Robert Sawatzky
Aug 24, 2020

Japan’s top local brands: Toyota, Sony still tops but retailers surge

ASIA's TOP 1000 BRANDS: Uniqlo steals third spot while Muji and Aeon are among the biggest local gainers.

Japan’s top local brands: Toyota, Sony still tops but retailers surge


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?

While consumers in some APAC markets struggle to name a strong stable of local brands, Japan has no such problem. With more Japanese brands among Asia’s Top 1000 than any other APAC market, all of brands named by consumers above as Japan’s best are not just household names at home, but are well-known around the world.

The challenge facing Japan’s top local brands is not one of recognition, but one of health, with some legacy brands faring better than others. In this ranking some of the biggest gainers were Honda (+8 to #9), Sharp (+5 to #11), Shiseido (+9 to #12) and Suntory (+22 to #17), while Mitsubishi, Docomo and Seiko all tumbled well out of the top 20.

Toyota and Sony on top

For a third straight year, Japanese have chosen Toyota as the best local brand with Sony finishing second for a second consecutive year.

“Although both Toyota and Sony are legacy brands, they still have a competitive or challenger spirit, and more importantly, they are not afraid to adapt and change themselves by starting something new,” argues Yukiko Ochiai, President and CEO of Grey Tokyo. “As long as they can maintain this, then the younger generation will continue to connect, be loyal and value the brand.”

While Toyota faces real challenges domestically from younger urban consumers who are shunning automobiles, the brand has been repositioning itself as ‘mobility company’ for years, experimenting with miniature vehicles and car-sharing cafes for those who only need an automobile infrequently. 

And Toyota, along with Panasonic has established itself as a Japanese leader in CSR, especially in sustainable practices and environmental initiatives, notes Reiko Ogata, general manager of the global branding department at Dentsu’s Solution Intelligence Center – an observation borne out by Toyota’s top 5 ranking for sustainability brands across Asia in our survey. But Sven Palys, Co-CEO at cultural consultancy Yuzu Kyodai sees vulnerability for Toyota in the electric car market where Nissan’s Leaf has sold well and Tesla will be gaining market share.

Sony, meanwhile, continues to launch new products and services under its brand value of ‘dreams and curiosity'. But what used to be a solidly consumer electronics brand is now largely dispersed between entertainment content, B2B and financial services. Playstation has been a solid brand for years with the PS3 and PS4, but with Xbox and Switch gaining larger shares of the market in recent years, the success of the new PS5 could be a ‘make or break’ proposition for the brand.

Rise of the retailers

If there is a clear trend within Japan’s local brand survey, this year, it would be the rise of Japanese retailers.  Uniqlo has always enjoyed strong recognition by Japanese as a local brand and this year moved from fourth to third spot, displacing Panasonic.

But it was two other Japanese retailers, Muji and Aeon, who made the most noise on this year’s local list. Muji was unranked last year but stormed into the local rankings at #6 this year, while Aeon climbed 21 spots to land in 14th place this year.

Yuzu Kyodai Co-CEO Markus Winter says Muji’s sixth place ranking is well deserved it has been such a strong brand “far beyond just furniture and its eponymous style” into many different categories, including one of the country’s major skincare brands.  “Muji has been around for quite a while now, but it still is quintessentially Japan, and very much ‘of this time’, Winter says. Ogata agrees, noting Muji has been aggressively opening more stores around the country including the central parts of Tokyo, often opening up in shopping malls in tandem with Uniqlo.  “So it's becoming more visible,” she says.

Aeon meanwhile has modernised and adapted well new consumer trends, like providing more frozen and ready-to-serve meals for working families, observers say. Moreover, as an essential food and department store, they have remained open throughout the pandemic and have not been challenged by ecommerce to the same degree as retail in other markets, says Ogata.  “In Japan the shopping habit hasn’t really changed [post-Covid],” Ogata says.

In fact, Ogata sees a benefit for Aeon from Covid, in that it has been successfully establishing itself in rural Japanese town and small cities as the anchor of local shopping malls and the center of socialisation for people in these cities. They all meet at the central shopping mall and run into their friends while picking up food and clothing at the local Aeon, she says.  “If anything, these national brands will stay alive and become more the center of attention” in these communities, Ogata says.

Article contributors (L to R): Yukiko Ochiai, Sven Palys, Reiko Ogata, Markus Winter

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