Robert Sawatzky
Sep 13, 2021

Japan sticks to its favourite local brands through the pandemic

JAPAN’S TOP LOCAL BRANDS: Toyota remains tops for the fourth straight year with no change whatsoever to the top five. But Rakuten, Mitsubishi and Nissan make big gains.

Japan sticks to its favourite local brands through the pandemic

Life may have changed for Japanese consumers during the pandemic, but the brands they identify as Japan’s strongest locally remain steadfast.  For the fourth year in a row, ever since we began posing the question as part of Asia’s Top 1000 brands, the market has identified Toyota as the top local brand. 

“What do you think is the strongest local brand in Japan? By ‘strongest local brand’ we mean a brand that originates from Japan, has the best reputation and resonates most strongly with those living in this market?”

And this year, Japanese consumers selected the exact same top five local brands (Toyota, Sony, Uniqlo, Panasonic, Nintendo) as last year in the exact same order. All of these brands, of course, have also become universally recognised abroad, which is a key ingredient for local recognition, according to Kota Murakami, associate vice president of client services at Essence Japan.

“The idea of Japanese trust and safety through quality and consistency in technology has been successful locally and internationally. Japanese people are proud of success stories of homegrown brands going global, and Toyota has embodied such for a long time,” he says. 

This summer’s Olympic Games were an opportunity for Japanese technology to shine in the global spotlight, but in the end key sponsors like Toyota and Panasonic best endeared themselves to Japanese through their contributions to the community (See "Unconventional Olympics allow Japan’s favourite local brand to focus on civic duty instead").

“Toyota and Panasonic are the two national brands that the consumers feel most represent Japan's best qualities. Being innovative, hard-working, sincere, and always doing what is right for the country,” says Yukiko Ochiai, president and CEO of Grey Japan. “Toyota and Panasonic made their shift to prioritise sustainable development goals much earlier than other leading companies, and they continue to communicate their progress through various platforms. Because both are high technology-based companies, the changes made and the impact they are making on the environment is visible and impactful.”

Importantly, these brands must be seen as evolving, in step with a changing society.  Murakami says Toyota actively seeks to do this with projects like Woven City, its prototype city of the future at the base of Mount Fuji and its expansive production of self-driving cars. Not only does it show foresight in partnering with former competitors like Suzuki, but Toyota also communicates well with a media strategy that integrates both paid and owned media like Toyota Times, Murakami adds.

The big gainers

With a wave of digitisation fueling Japanese ecommerce, it’s not surprising that online retail brands were on the rise this year. Amazon was the biggest gainer in Japan’s top 20 brands overall and even somehow was voted into the top ten 'local brands' this year. Amazon's truly Japanese ecommerce platform rival Rakuten, however, was more dynamic in this category, climbing up ten spots to land sixth overall.

Observers chalk this up largely to the Covid effect, while noting that Rakuten’s diversified businesses have now inserted themselves into many more aspects of Japanese life. In addition to its core ecommerce business, the launch of Rakuten’s mobile network has established itself as the nation’s ‘fourth carrier’. Meanwhile, the growth of its financial products, like smart payment, credit cards and online banking alongside its Rakuten Points loyalty programme are helping to support its retail digital ecosystem, notes Murakami.

Reiko Ogata, chief branding director at Dentsu points out that Rakuten is also stepping up acts of corporate social responsibility, like opening up its employee vaccination operations to local communities. (Below is a video of Rakuten's dry run of its vaccination operation at its Crimson House headquarters on June 17).

The biggest local brand gainers this year,  however, were Mitsubishi (+47) which jumped from 54th all the way up to seventh overall, and Nissan (+97) which had not been competitive in 111th spot last year, but leapt back into the mix in 2021 in 14th place.

Mitsubishi may have benefited from the resurgence of home appliance brands under Covid this past year as Japanese consumers in this category failed to distinguish between Mitsubishi Electric and Mitsubishi Motors.

Nissan’s brand image, meanwhile, is undergoing a resurgence as the Carlos Ghosn scandal recedes into the past and the automaker repositions itself through a cutting-edge campaign as a car company for the future, with a leading place among environmentally-friendly technology such as EV-power and highly popular electric vehicle in the Leaf.

It did not hurt Nissan to have leading celebrity brand ambassadors on board either. Not just Naomi Osaka, but also popular actor Kimura Takuya, who was lured away from Toyota last summer after working with Nissan’s competitor for the past eight years.

Retail shakeup

Although Japanese retailers had made a comeback last year in our local brand ranking, the effects of the pandemic appeared to weigh on offline stores this year. Uniqlo hung on to third spot overall, but Muji, which , faced technical challenges at the beginning of 2021, fell five spots out of the top 10, from sixth 11th. Likewise Aeon slid 12 places this year out of the top 20, from 14th to 26th.

“With an abundance of choices online, it is critical for retailers to minimise friction with consumers. There are numerous options of retailers for consumers to select products and services from, and unless consumers are loyal and committed to those brands, it is imperative for retailers to embark on digital transformation,” Murakami says.

Clothing shop Shimamura, however, which only launched an online store by late 2020, was an outlier, rising 28 spots to become Japan’s 24th top local brand, managing to beat out the much more well-established department store and grocery giant Aeon.

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