China economy

Porsche designed a sleek machine for China's rich – and it’s not a car, it’s a washing machine

  • With an expanding middle-class that often likes to flaunt its new wealth, China has become the biggest appliance market for Panasonic outside Japan
PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 November, 2018, 10:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 November, 2018, 10:29am

With its sleek silver body and advanced anti-vibration suspension, everything about this Porsche product screams luxury built for speed.

But the 2018 Alpha isn’t a coupe. It’s a washing machine designed by the famed German sports car maker for Japan’s Panasonic Corp. The US$2,900 appliance is available only in China.

With an expanding middle-class that often likes to flaunt its new wealth, China has become the biggest appliance market for Panasonic outside Japan. But the washers, dryers and refrigerators sold there require ultra-high-end features like German design or smartphone connectivity that consumers elsewhere might not be willing to pay for, according to Tetsuro Homma, head of Panasonic’s appliance division.

“Their appetite for consumption is phenomenal,’’ the 57-year-old said in a recent interview at the company’s Osaka headquarters. “We cannot make enough of these washing machines.”

China’s love affair with Japanese consumer goods goes back decades and Panasonic has had particular cachet. Deng Xiaoping, the leader who started China’s economic reforms, went out of his way in 1978 to meet Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita during a visit to Japan, in which he toured a colour TV factory and sampled microwaved food.

In 1987, Panasonic became one of the first Japanese companies to open a factory in China, with a TV plant in Beijing, but the country has evolved from a production hub into a major consumer market.

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To tailor to local tastes, in 2015 Panasonic put its China subsidiary in charge of the market, shifting a lot of the decision-making that used to take place at headquarters. A Chinese executive was promoted last year to head the business, and more than 20 percent of its product-development researchers are now based in the country or Taiwan.

A collaboration with scientists at Jiangnan University on next-generation refrigerators yielded a special, low-humidity crisper for storing dried ingredients used in Chinese cooking. Local brands are starting to copy the feature, Homma said.

To see first-hand how China’s wealthy live, Homma said he recently visited several Shanghai homes, where he found people had as many as eight smartphone apps communicating with their appliances.

China’s enthrallment with connectivity has made the market a laboratory of sorts, where Panasonic’s engineers can test out concept products that consumers in other places might not fully appreciate –- things like a Wi-fi-enabled toilet seat that measures body fat.

For the Alpha line of washing machines, Panasonic hired Porsche for the styling to take advantage of a German-design fad that is swept China in the last few years. (Porsche’s design studio has also worked on watches, handbags and all sorts of other products.) The top-of-the-line Alpha has a brushed stainless steel body, a digital display intended to look like a car’s instrument panel, and a Wi-fi connection that allows owners to load detergent remotely via smartphone and receive a text message when the wash is done.

“No one accepts new technologies like the Chinese,” Homma said. “Their smartphone use puts Silicon Valley to shame.”