With the entry of big players in the beverage industry and a rise in the consumption of bottled tea, local Japanese farmers that produce high-quality green tea face difficulties in selling their products for fair market value. This is where Suil Hong, who founded a company that specializes in producing and selling organic Japanese green tea powder under the brand NODOKA, is shaking things up.
Tea is one of the world’s oldest beverages. Originating in China with medicinal purposes, it quickly spread to Europe and the rest of the globe. This resulted in a large variety of teas being traded and mixed from different countries and qualities. In Japan, however, green tea producers continue to grow a variety of green teas unique to their culture, cultivated by methods of production that have been developed over centuries.
More than simply a medicine, or even a commodity, Japanese green tea has deep cultural and societal roots and is traditionally drunk as part of a sacred and meditative ritual (known as chanoyu, or “Japanese tea ceremony”), for which its preparation and presentation are very unique. Japanese green tea is recognized and appreciated worldwide not only for its taste, but also for the part it has played in the development of Japanese culture.
Unsurprisingly, other parts of the world realize the value behind such a product, and have started to commercialize Japanese green tea, attempting to reproduce its natural features and take advantage of its meaningful cultural background. Multinational companies are not only planting green tea bushes, but many are also trying copy the cultural background of Japanese green tea for their own gain.
Suil Hong, a third-generation Korean resident, was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. In 2016 he founded the company NODOKA in order to bring high-quality Japanese green tea to broader markets within and outside of Japan. His business model focuses on the promotion of this traditional Japanese product in order to preserve the tradition and share his passion for the Japanese culture.
The young entrepreneur got his start at Japan Expo USA, where he managed various Japanese cultural events in the United States of America (USA). During this time, he noticed a growing international interest in Japanese goods, including Japanese green tea. However, the companies selling the goods to foreign clientele were not in fact Japanese, but were nevertheless successful in their endeavors due to lack of competition by Japanese producers and Japanese companies.
There are so many Japanese companies trying to promote their products abroad, but they are not so good at marketing.Suil Hong, Founder of NODOKA
He also realized that green tea was often marketed as coming from Japan, even when it did not actually originate in the country. In fact, despite its vast popularity, 98% of green tea produced in Japan never leaves the country. However, most consumers are unaware of this distinction, and most farmers of authentic Japanese green tea are unaware of this situation. While Mr. Hong is happy to see a continued growing interest in Japanese food and Japanese tea abroad, he is disappointed with the availability of authentic Japanese products.
Even though many of those products are labeled ‘Japanese green tea,’ they are not really from Japan.Suil Hong, Founder of NODOKA
After returning to Japan, Mr. Hong decided to visit different Japanese green tea farms in order to better understand the production process behind the product and to gauge the actual situation of green tea producers.
Through his visits he met the family of Mr. Yoshimitsu Masuda, a tea farmer in Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture, who has cultivated organic Japanese green tea for over 20 years. Mr. Hong and Mr. Masuda struck a deal, deciding to form a partnership in which Mr. Hong would purchase Mr. Masuda’s green tea for the production of NODOKA products.
Mr. Hong now works closely with five farmers who can now receive a more stable source of income for their cultivation of high-quality, organic tea. Though such partnerships, Mr. Hong hopes to help build a bridge between authentic Japanese green tea producers and consumers worldwide, by providing consumers with not only a product, but also a genuine story.
Many farmers don’t have access to the internet. They’re not even aware that green tea is well received overseas.Suil Hong, Founder of NODOKA
Mr. Hong decided to raise funds for his endeavor through a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, through which his product pitch received financial support from interested people in more than 15 countries. Mr. Hong’s dream of selling organic Japanese green tea under the brand “NODOKA”, which means “calm” and “peaceful” in Japanese, was starting to come true.
Following an analysis of his potential markets, Mr. Hong realized that most foreign consumers do not have the instruments necessary to brew tea in the traditional way of putting whole particles of leaves in hot water and letting it steep (i.e. soak). In order to make his products available for a wider audience, he decided to focus on a more accessible powdered tea.
Mr. Hong believes that organic tea leaves have more health benefits, because insects are removed by hand – one by one – rather than sprayed with pesticides. In addition, the use of powdered tea means greater ingestion of whole tea leaves. This increases its nutritional value and harks back to green tea’s original medicinal use.
While matcha (tea leaves protected from direct sunlight and ground into powder) is a well-known type of Japanese tea, Mr. Hong decided to introduce other types of organic Japanese teas, including sencha (tea leaves grown in full sunlight and processed in a way that accounts for over three quarters of all tea produced in Japan), genmaicha (a combination of roasted rice grains and tea leaves picked at the end of the period of harvest), and hojicha (roasted tea leaves with a lower caffeine content).
Whereas a Western audience might attribute a unique perspective to green tea, Japanese consumers do not usually see green tea as special, but more so as a daily commodity – a way of thinking Mr. Hong hopes to change with NODOKA. In order to boost sales in the domestic market, Mr. Hong decided to partner with companies that serve green tea in less conventional ways, such as in smoothies and sweets.
For his branding strategy, Mr. Hong decided to dress his products in a clean but modern look that would be attractive to his targeted consumers, who tend to seek more wholesome products. He also worked with Crew, an online service provider that connects those with projects with creative professionals. Crew connected him with a Canadian designer with a background in food and beverage companies, who helped design the NODOKA logo and packaging. Finally, Mr. Hong also sought the use of two easily recognizable certification marks: Organic JAS (Japanese Agricultural Standards) and USDA Organic (United States Department of Agriculture), which label his products as organic.
Having invested so much money, time, and effort in this project, Mr. Hong also had a clear understanding that it was necessary to protect the intangible assets surrounding NODOKA. However, he did not know anything about intellectual property (IP) and he did not quite understand what he might be able to protect or even how he should proceed.
When asked about this difficulty, Mr. Hong replied, “It was hard. I didn’t know how to do it, and I didn’t know who could help me. Maybe lawyers, but I didn’t have any connections with them.” Searching the internet for IP advice, Mr. Hong came across the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), a government-related organization which promotes trade, as well as offers a program for legal advice on IP. With their support he was able to move forward.
With the NODOKA logo developed in collaboration with the designer provided by Crew, Mr. Hong applied to the Japan Patent Office (JPO) for the registration of a figurative mark under Nice class 30 for tea, tea beverages, and related food products. If all goes well (including the substantive examination in which the mark will be analyzed against other registered trademarks) the trademark will be registered by the end of 2018.
All of his efforts have begun to pay dividends, with the brand receiving recognition from clients and the media. Through his endeavors with NODOKA to revive traditional Japanese green tea production, Mr. Hong is often featured in Japanese and English articles in highly read Japanese newspapers, such as The Japan Times, as well as in more niche news sources such as World Tea News.