Kenichi Hori President and CEO, Mitsui & Co., Ltd. & Kashiwa Sato Creative Director

Follow your aspirations
Effect change for the better
To make a difference in our world

Mr. Kashiwa Sato, a leading creative director in Japan, and who has been spearheading Mitsui & Co.’s corporate branding project since 2014, sat down with Mitsui & Co. President and CEO Kenichi Hori to explore “what is Mitsui & Co.?” in the context of the drastically changing times. The two also talk about their thoughts behind the new branding initiative scheduled for launch in 2022.

Kashiwa Sato official website:

The Mitsui & Co. Branding Project:
Each employee is a medium for brand building

── We would like to start with a review of Mitsui's branding project.

The Mitsui & Co. Branding Project: Each employee is a medium for brand building.

Kashiwa Sato Mr. Iijima, who was the president at the time, jokingly said, “In the US, Matsui is more famous than Mitsui (making a comparison between Mitsui and Mr. Hideki Matsui, a former US Major League player).” I think there are hardly any people in Japan who haven’t heard of Mitsui. Globally, however, Mitsui doesn’t have the same level of recognition and Mr. Iijima must have experienced this firsthand. This may be an issue common to many B2B companies, but although people know the name Mitsui, it is difficult for those on the outside to get an idea of what the company actually does and what it is aspiring to do. I found this to be one of the core issues. I have worked on the development of branding strategies for a range of companies, but most of them were B2C companies. It was the first time for me to work on the branding of a B2B business like Mitsui. In that sense, this project was an entirely new challenge for me. Even though the way we communicate has changed dramatically due to an upheaval in the media landscape, communication remains indispensable for all people and organizations and it may be meaningless to simply categorize companies into the conventional groupings of B2B or B2C. When I was first approached by people from Mitsui to take on this project, I was coincidentally thinking about these things. To me, this project was symbolic of the changing times.

logo design

 First, I proposed a two-pillared approach: unification of visual identity (VI) and alignment of the corporate concepts and philosophy. With regards to VI, Mr. Iijima initially said, “I don’t want you to feel the need to stick with the igetasan (Mitsui’s house seal with the Japanese character for “three” in the center of an igeta, which is a rotated square with overlapping bars), and I want you to suggest what you think would be the best, from scratch.” I contemplated his proposal and considered possibilities from all angles, but in the end, I became convinced that this traditional igetasan is irreplaceable brand asset for Mitsui. We fine-tuned the shape and balance to create a modern and strong design. We also restyled the “MITSUI & CO.” logotype by developing an original, heavyset bold font, and created a unified visual identity. On the philosophy side, I interviewed people from all walks of life, regardless of age or position; new employees, executives, as well as you, too, Mr. Hori, at which time you were the General Manager of the Corporate Planning & Strategy Division. And finally, we devised the corporate slogan, “360 ° business innovation.”, which encapsulates what Mitsui does – its functions and roles as a global investment and trading company – and also conveys them symbolically to a global audience.

The Mitsui & Co. Branding Project: Each employee is a medium for brand building. Kenichi Hori

Kenichi Hori The logo you designed is displayed on the Hibiya-dori Ave. side of the current head office building, and every time, I look at it admiringly and think, “I just love this logo.”

Sato Thank you for the compliment!

Hori The original meaning of MITSUI & CO. is Mitsui and “companies” and I think the wonderful thing about your logo design is that the “& CO.” part has been reinvented to have a completely different appeal. Before this logo, and actually this may be uniquely Mitsui, but the logos and fonts used at overseas offices were quite different, and there was too much local individuality and diversity on display. So, I think the unification of these independently developed logos was a great initial outcome; however, as the branding project progressed, this logo and the project itself made us think more deeply about the meaning of the “& CO.” part.

Sato Yes, that’s right. I think the second phase of the project in particular played an important role in this. The framework of the Advertising Project was designed based on a request from current chairman Mr. Yasunaga, to “make our employees think so hard that steam comes out of their ears.” So, I sat down and discussed face-to-face with your employees about what Mitsui & Co. is, and the significance of the business, among other things, and translated their thoughts into an advertisement to be communicated externally. Teams from all the business units participated in this project and I have talked to them over a period of three years – it really was a painstaking, marathon process to say the least. But I think it paid off, and this project served as an opportunity for each and every employee to perceive branding as their own personal mission.

Hori When you think about who the biggest player and what the most effective medium is in communicating Mitsui's brand image to the outside world, it all boils down to each individual employee. Mitsui is neither a store nor a product; Mitsui is People. I think that is clearly expressed in the logo design that emphasizes the role of Mitsui’s “company,” which is synonymous with “individual employees.”

 Also, the slogan “360° business innovation.” conjures up the image of the Earth we live on. At the core of Mitsui & Co.’s founding philosophy is the idea of caring for the Earth and the world we live in, and since encountering the COVID-19 pandemic, awareness of these concepts has heightened across society. In that sense, the slogan “360° business innovation.” has pointed out the meaning and mission of our business in a way that is a little ahead of the curve. In other words, to bring about useful solutions that society and global communities truly seek by applying cross-industry synergies and innovative ideas that transcend conventional boundaries: That's Mitsui’s role.

The Mitsui & Co. Branding Project: Each employee is a medium for brand building. logo

From products to services
And to purposes

── What are your thoughts on the corporate activities and branding approach that are needed amid the current changes in society and people's values?

From products to services And to purposes

Sato As you said earlier, of course, efforts to address global issues have been underway in various forms for years, but I truly feel that such challenges are ever present in our lives. The younger generation is especially conscious of and closely following these issues, and they are seriously and sincerely thinking about what we should do about our society and the Earth. Clearly, it is vital to generate profits as a business. But, in the current era, corporate entities are constantly being asked: Is the company making a valuable contribution to society and to the Earth? What is the significance of the existence of the company or the business? Accordingly, when communicating through branding and corporate public relations, it is becoming increasingly important to directly address such themes, specifically, how Mitsui can contribute to society going forward, and what meaning and value one can find by joining and working for Mitsui. On the topic of value perspectives, it has been quite some time since the focus of consumer behavior has shifted from products (tangible goods) to services (experience). But today, I think this trend may be evolving another step and entering a transition phase from “experience” to “purpose.” To me, it appears that many people are looking for meaning and purpose and now.

Hori As you said, I agree that today’s young people have developed an exceptionally high level of awareness of social issues. Looking at Mitsui’s employees as well, many of them appear to be keenly interested in how their work can ultimately contribute to society and the world, and they also crave opportunities to directly experience the results of their contributions. What young people are looking at is the landscape of the future in a way. Naturally, we, on the management side, have a strong desire to share this vision of theirs. That said, since it is ultimately the business world that we face, we cannot casually get started on a project because it looks interesting, only to abandon it because it turns out to be difficult. You need to ask yourself: What should you do, and what kind of mindset do you need to adopt in order to raise your game and give real meaning and impact to your project? In other words, what matters is the middlegame (as in chess and shogi). Even in the face of a daunting prospect, we should grit our teeth and endure the middlegame to persevere to the end. Back to branding, I think that a shared belief formed in the process of branding should provide encouragement when employees face challenging situations like that.

Sato I totally agree with you. Currently, Mitsui & Co. is about to launch a new initiative under the theme of “kokorozashi” (aspirations that each of us has to make a difference in the world, driven by an inherent desire to serve the common good). My interpretation is that this means Mitsui’s approach to business is drawing closer to the “purpose” side of things, that is, to the more fundamental essence of business that has been cultivated in your corporate DNA for decades.

Employees’ Kokorozashi as the driving force
The company as a stage

── Mr. Hori, what are your thoughts on the new initiative?

Employees’ Kokorozashi as the driving force The company as a stage

Hori The message we want to convey with this initiative does not deviate from what our predecessors have endeavored to do, and what we have inherited. Each of our employees has his or her own aspirations, eager to pursue and achieve something, and Mitsui & Co. is a platform where those passionate individuals come together. Here, the scale of their job or scope of responsibilities doesn’t matter. While each person's aspirations may be different, as with their approaches, people respect each other’s aspirations. Mitsui & Co. is an organization united by people working together with a spirit of helping each other grow. This group of professionals driven by aspirations who elevate and inspire each other form the foundation of Mitsui & Co. As such, the company is merely the “stage” on which each employee strives and thrives, and the individual and the company are on an equal footing.

Sato That is indeed the “& CO.” spirit. I think today’s society is becoming increasingly complex to the point that we do not even know what the real issues are. When we have to tackle the root cause of complex issues that we are facing now, it is often beyond the scope of one individual’s capability, and we need to involve our colleagues, who can share expertise and wisdom and contribute, to “co-create” the solution. This approach is becoming more and more important. I believe this is certainly the “& CO.” spirit and approach rooted in Mitsui & Co.

Hori About the root cause you just mentioned, I think it is essential for us to comprehend it first when dealing with complex issues. So, I'm telling our employees to not only spare no efforts in doing extensive fieldwork, but to repeat it again and again to get a realistic idea of what's happening on the frontlines and to grasp the essence of the issue at hand. Today, how accurately a company can get to the heart of the issue determines the competitiveness of its business. Once we identify that, we will leverage the power of co-creation, through both internal and external partnerships, and work to deliver a comprehensive solution in the way that only Mitsui can do. Failing any of these approaches, we will not be able to create tomorrow's business.

 I may be setting a very high bar for our employees, but that is because I respect the passion held within each and every employee. I want Mitsui & Co. to be a company that is 100% committed to realizing the aspirations and visions of our employees.

Sato When I talked with Mitsui people, I can tell that they really like working for and being part of Mitsui & Co, which is wonderful. It is my humble desire that you will keep providing such an environment for your employees. I also hope Mitsui & Co. will continue to be the kind of company where each employee believes he or she can realize their individual, unique aspirations by using Mitsui & Co. as their “stage”.

Kenichi Hori

President and CEO, Mitsui & Co., Ltd.

Born in 1962. Joined Mitsui in 1984.
While serving as GM of the Corporate Planning & Strategy Division from 2013, appointed as Managing Officer in 2014. Named COO of the Nutrition & Agriculture Business Unit in 2016, Representative Director and Executive Managing Officer in 2018, and Senior Executive Managing Officer in 2019. Assumed current position in April 2021.

Kashiwa Sato

Creative Director

Born in 1965.
Active in a wide range of fields as a brand strategy total producer.
Author of multiple books including bestseller “Kashiwa Sato’s Ultimate Method of Reaching the Essentials.” Recipient of the Tokyo ADC Grand Prix, ICONIC AWARDS 2021 BEST OF BEST, and many other awards. Specially appointed professor at Kyoto University Graduate School of Management.

The interview was conducted with thorough infection countermeasures in place.

Posted in December 2021