It is no secret that a strong brand identity is an integral part of marketing, especially when expanding into the international market. Japanese companies have an advantage here, which is the positive image of Brand Japan.
For a long time now, Japan has been known for its prowess in technology, efficiency, and innovation. Leveraging on this reputation has definitely helped Japanese companies retain a stronghold in the Southeast Asian market.
Over the past decades, the export of quality brands from Japan have resulted in a strong brand image. Initially, it was the high-quality automobiles and electronics that had caught the attention of consumers. Cosmetics, fashion, food products and other industries followed suit and gradually, brands from Japan have become synonymous with being reputable and of superior quality.
The FutureBrand Index draws on qualitative and quantitative data gathered from over 2,500 influential individuals, including chief executives, civil servants, and other high-ranking professionals across the globe.
In the recent FutureBrand’s 2020 Country Index Ranking, Japan takes the #1 top spot, a coveted position it has held since the in-depth survey was launched in 2014. Although there is increasing competition from Korea and China in recent years, Japanese companies can still capitalise on the highly positive influences of being “made in Japan”.
Of course, there is more to a successful marketing strategy than just branding. Some companies choose to go with localisation to reflect the needs of local communities, while others prefer a global marketing strategy with standardised campaigns.
Let us take a look at a few Japanese brands who have thrived in Southeast Asia and delve deeper into their success stories.
Success Stories In Southeast Asia
The meaning of Muji translates to “no brand quality goods”.
Pic credit: bfishadow via Flickr/CC BY 2.0
In 1980, the company launched in Japan with just 9 household and 31 food products. This was a time when Japanese consumers were brand conscious and were willing to pay for expensive, luxury products. Muji’s introduction of brand-less products was a bold move that went against the excessive consumerism of branded goods.
They took a chance at targeting a segment that favoured functionality, affordability and quality over marketing hype and inflated price tags. Today, Muji has 970 stores in 31 countries worldwide, including those located in Japan.
A successful brand with no brand identity. As ironic as it seems, this is the gist of Muji’s brand story.
It’s line of household and consumer products is synonymous with a minimalist philosophy of functional aesthetics. Doing away with any unnecessary packaging or fashion trends, the brand turns its focus towards product design and quality. Products were designed with functionality and affordability in mind. In fact, everything about the brand, including its products with hardly a logo printed on and minimalistic packaging, exemplifies “Less is More”.
Muji envisioned this fuss-free world before eco trends were mainstream and before Marie Kondo became famous for decluttering. In a world where big brands scream their messages at you, this ideology of simplicity sits well with many consumers.
Muji outlet in Plaza Singapura, Singapore.
Pic credit: Banej/CC BY-SA 3.0
Muji’s ‘no-brand’ global marketing branding is probably its most powerful marketing strategy. Their message is consistent and it appeals to a unique but growing group of consumers who are sick of consumerism.
Instead of hefty advertising budgets, Muji relies on word of mouth and a memorable in-store experience to spread brand awareness. One example can be found in Singapore, where cafe-hopping is a cultural trend. To attract and engage with the younger shoppers, which is their key clientele, Muji opened its very-own minimalistic cafe to enhance the shopping experience.
Although Muji adopts a global strategy, there are some small pockets of locally-inspired products that hint at cross-cultural engagement in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, one can find shelves stocked with Malaysian instant curry such as chicken curry, beef rendang, and chicken masak lemak. In Singapore’s first flagship store, decorative ornaments such as Chinese strainers were sourced locally and put on shelves.
To keep up with their demographics, Muji also uses digital channels effectively to communicate its brand identity. Similarly with its global marketing message, the brand’s content on social media is designed to be succinct and simple, without any gimmicks.
As a way of promoting their pens, Muji Global encouraged creativity amongst social consumers by launching a #MUJIPENART across Instagram and Twitter in 2016. The user-generated content (UGC) product marketing campaign attracted more than 2,500 submissions, generating organic social reach and authentic brand content without paid ads!
2. Don Quijote (also known as Don Don Donki)
This famous Japanese discount chain store has more than 320 stores worldwide in 2020, with Singapore being its first Southeast Asian expansion. But, it has very humble beginnings.
Back in 1978, Takao Yasuda started a thrift merchandise store that offered a collection of discarded goods and samples from companies on the verge of bankruptcy. With insufficient resources for manpower, the owner would spend long nights restocking shelves. Yasuda noticed that there was high footfall even late at night and so, he decided to open the first 24-hour Don Quijote store in 1989.
Today, the founder is hailed as the King of Discounts with the immense success of Don Quijote.
Donki started as a discount store and lives up to its mission by offering a staggering variety of low-priced products. From household toiletries to cosmetic brands, slimming cream to exercise tools, snacks, ready-to-eat meals and even sex toys, customers can find anything under the sun.
The iconic blue penguin displayed outside Don Don Donki in Bangkok, Thailand.
Pic credit: Book9416 – งานของตัว/CC BY-SA 3.0
Not forgetting the goofy-looking blue penguin mascot, Donpen, an iconic character recognised even by people outside of Japan. Add on a catchy melodious jingle that sings “Don Don Donki, I’m in paradise, it’s a wonderful place for me” repeatedly, and it becomes a unique shopping experience that is memorable.
Typical store layouts are neatly categorised, with floor plans that make it easy for customers to find products. Don Quixote adopted a radically different approach.
Entering the discount store is a sensory overload. The products seem to be haphazardly shelved and related merchandise may not be placed together. And, it is done deliberately. Founder Yasuda said famously, “The point of the display is hard to find and hard to buy”. Every visit offered a curious new product discovery and customers ended up buying more than they intended to.
This exciting retail experience is Donki’s unique global marketing strategy, a move that delights consumers both in Japan and overseas!
The discount store’s late opening hours also sit well with consumers here in Southeast Asia, especially in Singapore and Thailand where the people are famous for being avid shoppers. Add on affordability and you got a winning formula. Authentic Japanese products are usually expensive and hard to find. Offering a large variety of high-quality Japanese products at discounted prices is a huge hit with the price-conscious shoppers in this region.
Donki’s unique retail strategy contributes to its success.
Pic credit: SEAHMIE lhocmspk/CC BY-SA 4.0
As Donki continues its expansion plan across Southeast Asia, it needs to rev up its shopping experience to better meet the expectations of the savvy customers of today. In comes a timely collaboration with Grab. Grab is a technology company that offers ridesharing, food delivery, financial services and more. It is especially popular in Southeast Asia and is widely used by the people.
Donki now offers a user-friendly online shopping experience through GrabMart and a hassle-free payment process using GrabPay. You can then choose to arrange for a scheduled delivery or fast door-to-door delivery using Grab’s extensive delivery service.
Combining a unique retail and marketing strategy with localised engagement, Donki’s masterful game plan results in a secure positioning in Southeast Asia.
In 1972, Tadashi Yanai inherited his father’s chain of men’s suit tailoring stores, Ogori Shoji. During his travels to Europe and the US, this young man discovered large casual apparel shops, such as Benetton and Gap, that were not available in Japan back then. Chancing upon this huge potential, Tadashi rebranded the family business from custom suits to trendy casual wear.
The first Uniqlo store in Japan opened its doors in June 1984 and rapidly expanded to 2,252 stores worldwide as of 2020.
One of the initial challenges that Uniqlo faced was that it was perceived to be selling low-quality apparel because of its low costs. In order to change consumers’ perception of its brand, they launched the Global Quality Declaration in 2004, a pledge to stop making low-priced, low-quality garments.
This caught the attention of customers and turned the brand around to a value-for-money retailer selling high-quality clothes at low costs instead. One of its best-selling items is the high-quality fleece jackets that were innovative and affordable. It is believed that one in four Japanese people owns a signature Uniqlo down jacket.
Uniqlo’s brand message is clear – to focus on quality rather than fashion. Unlike many clothing brands who are chasing fast-fashion trends, Uniqlo’s approach is basic essentials that people can incorporate into their everyday individualistic style. This branding resonated well with customers and Uniqlo is proudly ranked 84th on Forbe’s list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands in 2020 .
An unwavering focus on “clothing that’s made for everyone” is the standardised marketing strategy that Uniqlo adopts worldwide. Sticking to this core branding in Southeast Asia has proved to be an advantage because its clothing transcends ethnicity, culture and trends. From conservative communities who still don traditional wear to the trend-setting millennials, Uniqlo’s basic apparel is all-inclusive and accepted by everyone.
In a fashion world where trends are constantly changing, Uniqlo chose to use their products as a platform for marketing and brand awareness instead. One example is their signature HEATTECH line of clothing. They introduced this revolutionary heat-generating clothing line in 2003 and in no time, HEATTECH raised plenty of brand awareness among savvy consumers and became an icon of Uniqlo.
Simple and functional clothing essentials attract customers to this Japanese brand.
Pic credit: Breeml Sxim Omisd/CC BY-SA 4.0
Since the company doesn’t follow fashion trends, they employ an intriguing marketing strategy of artist collaboration. Many famous designers, such as Jil Sander, Pharrell Williams and Alexander Wang, have collaborated with Uniqlo to create popular collections. They also paired up with other notable brands such as Disney and Sesame Street to design unique t-shirt prints.
Besides big artist names, Uniqlo also reaches out to the local communities for a more personalised approach. In Thailand, the brand launched the UTme! app that allows anyone to design their own T-shirt print, which can then be printed out in stores. They also teamed up with three famous Thai artists—Wisut Ponnimit, Jay the Rabbit and Captain Cholathorn—to offer special designs that customers could mix with their own designs.
By not following fashion trends that can be vastly different in every country, Uniqlo has become a sustainable new standard in fashion!
Just like the other two brands, this Japanese clothing brand places a high importance in customer experience. But, there is something which the founder of Uniqlo got right. In 2012, Tadashi Yanai decided to conduct all operations and customer service training in English. It is an uncommon practise in Japan and this has contributed to its global success by enhancing the in-store experience.
From their enthusiastic “Welcome to UNIQLO!” greeting and the warm friendly service, you can look forward to a somewhat consistent and pleasant retail experience, regardless of the country you are in.
Learning From The Best
Since a decade ago, there has been a rising number of Japanese companies who are expanding into Southeast Asia. Even today, many still have their sights set in this fast-developing region. Southeast Asia is a good fit for Japan because of better political relationships, the presence of growth opportunities and the positive perception of Brand Japan. Japanese companies that are keen on expanding into Southeast Asia can learn a trick or two from the above-mentioned brands – Muji, Don Quixote and Uniqlo. These are brands that are able to adapt to the new environment and adopt effective marketing strategies, while staying true to their core branding.
If you’re a customer-facing company like any of the above, navigating the Japanese market is extremely difficult for beginners. Learning from successful brands is the initial phase for many fledgling businesses. While the Japanese market may seem insurmountable and foreign, we can help you take that first step. We provide you with all the latest and most relevant information at your fingertips on our website!
If you’re looking to find out more about other successful video and advertising strategies in Japan, visit here for a comprehensive guide on A Overview of Media in Japan.
Whether you’re ready to make that leap into the Japanese market, or want some tips and advice on Marketing or PR strategies from our experts, feel free to contact us!