Romancing the ordinary

I love stories of people who make what should be a commoditised product premium, even precious.

Hiroshi Mikitani, the founder of Japan’s Rakuten – the third largest e-commerce company in the world – has a favourite story he tells in interviews of how he was approached by a man who wanted to become one of Rakuten’s first merchants, an egg farmer. Mikitani was initially sceptical when the man said that he wanted to sell eggs online: one could simply buy fresh eggs in the supermarket down the road, after all, without having to send away for them. Well, no, said the egg farmer, actually that isn’t true. Eggs in supermarkets have been in transit for up to two weeks by the time you get them; they aren’t really fresh at all. Whereas I’ll send them to customers the day they are laid, and they’ll be able to eat them the day afterwards. And I feed my chickens properly, without antibiotics, so they are going to be a higher quality than the stuff you buy down the road.

So Tamagoya-san became an online egg store on Rakuten. The egg-seller’s brilliance was to continually introduce new ways to build the emotional relationship with his buyer (filming the chickens and chicks on the farm) and conviction in superior quality: he devised a test with a toothpick to demonstrate the superiority of the yolk, which he posted online. It’s not a test any of us would recognise, or attempt on the eggs we are eating for dinner this evening. But that’s not the point, is it? The egg-seller is continually evolving our relationship with both an everyday product that we no longer think about (until we find out that not all yolks are the same), and how we buy it (the personality and humanity of his shop is the diametric opposite of the impersonal shelves of the local supermarket). He’s now selling half a million eggs a month online at a premium price.

That shouldn’t be possible. But that’s what makes marketing so exciting, isn’t it? Great thinking and ideas, along with a refusal to accept that anything has to be seen as commodity, can bring the world to us. Even if we’re selling something as apparently unexciting as an egg.

This article first appeared in Campaign Asia Pacific.