target.

By the last quarter of 1993, Apple's share hit 20%, industry figures indicate, putting it ahead of respectable local rivals, Fujitsu, Toshiba and Seiko-Epson.

But the job isn't over. Last October, Mr. Saldana became director for education & consumer sales, an important post as the government encourages widespread use of computers in schools.

He's starting now from a better position. "We've stopped beinga niche product," Mr. Saldana says. "We've entered the mainstream."

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