What We Can Learn From Japan's Top Brands

BrandJapan 2012 is an annual tracking study that measures perceptions along 20 dimensions of 1,000 Japanese brands. I have been an advisor during its decade-plus life. There are a few brands at the very top year after year. Why? The answer will vary by brand and by category, but there are some generalizations. Innovation/energy, relevance/involvement, personality and relationships all play a role.

One big innovation/energy story in BrandJapan 2012 is the charge of Apple to the number one position from number 11. In addition, iPad is now 15 (up from 90), iPod is at 18 (up from 50), and iPhone is 38 (up from 73). So, Apple now has three brands in the top 20 and four in the top 40. Very impressive. The move was stimulated in part by being in the top position in both the perceived innovativeness (where iPad was 2 and iPhone was 4) and uniqueness scales, and being in the top three in both the appearance and charming scales reflecting a bit of personality as well. The publicity surrounding the introduction of important new products including the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S was pivotal, as was the emotion around the passing of Steve Jobs, which focused attention on the larger Apple story. The Apple effect contributed to the further slide of Nintendo, the brand star of a few years ago, which fell to 41 (from 18) in part because it lacked a recent innovation.

The innovation/energy and relevance/involvement story appears throughout the top 10 high-tech brands that make up 40% of the 25 brands. The leaders in addition to Apple are Google at position two and YouTube at number four. All involve and perceive to be a source of energy, innovation and relevance as measured by the "useful" scale.

Innovation and relevance are also apparent in retailing and fast foods, which were represented in the top 25 by Uniqlo at three, McDonald’s at six, Daiso (a 100 yen store) at nine, and MosBurger at 23, with Muji and Starbucks just missing the top 25. All these brands have been good at maintaining energy in an arena where it is easy to get stale. Uniqlo, for example, has a perception of being innovative as reflected in its new products such as the HEATTECH, clothing that actually generates heat. They are relevant and involved with a lot of customer energy.

Personality is more of a driver for top packaged goods brands. Seven packaged goods brands were in the top 25, with Nissan Food Products at eight and Suntory at 11. This group contains significant product vitality, but the most notable aspect is their brand personality, driven in part by advertising and colorful symbols. They all are very high on the friendly dimension.

A deep brand relationship illuminated and enhanced by the tsunami, its aftermath, and the response of the leading brands to it fueled brand strength for those that actively responded to the crisis. Disneyland was a bright light in the disaster. Their cast members, who served guests during the crisis, were considered heroes. When it reopened after only a month, it was a symbol of "coming back" and a very welcome diversion to a difficult, scary time. The Disney brand was a top five brand (up from six) and Oriental Land, the owners of Disneyland, went to 16 (up from 77). Cup Noodle, which rose to 14 (from 27) provided food for those displaced by the disaster and a way to provide emergency food supply for many others. Daiso (a 100 yen store) became a top ten brand (from 39) and provided needed goods at a very low price. It became a highly relevant brand during a time in which there was economic uncertainty. All these brands had a high level of authenticity and customer involvement.

There is much to learn from those that stand out in this huge population of brands. These are not just strong brands; they are the top 2.5% of all brands. Whether a brand aspires to that level or simply wants to understand brand building, these brands are role models.

[Image: Flickr user Christopher Kobayashi]

This article was reprinted with permission from Prophet's Aaker on Brands

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