Panasonic’s Charm Offensive

January 22, 2015
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Panasonic’s Charm Offensive

These are tough times for Panasonic. Although the company’s nowhere near on its last legs, it is in deep trouble. Those of us who fell hard for the aesthetic and quality of Plasma TVs—and you’ll know I’m one of them if you read my column—were bitterly disappointed by the way the industry in general conspired to go with the LED format without every seriously discussing it with consumers. Panasonic, who had already put their television eggs in one basket, took a hit in the billions.

Once a giant in the electronics industry in the 70s and 80s, Panasonic’s Plasma disaster followed the slow bleed that began with the purchase of high-quality electronics companies like Emerson and Curtis Mathes and the forming of its own specialist Technics brand.  Along with rice cookers, which became ubiquitous throughout the Far East, their line of high-quality stereo equipment and components were beloved all over the world.  Even now the hippest of hip-hop DJ’s will still use a Technics’ SL-1200 turntable, which is as rugged and consistent as they come. Somehow, though, as the Reagan-era boomed, Panasonic’s founding aesthetic of producing high quality specialized electronics for niche markets suddenly began to slip away. By the mid to late nineties, whatever bouquet of good taste the company had once floated on like Ophelia’s lily pad was long gone.

Panasonic got rid of all its old guard in 2001. Yoshi Yomada, the driven, energetic CEO of Panasonic in the USA and apparently the heir-apparent in Tokyo, has, over the last thirteen years, completely streamlined their American operations, surgically removing excesses like the rooftop golf course at headquarters. A very serious guy, raised in the traditional code of Bushido, Yomada did the necessary, firing many veteran employees who had been led to believe that theirs were jobs for life. Affable, but very distant, and difficult to talk to spontaneously, Yomada was seen as the enemy by many American workers who had dedicated their lives to the corporation. On the other hand, as things began to steadily improve, Yomada hired many of them back. At the same time, however, Panasonic itself and Yomada in particular are often portrayed by the media as a sort of cold, foreign, party of suspicious carpetbaggers.

“I accept that such decisions have made me unpopular, but I do not exist in a vacuum,” he says through his translator after I ask him about it. “The business world has very sharp teeth.”

He pats me on the shoulder and shows a natural smile when I tell him how upset I was over the demise of Panasonic’s Plasma. The Plasma, he explained, had been seen as a savior by the new board he was a part of. The problem that Panasonic had not taken into account, however, was the complete superiority, both picture-wise and in general durability, of the Plasma format over its LED rival. By the time Panasonic had met with their rivals at Samsung, Toshiba, Sony, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Philips, Sanyo and Pioneer, et al, who had already got together with the likes of retailers like Wal-Mart, Best Buy and, of course, Amazon and its Machiavellian founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, it was already a fait accompli. Having already witnessed this kind of anti-elite coup when all the same companies banded together to destroy the superior Sony Betamax and keep the inferior VHS format, I can’t say I was really surprised. Products that don’t break down for a long time are anti-intuitive when you are as greedy, powerful and bloodthirsty as Jeff Bezos.

Panasonic’s Charm Offensive

I present this theory to him and, although he says nothing, he sends one of his young assistants to buy me ice cream. For a moment, I’m eating soft-serve ice cream, and feeling very impressed with my bad self. I also can’t help but be impressed by the manner in which Panasonic somehow managed to roll with this body blow. One thing about the Japanese in general, having survived atom bombs, American occupation, and, more recently, a tsunami that almost caused a nuclear Gotterdammerung, is they can sure take a beating and still come back.

At any rate, Panasonic, perhaps aware that they’ve been out of the public eye for a while, or perhaps because they’re genuinely altruistic, have, in a move spearheaded by Yoshi Yomada, begun thinking and acting Green. As he informs the large crowd which has shown up to hear his speech, a mountain-range’s-worth of old television sets are being discarded daily in the giant market that is America, especially since the government-imposed shift to digital television broadcasting since 2009.

Gadgets don’t have to harm nature, Mr. Yomada thinks. Why be bitter about planned obsolescence? This led Mr. Yamada to call in Sharp and Toshiba for a meeting in the Summer of 2008, which inspired all three to form the Electronics Manufacturers Recycling Management Company in partnership with CES itself.

With Congress having passed laws that demanded the recycling of analog media in general, expectations from liberals had been high; unfortunately, a lot of talk about parts recycling made for excellent media-directed rhetoric, but little that was practical. Almost seven years later, on its 48th anniversary, CES joined Panasonic in a joint proclamation that the ‘Green’ theme they’ve been pushing for eight years is finally moving up a gear. Panasonic in particular have been concentrating on research and experimentation with non-toxic, renewable batteries activated with water and cars powered by electricity or other non-oil-based flexfuels.

Panasonic came on like gangbusters at the show and there was lots of enthusiasm in the Mandalay Bay building for new products like the high-end curved 4K Ultra HD televisions and Blu-ray players. They also announced the revival of the aforementioned Technics hi-fi component line.  Yoshio Yomado left the product for others to hawk, however. He wanted to talk about Flexfuels, EMRMC and recycling.

“We are all in this together,” he said.

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