FEATURE17 May 2023

Sparking success: How insight is helping Panasonic expand

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Asia Pacific Features Impact Technology UK

Japanese-owned Panasonic is one of the world’s biggest electronics companies, but is now using insight to expand beyond the consumer electronics category in Europe. Liam Kay speaks to Shane Hanson to find out more.   

photo of woman blow drying her hair with a panasonic product

Kōnosuke Matsushita started his business in Japan in 1918, selling duplex lamp sockets before expanding to other products, including a line of bicycle lamps and electric irons. The company he founded, then known as Matsushita Electric, would later expand into areas such as consumer electronics, cooking accessories and beauty products. That company’s name is Panasonic, and it has since become one of Japan’s most recognisable exports.

Panasonic is based in, and run from, Japan, but has a strong global presence. This has led it into competition with many regional and global rivals, from Dyson in the UK to Philips in the Netherlands and Braun in Germany. Insight is helping the company increase its footprint in Europe and compete within a cut-throat market.

Despite the size of the company and its long-term presence in Europe, Panasonic has a relatively new insight function on the continent. Rewind five years, and there was no member of staff heading a market research or insight department, or operating in any role primarily overseeing either discipline, across Europe.

Then, five years ago, that changed with the appointment of Shane Hanson, head of insight and innovation. Hanson began her career at Procter & Gamble and held senior insights roles at brands including KP Snacks and Philips before taking on the challenge of building a European insight presence at Panasonic. “I think tech companies are just realising that it takes a certain skill set to establish this type of best practice,” she says.

Hanson faced a sizeable challenge. “They wanted someone who had a breadth of skills when it came to market research, shopper as well as consumer insight,” she says. “Panasonic, historically, is known for high-quality televisions, but distribution was restricted to the likes of John Lewis. It was a very premium targeting in terms of the brand-positioning story, as well as the product offering. That made sense to a certain point, but the growth ambition from the headquarters in Japan was how it could build the portfolio and business beyond premium televisions.”

It was a slow process embedding herself in the company and expanding knowledge of insights among staff. For the first three years at Panasonic, Hanson stood alone, solely responsible for the company’s research work across Europe.

Agency partners and freelance researchers were brought on board, but, otherwise, major decisions were made in Osaka. “Products and the strategy for Europe is developed in Japan,” says Hanson. “There will be consultations with local management or the chief executive for Europe and their team, but the decision-making still happens at the headquarters.”

In 2019, Hanson decided to get to grips with Panasonic’s internal understanding of the value of insight, inspired partly by a colleague’s question about what an insight manager ‘did’. She ran several workshops describing what insight brings to the business, but decided to take this demonstration of the value of insight a step further, by setting up an online training course. “My first module was ‘what is insight’, with module two being the differences between qualitative and quantitative insight,” she says.

“It was really basic stuff, but every month another module was launched using an online platform.”

The programme has been deemed a success internally, costing £1,800 per year to run the online training platform, and reaching 436 employees in 20 countries across Panasonic. “It is not easy, but what helps is having one or two people to support and sponsor you,” adds Hanson, explaining that the company’s leadership has subsequently embraced insight. Her team has since expanded in Germany, with Hanson based in London and reporting to the head of marketing.

photo of panasonic compact kitchen appliance

A new horizon

Panasonic is arguably best known for its televisions and home-entertainment products, but the company’s range goes far beyond that, and includes hair and beauty, and kitchen appliances. It is, for example, one of the five biggest hairdryer producers in the world. This side of the business was poorly understood in Europe, however, and was not a major revenue stream. Hanson set out to try to change that, using the UK as a test market.

“The brief was very clear – in order to grow strategically important categories, such as health and grooming, we needed to know what the customer was looking for,” she says. “It is all about growing, commercially, our strategic categories that are not our bread and butter. We need a lot of real-time insight for that.”

Panasonic brought on board Kantar TGI, which runs survey-led, nationally representative research to identify strategic target audiences for the brand across all consumer electronics categories. This allows it to develop market strategies and understand customer needs as they evolve with age and circumstances.

Panasonic also works withother insight companies globally, including Brand Genetics, CloudArmy and Untapped Innovation, and has a pulse survey for consumer and shopper views on the brand.

The plan for its beauty section was to carry out primary research across the UK, Italy, France and Germany, and decide how best to market products such as hairdryers in those countries, and which retail outlets to target to stock the items.

Kapil Sampanthan, business development director at Kantar TGI, says the UK was used as a test market to help understand what was needed to bridge the gap between products and market needs. The aim was to know the challenges for Panasonic in the market, as well as who the ideal customer is and how to compete with rival brands. In addition, Sampanthan said the biggest goal was to identify the most important factors driving customers’ purchase decisions. “Is it price; is it quality; is it sustainability; is it your packaging? How best do you want to communicate with this consumer?”

Panasonic used the research to inform the launch of its Nanoe hairdryer in Boots stores. The research found a strong association between Japanese companies and quality products more broadly, and that Panasonic’s track history in the technology industry meant it was warmly received by consumers when branching into a new area, such as the premium hairdryer market. The latent quality of the brand could therefore be leveraged to help challenge rival hairdryer producers.

“There is a very high awareness – probably 90% of the population have heard of us. That put us in a very strong position as a brand,” says Hanson.

Panasonic’s research suggested the UK would provide a good opportunity to test its ability to compete for consumers for premium products and take on a homegrown rival in Dyson. This meant adopting a similar price and positioning as Dyson, with Kantar providing input on messaging and what would resonate with customers.

The UK findings for the hairdryer research were broadly similar to those for the other three European markets – France, Germany and Italy – tested by Panasonic and Kantar TGI. This was not the case for some categories – for example, kitchen appliances, which showed greater divergence in attitudes between the markets (see boxout).

panasonic men's grooming kit

A new market

In the past two years, Panasonic has introduced further beauty products into the UK, such as hair straighteners, and launched the Nanoe in more countries, such as Poland. The success of the hairdryer research has meant that extra budget has been released in-house to boost its insight capacity.

There have been tweaks along the way. Research by Hanson found issues with Amazon reviews for the Nanoe, with most negative reviews homing in on alleged hair damage. The company altered product descriptions in Europe to ensure the products were used correctly, removing the potential for future negative reviews along similar lines.

For Hanson, part of what drives commercial success is “working tech or engineering speak into consumer-meaningful language on a customer-facing portal”. This requires a deep understanding of consumer needs and how the technology works, then bringing the two together as content for product web pages on Amazon, Argos and Boots.

The research resulted in Panasonic doubling its hairdryer sales in Boots in 2020 and selling four times the number of hairdryers on Black Friday. “Selling 5,000 units in a day was unheard of in the history of Panasonic,” adds Hanson.

Tracking customer sentiment and attitudes has also shown that the premium market is still holding up, despite a cost-of-living crisis in the UK. Hanson says consumers have become ‘more mindful about where they spend’, with mass-market items most affected, and the popularity of other, cheaper hairdryers has been hit harder than premium categories.

“As a society, we are moving more towards conscious or mindful consumption versus two or three years ago,” she adds. “That shift is becoming more prominent during this cost-of-living crisis.”

With this in mind, Panasonic has begun a project to help better understand who is driving the demand for sustainable products and services across Europe, and what customers are looking for when shopping for more environmentally friendly items, with the  research still under way when this article was written. ‘Eco segments’ research offered by Kantar TGI is being used to understand more about consumer expectations and preferences in this area.

“To become a brand that is taken seriously on the topic of sustainability, we will have to adapt our product portfolio,” says Hanson.

Just as in the days of Kōnosuke Matsushita, Panasonic is looking at how it can expand into new product categories. This time, insight is helping to lead the way.

This article was first published in the April 2023 issue of Impact.

Convenience culturE

Panasonic has sought to understand the European kitchen appliances market, as part of ongoing work with Kantar TGI, to help its expansion beyond consumer electronics

Kantar helped Panasonic develop a Europe-wide psychographic segmentation model based on lifestyle, beliefs, consumption and shopping behaviours, as well as media habits, using its survey-based methodology.

The research found that kitchen appliance usage could differ wildly between countries, with participants in France and Italy more opposed to convenience cooking tools, such as bread makers and microwaves, than Germany and, particularly, the UK.

For Panasonic, which sells appliances such as microwaves, this made the French and Italian markets more challenging to sell to and design items for, and, therefore, less of a lucrative target in this product area.

“The French and Italian cultures of cooking are so much engrained in their DNA,” says Hanson, head of insight and innovation. “Certain cultures cook a lot more than other cultures, and that makes it more difficult from a product-development view.”

In addition, the research has helped the company to understand changes in food and cooking habits during the cost-of-living crisis and following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. This, in turn, has helped the UK team to adapt its communication strategies accordingly, and directed resources into developing products for each market and talking to the right consumers on the most suitable platforms.