David Blecken
Jun 25, 2018

Japan’s top local brands

Toyota, Panasonic and Sony have stood the test of time in the world's toughest consumer market. Here's a look at how, and what the future holds for them.

Toyota is transitioning from carmaker to 'mobility company'. (Photo: Kenichi Matsuda/Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP)
Toyota is transitioning from carmaker to 'mobility company'. (Photo: Kenichi Matsuda/Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP)

As part of our look at Japan's top brands of 2018, part of the Asia's Top 1000 Brands report, we found that Japanese consumers see Toyota, Panasonic and Sony as the strongest brands to originate from their country. What are they doing right that others can learn from? Five in-market observers suggest what's behind these brands' appeal and what it will take to uphold that status.

Dr Philip Sugai, professor of marketing, Doshisha Business School:
It does make sense that people chose these brands, but there are some other very interesting Japanese brands out there too: Uniqlo, SoftBank, Nintendo. But Toyota is an obvious choice. Sony is an interesting resurgent brand and Panasonic is doing some incredible things, like collaborating with local companies like Hosoo [a Kyoto-based textile company].

If we look at these brands historically up till today, obviously they have a strong track record, so the question is how are these companies going to embrace changes over the next 20 years? Toyota is in the strongest position as the world’s top automotive brand, and it’s investing heavily in the future of mobility. I’m more concerned for Japan’s consumer electronics brands. The pace of change is so fast and while the moves Sony and Panasonic are making are good, they’re going to have to be at the top of their game to keep innovating at the level that global competition is.

Japan is the world’s hardest consumer market and so if these companies can’t continue to deliver outstanding products and services the long-term viability of their brands is in serious trouble. I don’t think younger Japanese consumers will embrace them just because of their branding. They will really need to re-educate the younger generation on what they’re capable of delivering. This generation is much more globally-minded and these brands can’t count so much on their history. They’ve got an advantage, but that won’t be enough to carry them forever.

Togo Kida, creative technologist, Dentsu Lab Tokyo:
I’d say the history behind the brands has a lot to do with their popularity. All of these brands have withstood the Japanese economy for several decades. Compared to other countries, I believe Japan is still a relatively conservative society. The fact that these brands have been around for a long time simply creates a robust brand reputation.

I also think they are all trying new things, exploring new ways of marketing on a constant basis, which gives them a constant presence in the market. For instance, Toyota has been using Line as a way to market to the younger generation, posting many pieces of content tailored towards this target to garner attention. Toyota is a gigantic corporation, but is still actively seeking new opportunities for marketing.

In the end however, I think all brands are under threat. We never know what kind of new advancing players will come into the market. If you consider other competitors as something that takes away people’s attention on smartphones, I think new means of communication and communication culture are the competitors. Although it’s closed already, Nyago, an online service which enables asymmetric private communication is a good example. I think people tend to jump into new means of communication when introduced, and this takes away the “attention” among the users. Tik Tok could be another source of competition. Brands are facing a situation in which they can either cooperate with entities that take away the attention, or lose the competition.

Kaori Yatsu, head of planning, BBDO Japan:
I think the key factor in the success of these brands is their heritage, and the spirit of ‘monozukuri’ [craftsmanship]. However, they wouldn’t have ranked so highly without some other factors.

Though no longer the world’s number one car manufacturer, Toyota is still leading automotive innovation. I think Tokyo 2020 will offer them a chance to show their innovation and advanced technology to the world.

Since Toshiba, Sharp and Sanyo have lost their fame, Panasonic may be the only home electric appliance manufacturer that Japanese people can be proud of. Though they are not perceived as a super technology company, they are very good at providing technology and innovation to each household. People appreciate small pieces of technology in daily life, and that’s what the brand provides. For example, Panasonic Beauty has created a new category in the home appliance market. The challenge for them will be how they can keep their position, or compete with real technology brands.

Panasonic Beauty ambassador Kiko Mizuhara (Image: Panasonic)

Sony had record profits last year because of its success in the gaming and networking service business, home entertainment and sound, and financing. For example, in gaming, they successfully transformed their business model from just selling a machine to providing a networking service for gamers. And I think they are still good at building brand image. Aibo [a robot pet launched in January] is a great symbol that showcases technology and a playful mindset.

Takahiro Minotani, planning director, Geometry Global Japan:
Home appliances are close to people’s lifestyles and Panasonic is the preferred brand in this category. With its beauty products range it’s also appealing more to women. Globally, its branding has become more uniform. Sony is still a strong representative of innovation in Japan and while Panasonic fits into people’s lifestyles, Sony is always seen as being ahead in this regard. Toyota was seen as a bit boring five years ago but is now trying to change that and is coming back.

To have strong equity [in Japan], a brand’s products need to be high quality but they also need to have good after-service. If there’s a problem, how quickly can they fix it? New companies can have difficulty because they don’t have the network.

The threat to these companies is being seen as offering commodities. Dyson has given new interest to the vacuum cleaner category; Tefal to the kettle category. People are looking for some kind of twist, a sense of newness that adds something to life, so Japanese companies will need to combine technology more closely with branding and design.

Sony's Aibo serves as a playful mascot as well as a product (Image: Sony)

Steven Bleistein, CEO and founder, Relansa:
Each brand improves people’s lives in some way with unique value that other brands are hard-pressed to match. But just because Toyota, Panasonic and Sony are the top three in this survey does not mean others are not doing something right. You would never imply that Apple, Muji, Softbank, Canon, MUFG and Uniqlo are doing something wrong, would you?

The key to branding is to offer value that improves people’s lives, whether as a business or consumer, in some tangible and unique way. The rest is merely communicating that value to others, and there are myriad ways to do that.

These brands’ future is no more under threat from advancing international players than any successful business anywhere in the world is under threat from global competition. It is how successfully the business is led that will determine the fate of its brand.

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