I was reading in Essence of Ninjutsu by Headmaster Masaaki Hatsumi about a period of time in Japan called the Sengoku Jidai – the Warring States period – when a translation caught my eye. Hatsumi sensei had translated noren as goodwill. If you’re not familiar with what a noren is, it’s the cloth banner that hangs either in the doorway of the restaurant, or more commonly in the west, in the doorway separating the restaurant and kitchen, of Japanese restaurants. In Japan, noren hang in the doors of many traditional businesses and merchant shops. Most noren contain the name of the business, as well as a very short description of what is being offered, and little more.

Noren were originally designed to keep dust and dirt out of shops. As technology improved, they became decorative. They were, and still are to some degree, the brand of a business, the reputation. So valuable is this symbol of goodwill and reputation that in some instances, if a business is sold, the noren is sold as a separate line item that must be paid for.

Noren even have cultural idioms about them. Noren can be referred to as being old or a bit dirty to indicate that the business has longevity and reliability. To say that a noren is damaged or torn is to indicate that the business’ reputation has suffered.

Noren-wake translates as “dividing the noren” – when an apprentice graduated from a master’s tutelage and was judged sufficiently skilled enough to carry on the reputation of the master without tarnishing or sullying it, they would symbolically divide the noren, allowing the former apprentice to use the master’s noren on his own shop. In a society that prizes reputation and honor, being allowed to use a master’s noren is the highest of honors, and a master’s successor would do their utmost to uphold the reputation of the noren.

What does this have to do with marketing today? The concept of noren broadens and expands upon the idea of brand in a conversational medium. Brand is about much more than a logo or a slogan, more than letterhead or a domain name. Brand is goodwill. Brand is reputation – and the actions you take as a marketer will increase, decrease, or leave unchanged the goodwill you have in your marketplace.

Consider this: as channels continue to fragment, we end up reverting to small community models of organization. Our social networks are digital communities, and the places we collectively visit online are our digital marketplaces where we trade our goods and services, engage in conversation, interact, gain new ideas, and ultimately return home with more value than we arrived with. If the digital marketplace is real, then the digital noren – your reputation and name itself – is equally real and needs careful consideration.

Who in your organization knows the most about what your noren says to your customers? Who in your organization knows what your employees and subsidiaries are doing in your name? Noren-wake is real. Every time a customer service representative picks up the phone, they are dividing your noren and speaking in your name.

What does your noren say about you? What should it be saying? Are they the same? They should be.


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