David Blecken
Jul 1, 2019

Japan's top local brands: Legacy and innovation sustain Toyota, Sony and Panasonic

The automotive giant’s ‘mobility’ proposition seems to have been well received.



Although Toyota only came 46th in the overall Japan ranking, respondents there see it as the strongest brand to originate from the country, according to a separate survey conducted by Nielsen.

The world’s biggest carmaker’s closest immediate rival in the study was Honda at 16. Nissan, which continues to labour under the weight of apparent corporate misdeeds, came in at 36. (In the overall Japan ranking, it plunged from 171 to 207.)

Toyota is noted for the importance its president, Akio Toyoda, places on the brand itself. Speaking at Advertising Week in Tokyo earlier this year, David Haigh, chief executive of Brand Finance, listed Toyoda as one of the world’s top five “brand guardians” alongside the likes of LVMH’s Bernard Arnault and Apple’s Tim Cook.

Its status as a worldwide Olympic partner, one of just three Japanese brands including Panasonic and Bridgestone, no doubt helps. The event will be a prime opportunity for Toyota to bring its “mobility provider” proposition to life, and its high-tech hybrid Japan Taxis, introduced two years ago and bearing prominent Olympic and Paralympic logos, are already symbolic of the Games and the brand’s ties to them.

September 2018 marked the Asia launch of Toyota’s first global branding campaign, ‘Start Your Impossible’, which touts the brand’s efforts to offer ‘mobility for all’ through the use of robotic technology as well as automotive innovations. The focus on ‘mobility’ is hardly unique in the car industry, but Toyota has done well to start early and claim the mission of helping people move more effectively as its own. This, combined with its existing scale and visibility around the world, can be seen as central to the pride Japanese people take in the brand—one that has not allowed itself to be overtaken by foreign upstarts.

Sony made second place, overtaking Panasonic. Yoshi Matsuura, executive and group planning director at McCann in Tokyo, attributed this in part to its legacy and noted that “it is still an aspirational brand” for many young people. While it’s no longer at the forefront of innovation in the consumer electronics sector, its global standing and partial reinvention are things Japan has good reason to be proud of. Over the past year, the company has seen growth come from music and gaming, although the latter is starting to slow, suggesting it will need to pull something else out of the hat in order to sustain its turnaround.

The third most venerable brand in the eyes of Japanese consumers was Panasonic, which continues to dominate the overall country ranking. “Panasonic is doing great in electronic appliances,” Matsuura says, noting that its market share is the highest in three decades. “Their product has always been good, but their ‘Fudan Premium’ (Everyday Premium) campaign has resonated well with modern consumers.” In particular, Panasonic has made an effort to challenge the stereotypes that prevail in Japanese mass-market advertising by featuring the actor Hidetoshi Nishijima as a husband who does the housework.

Its core business is holding up well, but Panasonic continues to make efforts to diversify too. Speaking to Campaign last year, Masa Fukata, director of the company’s ‘Game Changer Catapult’ innovation programme, said consumers have responded well to being consulted directly on new ideas—something that never used to happen. Like many companies with long histories, he said Panasonic is trying to shift its thinking from products to experiences and ecosystems. In one example outside Fukata’s purview late last year, Panasonic made a tentative foray into the controversial area of genome testing, presenting a vision of a living environment created based on an individual’s genetic makeup.

The other two brands to make up the top five were Uniqlo and Rakuten respectively. Uniqlo continues to expand its international retail presence, and Rakuten is challenging the status quo among Japanese mobile network providers. Both companies have also made considerable investments to raise international visibility through sports sponsorships, which in turn fuels admiration domestically. “Many Japanese people feel the momentum in their brand,” Matsuura says of Rakuten—although converting that to business growth looks as challenging as ever given the nature of the categories it competes in.

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