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Before there was Apple, there was Sony. And before there was Steve Jobs, there was Akio Morita. A marketing genius who built Sony into one of the world’s best-known and widely respected brands, Morita and Sony almost single-handedly shifted the negative, second-rate connota- tion of “made in Japan” and demonstrated that the nation, devastated by World War II, could become an economic force in the world.
Under Morita’s 43-year watch, Sony created a remarkable string of industry-changing products that range from the first home- use VCR to the groundbreaking Sony Walkman and the compact disc. He even took Sony into the movie business by acquiring Columbia Pictures in 1989. A visionary who believed in global markets, Morita understood that innovation and marketing would drive profits and growth, and he was intent on forging strong business relationships in North America, Europe and elsewhere. Under Morita, Sony became a glittering household name around the globe; at its height it was a better-known brand than Coca-Cola. As recently as 2006, a Harris Poll showed that Sony was the No. 1 brand among American consumers, ahead of Coke and General Electric.
“He was probably the greatest marketer of the 20th century, right up there with Steve Jobs,” says John Nathan, professor of Japanese cultural studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of “Sony: A Private Life,” a look behind the scenes at Sony during Morita’s tenure.
Given the abject destruction of Japan during the war (when the nation had lost a quarter of its wealth), Morita’s achievement was extraordinary. Always fascinated with gadgets and appliances, Morita studied physics in college, and in 1946, amid the rubble of postwar Tokyo in a bombed-out department store, founded the earlier version of the company with his partner Masaru Ibuka. While Ibuka handled the technology development, Morita became the front man, raising money and becoming the company’s chief salesman. A dozen years later, he would coin the name for the corporation, combining the word sonus, Latin for sound, with “sonny boy,” an English phrase that connoted energy and youth.
Morita often told the story of his first trip to Germany in 1953, when in a Düsseldorf restaurant he was served a bowl of ice cream decorated with a miniature umbrella. The German waiter, attempting to be kind, informed Morita that the umbrella was made in Japan. Morita was infuriated that “the world associated ‘made in Japan’ with trinkets and cheap imitations,” according to his obituary in The Economist in 1999. “For the rest of his life he sought to prove to foreigners that ‘made in Japan’ meant originality, quality and value for the money.”
As Sony grew, Morita felt the pull of the U.S. marketplace and moved his family to New York. With his blue eyes and shock of white hair, he was handsome, flamboyant and charismatic, a perfect figure to spearhead the globalization of Sony through the 1960s and ’70s. “Our plan is to lead the public with new products rather than ask them what kind of products they want,” Morita said. “The public does not know what is possible, but we do.”
One of his greatest examples was the Sony Walkman. The Walkman, a portable audio cassette player and a forerunner to Apple’s iPod, required the use of earphones, which were considered anathema because they were used primarily by deaf people. Undaunted, Morita unveiled the Sony Walkman in 1979 and it fundamentally changed how people listened to music.
But if there is any cautionary lesson in Morita’s story, it’s how the power of marketing has its limits. In 1975, Sony tried to revolutionize how people watched television and movies by unveiling Betamax, the first home videocassette recorder. Within a year, competitor JVC introduced the VHS format—a cheaper, more versatile product—but Morita refused to give in and spent years marketing a format people wouldn’t accept. “He got blindsided by his passion,” says John Nathan. Still, though chastened, the Betamax fiasco did little damage to Morita’s legacy, and when he died in 1999 at age 78, he was hailed as “the engine that pulled the Japanese economy.”