Big In Japan (Gerhard Fourie)
Japan conjures up different images to different people. For some, minimalist design, zen gardens and healthy, beautiful food spring to mind first. Others see a highly efficient and productive, though slightly boring picture; process driven quality and a commuter network that very rarely deviates from its schedule. For others, there is the off-beat and even cool side represented by manga comics, capsule hotels, cutting-edge technology or the outlandish street fashion seen in suburbs like Harajuku.
With a population of around 130 million people, living in an archipelago roughly a third of the size of South Africa, Japan is definitely not as homogenous as you might believe. Whichever stereotype of Japan you subscribe to, you will easily find evidence to support your view almost anywhere in Japan. The truth is, of course, that no single one or even a simple combination of these stereotypes will ever capture Japan. Reality is much more diverse and nuanced than what you may first believe.
Ever since my first visit to Japan five years ago, I’ve been fascinated by these almost contradictory sides of this ancient culture. When I was offered a three year assignment with Nissan Motor Company in Tokyo, I jumped at the opportunity. So after six months in Tokyo, exactly how lost in translation am I? In some cases not at all, but in others I’ve never been as lost. I’m doing my best to learn Japanese, but it will be a while before I’ll be able to discuss the subtleties of existential neuroses in Japanese. I managed to fumble my way through my Japanese driver’s license test, which was completely in Japanese, with a list of memorised instructions (turn left, right, stop, etc.) and a lot of smiling and nodding. I’ve subsequently used the same tactic quite often with moderate success.
Governmental agencies generally have special processes for gaijin (foreigner – pronounced guy-gin, but the g in gin sounds like you’ve already had a couple), which ensures a certain level of English is spoken. Many businesses don’t offer the same service and I needed to get a translator to open a bank account. This was an exercise in trust; I signed a stack of forms, without a clue of exactly what I’m agreeing to. I had a couple of Bill Murray, Lost in Translation, moments where long, animated exchanges between the bank clerk and the translator were translated to short instructions like ‘sign here’. On the other hand, many large shops have translators roaming the floor to assist foreigners and many sales staff carry English phrase books to help them through basic exchanges.
Talking about customer service, in Japan the customer is much more than just king, more like emperor for life. I may have been spoiled forever. I have always maintained that Japanese hotels offer the best service in the world. It may not be the warmest service, but at least it steers clear of the obviously insincere ‘friendliness’ practiced in many Americantrained hotels. I can now confidently say that Japanese shop assistants, from high-end stores to the convenience store around the corner also offer the best service in the world. Staff genuinely seem to take pride in good service; always courteous, thoughtful and slightly ritualised. Waiters and taxi drivers don’t expect or accept tips, for example, and sales staff will often carry your purchases to the door of the shop before handing it over with a slight bow. This sometimes leads to interesting tussles with foreigners who can’t understand why they can’t take charge of their packages immediately after paying.
Of course, many things in Japan don’t need any translation at all. I’ve quickly learnt that almost every single international brand is available here; you sometimes just have to know where to look. Like many other South Africans, I was surprised to find out how widely brands like Ceres, Mrs. Balls and, of course, South African wines are available.
One of the first things that will strike you when you visit shopping streets in areas like Ginza or Omotesando is how big the big luxury brands are in Japan. Brands like Chanel, Prada, Dior, Armani and Louis Vuitton have various shops dotted around the city in buildings that represent the best of cutting edge architecture in Tokyo.
These stores are more than flagships; they are brand temples where elements like architecture, location, interior design and landscaping are combined in a giant three-dimensional expression of the brand. At the same time, Japanese consumers have no qualms about flaunting the gilded logos on anything from handbags to jewellery, clothing to pet accessories.
Giorgio Armani, for example, opened the flagship 12-storey Armani Ginza Tower last year, the highest building in a popular shopping street. In addition to the men’s, women’s and accessory collections, the 6 000 m2 store also features a restaurant on the 10th floor, a spa on the 5th and Armani Casa interior design on the 4th. The store is a big hit and had more than 20 000 visitors in its first weekend.
Not to be outdone, Louis Vuitton recently announced that it would open a 7 000 m2 flagship store in Tokyo in 2010, the largest Louis Vuitton store in the world. Paris currently holds that honour, but at 1 800 m2 it will be completely overshadowed by its new sibling. The brand is already very big in Japan, on the underground, in the streets and the office you will see more Louis Vuitton logos than you’re likely to see in Paris. Japanese consumers have clearly taken to the brand and the 48 stores in Japan account for around 30 percent of global sales. Marc Jacobs from Louis Vuitton also recently collaborated with famous Japanese artist Takashi Murakami which resulted in a younger and fresher product line-up.
On the complete other side of the scale, there are brands like Muji that do not feature any logos on their products. Since arriving in Japan, I’ve been completely bowled over by local retail chain Muji, at first by its product range, but more recently by its bold and clear brand strategy. Muji is short for Mujirushi Ryohin, which translates to ‘no brand, good product’. Established in the early 1980s as a private brand of the local Seiyu department store, it has grown not only into a major brand with more than 300 stores in Japan, but also one of the few Japanese retailers with a presence in Europe, Asia and the United States.
Muji offers an extensive product range that covers home-ware, clothing, stationary, furniture and other lifestyle products, like bicycles and luggage, at reasonable prices. Designs are beautiful; always simple, modern and practical. The twist, as the name suggests, is that there are no logos anywhere on the product. And trust me, ‘no logo’ does not mean ‘no brand’. They enjoy high brand recognition, huge customer loyalty and trust, similar to the reputation that Woolworths Foods enjoy in South Africa, but they built their reputation and brand recognition without using one of the fundamental items in the brand building toolbox; a branded product.
Muji products are designed with a strong ethos around recycling and minimising waste through careful selection of materials, streamlined manufacturing processes and simple, standardised packaging. When discussing the role that its Japanese heritage played in their brand philosophy and values, Muji’s Mizuki Sakuyama reminded me that focusing on simple beauty is an honoured Japanese tradition. At the same time, she points out that when designing a Kimono the beautiful detail is mostly on the inside of the garment, for the benefit of the wearer, not the viewer. Its no-frills approach to design and production therefore does not mean that beauty or pleasure ever needs to be sacrificed.
Given that the Muji range covers more than 7 000 products, a very clear design philosophy is required if you want customers to recognise your products without the assistance of a logo. This is a challenge that Muji has seemingly mastered, as its products are almost always immediately identifiable; minimalist design, the restrained colour range and the absence of a logo.
Muji often collaborates with famous designers, but the designer is rarely identified and never mentioned on the product, the packaging or in advertising. Many of the products also have thoughtful features hidden behind the simple design. Others are beautiful for the sheer lack of unnecessary functions. The wall-mounted CD player, for example, spins the exposed CD in front of a simple, white built-in speaker. The single dial that controls the volume is hidden on top of the unit and it is switched on and off by pulling the hanging cord. The fact that it was a commercial success in an electronics market obsessed with adding rather than simplifying, attests to the fact that the Muji philosophy resonates with
The Muji marketing team also recognises that customers have to understand this philosophy in order to aid brand recognition. Advertising is therefore more an extension of the brand communication process than an opportunity to highlight a single product. Art direction is simple, beautiful and easy to understand, even to someone like me who cannot read the copy. These brand values are continued in the store design and customer experience. Products take centre stage in simple containers, on simple shelving or tables; the essence of unadorned simplicity. The product range’s minimal colour palette and simple, uniform packaging adds to the overall impression of simple beauty and order.
What strikes me most about Muji is how clearly integrated its core values are in all the activities. From design, manufacturing and retail everything echoes the principles of simplicity, practicality and affordability. This is more than mere consistent visual identity application or thorough brand roll-out, it recognises that brand management goes beyond branding and is based on much more fundamental values. Values that will resonate with consumers more than a well-positioned logo ever will. The measure of the store’s success is how easily and consistently my Japanese colleagues can explain its essence, how often a Muji product is recognised based on its design alone and how easily this gaijin got it, and got hooked.
Gerhard Fourie is the senior manager for Brand and Communication for Global Overseas Markets at Nissan Motor Company in Japan. His responsibilities cover markets across South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Before his transfer to Tokyo in January 2008, he was the general manager for Marketing and Planning at Nissan South Africa.