Ellie Smith
Nov 17, 2016

Brand Britain is not dead, just ask the Japanese

Find out how this humble hairbrush demonstrates the enduring power of brand Britain in Japan.

Brand Britain is not dead, just ask the Japanese

As British brands continue to reassess their identity in the wake of the potentially seismic tremors generated by Brexit, focus should turn to new opportunities. Japan has long fostered a genuine appreciation and interest in Britain, its monarchy and its culture. The label ‘made in Britain’ continues to command respect and a premium price in the international market, and nowhere is this truer than in Japan.

Brand Britain is an enduring phenomenon, one that has withstood an Industrial Revolution, the fall of an empire and two World Wars. Above all else brand Britain is resilient. Practical yet high-quality, minimalist yet elegant, brand Britain has a unique voice that appeals to Japanese tastes, a market that is notoriously difficult to break into for non-domestic brands.

Margaret Howell has been leading the way amongst British designers expanding into the Japanese market. Her eponymous clothing line places a strong emphasis on minimalist designs using traditional British fabrics such as hand-woven Harris Tweed, Irish linen and Scottish cashmere. Business is booming, and her seven UK outlets are dwarfed by her more than 90 in Japan, a market that accounts for 85 percent of the company’s £100 million (US$125 million) annual turnover. 

Another player, Old Town, is a bespoke tailor tucked away on the North Norfolk coast that produces a range of high-quality, everyday clothing. Drawing inspiration from early 20th-century British work wear and historical imagery, Old Town has carved out a unique brand identity. The husband-wife duo of Will Brown and Marie Willey have never had a London store, a web shop or invested in any marketing strategy. An unlikely success story and yet they have a loyal following of Japanese customers that make the long journey, spending thousands of pounds on Old Town’s timeless pieces.

Then there is the case of the humble Tangle Teezer. The brainchild of former South London hairdresser Shaun Pulfrey, who failed to attract investment for his innovative hairbrush when he appeared on BBC2’s popular show Dragon’s Den back in 2007. Undeterred, Pulfrey self-financed his venture and the Tangle Teezer is now sold in over 80 countries worldwide with the business valued at $250 million. The ergonomic design seamlessly fuses British tradition with understated cool and has won him a legion of loyal fans in Japan. Furthermore, as the world’s second largest beauty market, the Japanese are highly influential consumers and a domino effect has been seen in Southeast Asia, with sales in Asia accounting for around $25 million in 2012. Affectionately dubbed the ‘princess brush’ due to the fact that members of the British royal family are known to use it, the Japanese prove themselves to be highly discerning connoisseurs of British brands.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Japan has been a long-term investor and trade partner with the UK, but this important relationship needs to be nurtured. Many of the larger Japanese investors initially chose the UK because of access to the single European market, and the recent Brexit vote coupled with a 20-year period of low growth of the Japanese economy has unsettled the future of Japan UK business.

Disliking change more than most, Japanese companies are traditionally built on a group orientated mindset that favours hierarchy and conformism. Trust is one of the cornerstones of Japanese business and it will therefore be important for British brands to rebuild mutual understanding in this transitional period. Japan remains the world’s third largest economy with high levels of disposable income for consumer goods amongst older generations and young singles still living at home. But Japanese consumers demand quality over all else and have a sophisticated approach to buying, largely adhering to the principle of ‘buy better, buy less’.

As enduring advocates of quality control and the leading fashion market in the East, Japan is often seen as the gateway to Asia. Quality, heritage and originality are the virtues that provide a compelling story that Japanese consumers will buy into, paying an extra 7 percent for the coveted ‘Made in Britain’ label. Success in Japan opens up huge possibilities elsewhere in Asia. As the minefield of European trade negotiations is set to unfurl, brands should be focusing on emerging countries and strengthening political, social and trade ties with Asia. With two major world events, the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics, both taking place in Tokyo, Japan is an obvious focal point for brand Britain.

Ellie Smith is an intern at Flamingo London

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