National / History

Like iconic sign, confectionery giant Glico sets sights on overseas markets

by Anna Masui and Kazuaki Otsuji

Kyodo

Major Japanese confectionery maker Ezaki Glico Co. has introduced a gigantic new signboard to Osaka’s bustling downtown Dotonbori district, a major tourist spot, in hopes of attracting foreign customers as part of its ambitious plan to go global.

The sixth-generation Ezaki Glico signboard, which shows a runner raising his arms in triumph, is illuminated with light-emitting diodes from the evening through midnight, unlike its predecessor that relied on neon.

The newest version of this Osaka landmark, which dates back to the 1930s, also shows popular spots in Japan and abroad. Every 15 minutes, images including Mount Fuji, New York’s Statue of Liberty, a pyramid in Egypt and Wat Pho, a Buddhist temple complex in Bangkok, are displayed behind the runner with LED lighting. Visiting foreign tourists can often be heard cheering upon seeing their home countries featured.

Popular world destinations appearing on the new signboard, which was installed last October, reflect Ezaki Glico’s attempt to further expand overseas as Japan’s population grays and its birthrate dwindles, said Katsuhisa Ezaki, 73, president of the Osaka-based company.

Ezaki Glico was established by Riichi Ezaki (1882-1980), Katsuhisa’s grandfather, in 1922 following his development the previous year of caramel candies containing glycogen, a nutrient that stores energy.

Riichi found a clue to the product’s development when he saw liquid overflowing from a kettle used by fishermen to boil oysters on a riverbank. Oysters contain glycogen.

He named the product “Glico” and released it in a “running man” package containing a picture card as well. He began giving away free toys, including medals, in a small box attached to the distinctive red package in 1927.

And in 1935, Riichi built the first electric signboard in almost the same place where the current board is located near the Ebisubashi Bridge that spans the Dotonbori River. The board, as tall as 33 meters, was 1½ times the size of the current version.

As Japan became more deeply embroiled in World War II, Riichi halted production of the Glico caramel candies in 1942 after being unable to procure enough materials. He dismantled the signboard in 1943 to contribute metal to the war effort.

Osaka, like Tokyo, had been virtually burned to the ground by the time the war ended in 1945. Riichi was forced to rebuild his business from nothing, but he was optimistic because consumers remembered Glico’s free toys and its iconic signboard.

“I believed we could come back to life” because Ezaki Glico’s brand image and good will remained in the memory of consumers, Riichi later recalled.

Ezaki Glico fully revived the Glico product with free toys in 1949 when the number of childbirths in Japan set an all-time high. It has developed some 30,000 kinds of gifts, including miniature dolls, vehicles and household appliances, and displays about 4,000 of them in a museum at its head office in the city of Osaka.

The company set up its second signboard in 1955.

Along with Japan’s population boom and economic growth, Ezaki Glico released Pretz pretzel sticks, Pocky chocolate-coated biscuit sticks and other popular products. It has also overcome the negative impact of an extortion case in which Katsuhisa was abducted in the mid-1980s.

Faced with the shrinking market in Japan, Ezaki Glico is determined to go on the offensive overseas, Katsuhisa said.

The company will initially promote Pocky, which is now available in about 30 countries, in heavily populated nations such as Indonesia and India, hoping to develop it into a global brand like Swiss food company Nestle Ltd.’s KitKat chocolate-covered wafer biscuit, which brings in more than $1 billion in annual sales.

With easy access from Kansai International Airport — a destination for many low-cost carriers from abroad — the Dotonbori district is a popular spot for Asian tourists.

Highly recognizable to these tourists, the Glico signboard is expected to serve as a strong marketing tool for the company’s overseas strategy.