A small Japanese company that makes bathroom scales has under 100 million dollars in sales generated by less than 300 people. But they put out a recipe book in 2010 that has sold around five million copies and created a new growth platform. Their story, which depicts how a higher purpose can work, is instructive.

Tanita makes and markets accurate, durable, user-friendly professional and personal scales for measuring health related characteristics such as weight, body fat and body water. Based in part on some patented, breakthrough measurement technology developed in 1992 and branded as “bioelectrical impedance analysis,” Tanita has 50 percent market share in Japan, where it is a household brand for scales, and it is a leader in the global market as well.

With healthy living as a heritage value, Tanita developed a company cafeteria that featured a healthy yet tasty menu at a time in which healthy eating was something of a trend, even a fad, in Japan. The cafeteria items were the subject of a prominent TV feature piece that stimulated a publisher to develop a series of Tanita company cafeteria cookbooks, the first of which appeared in 2010. Now one in ten households in Japan own a Tanita recipe book, and its recipes are featured on several established recipe sites in Japan such Cookpad (which gets nearly 7 million unique monthly visitors).

The success of the cookbook led Tanita to open a 70-seat Tanita Cafeteria in the very popular commercial district of Marunouchi in January 2012. Marunouchi is an upscale urban area near Tokyo Station with high end retailers, corporate offices, and who knows how many thousands of restaurants. The menu items are all under 500 calories, with low sodium and fat content. Each table has a timer, not to encourage people to leave but to encourage them to spend at least 20 minutes eating, because a leisurely meal is healthier. There are slogans to honor healthy lifestyles everywhere. The restaurant is so popular that access needs to be controlled with a number system. And more restaurants are now in development.

Some Observations From Tanita’s Success

1. The recipe book success and the restaurant provided an already strong brand with a whole new basis for a relationship with customers. Many brands have a higher purpose (in Jim Stengel’s words) that simply does not get traction. Tanita is no exception. Their mission has always been to help people lead healthy lives, but it took the recipe book and restaurant to give the claim substance, visibility, credibility and energy.

My last blog posting reported on the findings of BrandJapan 2013, the annual appraisal of some 1,000 Japanese brands. In that database, the Tanita brand went from 107 to 60 with a top ten finish on innovation. Impressive for such a specialized business, as most brands in the top 100 had daily visibility. It did even better in the in the business survey (which appraises the business performance of the firm) rising from 38 to 8, reflecting its new found energy and the business potential of the Tanita restaurants.

2. The effort to be an ultimate go-to source of healthy eating provides a new growth platform for Tanita. The recipe book, like most brilliant strategic moves, was unplanned. It did emerge from a natural extension of some fundamental values reflected in the Tanita mission and culture, but the actual recipe book was based on the luck of being the object of a TV feature and the insight of a publisher, not from the strategic plan of the firm.

The brand does get credit, however, for recognizing the opportunity represented by the recipe book. It started what may be a successful restaurant chain that will provide a significant growth platform for the modest company. A key move was to identify a restaurant champion from within their firm using a competitive process. The winner was both capable and motivated to make the concept a success. He not only added a host of on-brand innovations to the restaurant but was instrumental in introducing an Internet based Health Record to support lifestyle changes, which played a role in keeping the higher purpose as an active strategy guide.

It’s a remarkable story of how a higher purpose, supported by meaningful values and mission can lead to not only an enhanced brand but to a new growth platform.