Katie Ewer
Mar 6, 2014

Asian Champions of Design: Asahi

The Japanese brand's bold brand identity unites ancient tradition and futuristic optimism. And it has a great origin story.

Asian Champions of Design: Asahi

There’s something about the combination of bold calligraphic black type against raw, shiny aluminium on the Asahi beer can that feels quintessentially Japanese.

Ancient tradition and futuristic optimism: these contradictions seem elegantly resolved in its design. The logo alludes to the kind of craftsmanship we expect from Japan, whilst the can feels unequivocally urban. The success of the design is that it speaks to heritage and to newness in one single breath.

The design has become a visual shorthand for Japanese beer, yet the identity as we know it has only been with us since 1987. The story of its introduction is a fable of brand rebirth.

For decades until this point, Asahi’s logo (left) consisted of a rising sun framed by Hokusai-inspired waves (‘Asahi’ means ‘rising sun’ in Japanese). It’s hard to conceive of a more authentic, nationalistic piece of brand iconography. I would have liked to have been a fly on the boardroom wall when company president Tsutomu Murai tabled the idea of throwing the whole lot in the bin and starting again.

Why? In 1982 Asahi beer was in a seemingly unstoppable spiral of decline. From the No. 2 beer in Japan, its share had dwindled over time to just a little over 10 per cent. The president of the company, Tsutomu Murai, instructed the company’s R&D team to do something revolutionary: to really listen to the market. They came up with a new, light and refreshing style of beer they called ‘Super Dry’. He knew he needed a design that said ‘new’ in the strongest possible terms.

The new design broke the rules of the category. It was designed specifically for beer cans rather than bottles: a format that Asahi rightly predicted would grow in Japan. It rejected the vernacular of the category, with no conventional ‘racetrack’ device (the oval shape and cross-bar that signifies most European style beers) or star symbol in sight. In trying to express the idea of ‘newness’, Asahi found its own voice—one that is modern, urban and sharp. Somehow the elegant, strong brushstrokes of the logo manage to conjure a feeling of strength, dynamism and opportunity, without relying on the more overt associations of a pictorial rising sun to do it.

In the year of its launch, the brand’s growth outpaced that of the category threefold, and the redesign, along with the ‘super dry’ innovation, received credit for reversing the brand’s fortunes. It’s now the biggest beer brand in Japan and one of the top 10 beer brands in the world.

Would Asahi have achieved the same result with a ‘super dry’ variant of its rising sun label? I doubt it. Murai knew that kind of superficial tinkering would have been a case of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Sometimes, when a company or product undergoes fundamental change, the role of design is to shout it from the rooftops. Nothing says ‘We really mean it’ better than a visual promise that you do.

Asahi beer trivia:

  • When the new Asahi design was introduced, it met with widespread disapproval, with many complaining that the can resembled an oil can.
  • Despite the story of ‘super dry’, innovation isn’t always a brand’s salvation. I have it on good authority that Asahi’s new tomato-flavoured beer, Asahi Red Eye, leaves a lot to be desired.
  • Philippe Starck designed Asahi Brewing Company’s headquarters in Tokyo (right). It’s also known as the ‘Super Dry Hall’ or ‘Flamme d’Or’ and is said to represent both ‘the burning heart of Asian beer’ as well as a frothy head. So now you know.

Katie Ewer is strategy director at JKR Global in Singapore.
Check out the rest of the Asian Champions of Design series.

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