How Japanese are Japan’s leading brands?

Japanese_Brands_teaser_imageStumbling over Interbrand’s Japan’s Best Global Brands ranking – a spin-off of the global ranking my colleague Marco Casanova evaluated last year here  – I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some Japanese brands and their Country of Origin Branding (COOB) as we have been working on this recently.

Just a little background: As we know from an overwhelming number of studies the country of origin of a brand can have measurable effects on consumers’ and industrial purchasers’ perception of quality of products and services, on their attitudes, and on their purchase intentions. Consequently, at Branding-Institute we recommend to consider the aspect of Country of Origin Branding (COOB) when developing a brand personality in order to scrutinize which given attributes fit the brand – and which contain potential risks.

In theory there are three options to deal with the country of origin in a brand:

  • Embrace the fitting attributes connected with the country of origin,
  • Dissociate the brand personality from the country of origin – as far as possible,
  • Connect to national markets by being as “local” or “national” as possible – or buy in respective brands in each market if this is doable in the industry.

In real life you will find in-between positions of the two extremes in option one and two and even mixtures of all three options.

In the case of Japan we are all familiar with one consistent attribute with regard to Country of Origin Branding (COOB): Japan is universally understood to manufacture high-quality products. As we also know this must not reflect reality, but that’s not the point here. Consumers and other stakeholders do perceive Japan and Japanese products in this way despite real life events. Of course there are other attributes connected to Japan working in a similar way.

Let’s take a look at this year’s leader of the ranking, Toyota. I would clearly see the Toyota brand as a hybrid in terms of COOB. Many aspects of the brand are Japanese. The name Toyota is even for non-Japanese clearly a reference to its country of origin. Also central aspects of the “Toyota Production System” namely the management methods of  “Kaizen” and “Genchi Genbutsu” are associated with Japan. At the same time Toyota made considerable efforts e.g in the USA to be perceived as a national player. Several ad campaigns served to show that sourcing and manufacturing of its products happen in the US and Toyota is a good corporate citizen there. The fact that the Toyota Motorsport division (TMG) is located in Germany is also a tribute to the strategy to be seen as a “local” player in Europe according to a Toyota manager I spoke with. While Honda and Nissan took comparable approaches Mazda takes a very different path. They are playing completely the “Japanese Card” on a global scale having clear references to Japanese tradition, craftsmanship and sense for precision.

While we see the “usual suspects” in the top positions of the Japanese brand ranking – e.g. Canon, Sony, Nintendo, Panasonic etc. which all enjoy the advantage of the COOB quality aspect as Japanese brands – I would like to take a look to another very interesting brand: Shiseido, one of the leading cosmetics industry corporations worldwide. The origin of Shiseido was the first Western style pharmacy in Japan founded 1872 while the name “Shiseido” is a reference to the Yi Jing book of changes. Shiseido’s positioning up to today is to blend “Western science and Eastern wisdom“ in the business of cosmetics and spa. This is the opposite approach compared to the tech industries of car manufacturers and electronics as “Western science” serves as the quality marker attribute here and “Eastern wisdom” as an emotional connector attribute.

One glance on two relatively young Japanese brands: Muji and Uniqlo. Both are on a path to globalize their business representing a new breed of stylish Japanese design companies. This style is often coined as “Japan Cool” and both companies are building on it in their COOB. Whether this is sustainable remains to be seen, as there are differences between short-term trends and long lasting and deep-rooted attributes in COOB. But change is definitely possible within a few decades as the example of Japan’s core attribute shows: the notion of producing high-quality products was not in existence at all in the 60s and 70s of the last century. Actually, Japanese products had a notion of being cheap and of low quality at that time – this shows the long way Japan has taken in terms of COOB since then.

As this is just a short glace on some Japanese brands and there is definitely more to say about how Japanese the Japanese brands are… You are cordially invited to join the discussion.

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