The Japanese Brands Exciting Us Right Now

27. 02. 2023

Robert Costelloe, Head of Growth

With our feet firmly in Japan for more than 20 years, we are constantly on the look-out for the brands that are challenging established norms, leading their industry with a brand-first and purpose-led approach, or extending their reach with new audiences through innovative and exceptional experiences. As we look back and forward, these are just a small number of Japanese brands we see that offer rich, tactical learnings for brand and marketing leaders around the world to think about and incorporate in their evolving strategies and activations. Enjoy!  

1. SMBC – Brand as the blueprint for change in a slow-moving industry

Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) is the 2nd largest banking institution (by total assets and market capitalisation) in Japan and 12th largest in the world. For many, financial institutions can be perceived as ‘too big to fail’ but also ‘too big to change’, falling behind smaller, more agile challenger banks and institutions in terms of product offering and customer experience. Not so with SMBC.

With many financial mechanisms and transactions still executed in paper form or cash in Japan, SMBC has pushed to advance digital evolution in the country. Establishing its own in-house brand design team in 2016 – the first to do so in Japan’s financial industry – this team has been the spark for overhauling the SMBC customer experience. In 2019 the brand launched its app under the concept of ‘a new wallet’ to accelerate a national movement towards a cashless society. And more recently SMBC has launched its ‘Olive’ digital ecosystem – a numberless physical card that can switch from being a debit, to credit, to points card for all your purchases instantly in the SMBC app.

All of these touchpoints and innovations have been supported by a distinctive but dynamic visual identity that is driving brand equity and is a key reason for their appearance in the top 25 of the Best Japan Brands rankings for 2022.

2. Tsutaya – Doubling-down on experience to build brand equity

When Tsutaya was first founded in the early 1980s, the proposition was quite innovative – brick and mortar bookstores that also offered CD rental and a café for customers to while away the hours. Fast forward 40 years later and we might expect Tsutaya to have succumbed to the might of the video streaming and e-commerce platforms that havebrought down so many bookstore chains and movie rental properties around the world. This is certainly not the case.

The brand’s owner and operator, Culture Convenience Club (CCC) headquartered in Tokyo, is not just focusing its growth strategy for Tsutaya on physical locations but is evolving these locations beyond just spaces of commerce to experience centers that tap into a huge range of life moments and interactions.

Driven by CCC’s mission to ‘build cultural infrastructure for Japan and the world’, Tsutaya locations are being developed with awe-inspiring architecture (a number of their locations have received global architecture awards), elements such as stunning lounges and bars surrounded by rare book collections, and exclusive exhibitions of Japanese arts. These are turning Tsutaya locations into must-go destinations for a drink, to meet friends or explore.

Demand for hybrid retail spaces are growing in Japan and in the region which should support CCC’s focus on in-store experience for their Tsutaya brand. And the appetite for growth is large. With global players like Amazon not having as strong a foothold in South East Asia as they do elsewhere, CCC is targeting 55 new locations in Malaysia alone by the early 2030s. Watch this space.

3. MUJI – The anti-brand that takes a unique position in the market

To many, the name MUJI evokes images of rows of pencils and stationery, notebooks and a simple, practical aesthetic throughout. Since its founding in 1989, the brand has developed a lifestyle ecosystem of products, such as bedding, clothing, furniture and food, and even turned to automotive briefly through a partnership with Nissan in 2001.

From a classic brand perspective, MUJI stands out due to its “No brand” policy. The company name ‘Mujirushi Ryōhin’ translates as ‘No-Brand Quality Goods’ and this policy is carried through every interaction and experience. Unbranded products, simple packaging and Bauhaus inspired store design all endeavour to shift perceptions away from the rest of the marketplace where brands scream for attention. The business limits its spending on advertising and marketing, instead leveraging word-of-mouth awareness building and the ease of its MUJI Passport app for in-store and digital purchases.

This approach has brought a lot of success for the organisation with customers – customers who are tired with the incessant consumerism and branded content that dominates so much of our lives today. MUJI instead tries to bring a sense of calm to customers’ everyday lives with its ‘no-frills’ design style.

A surge in raw material prices and a weaker Japanese Yen in 2022 was a cause for concern from a financial perspective, but with strong growth in international markets and an ethos that continues to attract new customers, MUJI is a brand we will be keeping an eye on as an organisation that has built an empire outside of the expected brand conventions. 

4. Hoshino Resorts – Employee experience to deliver exceptional customer experience

From luxury resorts to small-scale ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), Hoshino has built up an enviable portfolio of properties across Japan over its 100-year history, and today is expanding into markets across Asia such as Korea and Indonesia. Despite a diverse range of properties and a diverse range of customers, every location is imbued with a deep sense of place – drawing on local cultures and histories that embeds every property in the local environment and community.

So, while this speaks to a strong proposition of a consistent philosophy that can be adapted and flexed depending on local needs and nuances, it’s what happens within the Hoshino Resorts organisation that offers great learnings for brand and marketing leaders. 

The brand operates on a very horizontal structure. While every employee is on-boarded to learn, understand and support the core facets of the Hoshino Resorts brand itself, they are heavily involved in each location’s brand experience, initiatives and messaging. This employee-led development and delivery of the brand experience allows for the creation of unique in-property experiences for guests while also building a loyalty-driving culture at each and every property. Furthermore, guest satisfaction data and portfolio financial performance is shared with all members of the company, no matter what their position, engaging employees to deliver the exceptional experiences that will support Hoshino’s brand and business ambitions. With travel and tourism in Asia back on the ascent, we are eager to see what Hoshino will do next. 

5. Vermicular – Helping customers to ‘spend more, less often’

Nearly every consumer-facing industry – from apparel, to food, to technology – is tasked with solving a massive challenge they created: how to stop the flood of fast, disposable purchases that have become a scourge to every community, nation, wildlife and ecosystems. The calls for brands to bring customers on the path to buying higher quality, longer-lasting products that are purchased less often, have grown louder and louder with plenty of push-back or little response by the brands themselves.

One home-grown story of inspiration is Vermicular, a cookware brand founded by two brothers in 2010 in Nagoya in Japan’s central Chūbu region. Their pots and pans are designed to last not just a lifetime but to be passed down from generation to generation. Every product is handmade and Vermicular has been applauded for its transformation of cast iron cookware design and manufacturing through its embrace of Japanese heritage and philosophy.

Because a Vermicular pot or pan commands a more premium price and has incredible product longevity, the opportunities for customer repeat purchases are obviously slim. However, Vermicular have complimented their core cookware range with an ecosystem of cooking tools and utensils, exclusive recipes developed by world-renowned chefs as well as repair services that all work to realise Vermicular’s core brand idea of ‘timeless and universal cookware’.