When I was in my late teens and early twenties, Sony was the number one entertainment brand. It came up with some revolutionary products, starting with the original cassette-based Walkman at the turn of the 1980s. It was the first portable music system, about the size of your wallet. Sony had created a product that enabled you to listen to music anywhere. People would go rollerblading with it, skiing with it or running with it – it was everywhere. It stormed the market.
The way people thought about the Walkman was the way they thought about the iPod. Sony then went on to launch the Discman and it continued to own the market, before the release of the Minidisc in the 1990s saw its dominance begin to wane.
Fast-forward 30 years and Sony has lost all the brand momentum it had in portable music devices and Apple is the top dog. How can a brand surrender such a dominant position to another? You can never rest on your laurels. Apple came along and “thought differently”, igniting the digital download market with iTunes before packaging its MP3-playing iPod with music content.
Sony has attempted to reinvent itself ever since, moving into the film industry, buying record labels – doing everything but regaining its power in portable music.
On the comeback trail
The shift in dominance has played out in a wider context, with Japanese brands making way for Western rivals. What happened to the giant Japanese consumer electronics brands – the Panasonics, the Hitachis and the Sonys? The truth is they’re struggling to regain the brand power they had in the 1980s, but that doesn’t paint the whole picture. Japanese brands are back on the rise; there are green shoots of recovery and Tokyo is at the heart of it.
Regaining the crown
We start 300km away, where Toyota, arguably Japan’s greatest brand, regained its position at the top of the global automotive market at the end of last year. The company has managed to reinvent itself in difficult economic conditions and overcome adversity. Toyota took a battering in the US at the start of the decade over a batch of defective vehicles, but it came clean about the issue with the public straight away – recalling nearly 10 million cars.
That honest stance helped protect the brand’s reputation, with opinion polls conducted shortly after the controversy showing that more than 80 percent of US consumers still viewed Toyota favourably. It’s a valuable lesson in reputation management and Toyota remains on the ascent, with its band value climbing 21 percent in 2014 according to the latest BrandZ rankings.
Disrupting the status quo
Just a few years ago, Vodafone was one of the big mobile network providers in Japan. But it wasn’t making much money; it was struggling, having taken on too many acquisitions. Japanese telecoms company SoftBank paid $15 billion for Vodafone’s Japanese division in 2006, catapulting it into the mobile industry for the first time – and almost immediately on par with the dominant duo of NTT DoCoMo and KDDI.
SoftBank went from nowhere to controlling nearly a third of the Japanese mobile market. It’s viewed as the “cool” provider, not just in mobile, but in data too, offering products like pocket Wi-Fi hotspots with manufacturing partners including Huawei. SoftBank grabbed the mobile revolution with both hands and it’s now moving into B2B, as it looks to become the brand synonymous with communication in Japan.
A brand that’s thriving both domestically and internationally is Tokyo-based Uniqlo. It’s an example of a Japanese brand taking its heritage and embracing it, rather than adapting and localising its brand identity for Western markets. The company uses the Japanese character set katakana to position its brand, before using English, illustrating that desire to celebrate its culture.
Though around since 1949, Uniqlo is now building the right brand associations, creating a strong presence in both the US and UK, in locations like New York and London. The company partnered with Novak Djokovic in 2012 to feature the tennis star in some of its global advertising collateral. Djokovic took a chance on a brand that was then relatively unknown outside of Japan and China, while Uniqlo bet big financially on gaining global traction – and it’s paid off for both parties.
As we go forward, what other Japanese brands will break out globally alongside Uniqlo? Within the drinks industry, Suntory has become one of the largest companies in the world following its $16 billion purchase of US liquor firm Beam in January. Beam, famous for its flagship brand Jim Beam whiskey, boasts an impressive portfolio of alcoholic products including Maker’s Mark, Canadian Club and Courvoisier. Combined with Suntory brands like Yamakazi and Midori, the newly renamed Beam Suntory will have a strong presence in almost every country across the globe.
As a packaged consumer goods brand, it’s taken Suntory more than a century to grow its global footprint to this size. The new wave of nimble, digital brands can make a worldwide impact in a fraction of the time. Leading the way is Tokyo-based duo Rakuten and Gree. Less than 20 years old, Rakuten already owns the largest e-commerce site in Japan and is aggressively expanding into the West with services like Play.com in the UK and the global Kobo e-reader brand.
Similarly, decade-old online media company Gree is making moves outside its domestic market with its social and mobile gaming network. It’s a young brand that’s successfully latched on to two global trends – online gaming and social networking. Headed up by founder and CEO Yoshikazu Tanaka, who at just 33 became the youngest boss of a company listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, Gree is seeking to become the Facebook of gaming.
These companies, operating across a range of different industries, show that Japanese brands are back on the up. And we’re proud to have a base right in the heart of the revival, in Tokyo, headed up by our experienced Asia Pacific business development VP, Jiro Tatsuno. There’s never been a better time than now to help Japanese brands continue their ascent, in the land of Eastern promise.
Drew has left The Frameworks.