|Aika Sawai is a member of the Japan jury for the upcoming 2022 Gerety Awards, the only global creative prize to reward the best in advertising from a female perspective, of which Campaign is a media partner. This interview is one in a series of interviews of Gerety jury members in APAC by Campaign contributor Barry Lustig.
Aika Sawai is a rising star at Loewe, one of the world’s the most desirable luxury brands. At Loewe, Sawai oversees marketing and communications for Japan. Before moving to Loewe in 2019, Sawai rose up through the ranks at AKQA’s Tokyo studio to become its managing director. Earlier in her career, she worked as product manager at KDDI, one of Japan’s largest telecom companies. In this interview, she shares insights on her transition into the luxury sector from the agency world and the evolution of luxury communications.
What is your role at Loewe?
I joined Loewe almost two and a half years ago as its marketing and communications director for Japan. Currently, I’m aligning the company's communications strategy with the general manager, the headquarter team, merchandising team and other departmental leaders. I design the annual calendar for all the marketing campaigns.
What was your motivation to move to Loewe from AKQA?
I wasn't particularly interested or drawn to the luxury sectors. But when I looked into Loewe, it felt like a completely different form of luxury brand with a rich history of over 176 years. There's a lot of energy and tremendous respect for craftsmanship. Intuitively, I could feel that there would be so much room for freedom and innovation.
How have luxury consumers have evolved over the last few years?
In terms of earned versus owned media, there has been a shift for the luxury sector. I think [luxury] is shifting from a reputation business to more of a direct consumer business in terms of how communication is structured. The direct consumer side is becoming more and more important. You need to show what your values are, be more authentic as a brand and also, as my manager would say, "let's make it as warm as possible.” The human touch shows that we're not just the global brand with a unified message across the world. [Rather that] we are trying to find a connecting point with different kinds of people in different regions. That shift is definitely happening.
How are people adjusting to experiencing luxury brands online?
Most people today do their research in advance. Their first encounter of the brand is usually more digital. It could be happening on street as well, but even if you see a beautiful bag and you want to learn about it, you will first Google it or take a picture and do an image search. As a consumer, your shopping journey is completely fused with your online experience. By the time people come to store, oftentimes they have already nailed down what they want to see and so they're pretty close to making that final decision. This [trend] would have escalated with or without COVID.
For me, what's important is that initial journey is reachable. Once you come to our website there is relevant content to engage. Then there is the functional side like, if you want to make a reservation, you can make it online. Or you can buy online or you can decide to have [something you’d like to see] shipped to your nearby store. For Japanese in particular, it's important to have lots of images and information. But it’s also [critical to have an] engaging story around the product. You have to make everyone feel like it's a really nice thing and so the whole journey needs to feel elevated.
What have been the the most important professional challenges moving from an agency to working directly for a luxury brand?
Luxury brands have a history of designing its communications with more focus on [more traditional] PR. I come from a digital agency background, and have experience with integrated strategy, campaigned planning and execution. PR was not a thing that I specialized in, but it's still a key part of how the luxury communication is structured. So there was a bit of a gap in terms of how you actually build a marketing strategy and build communications directly to consumers. This was a missing element which I think I was able to bring to Loewe.
How should luxury brands take into account the specific needs of Japanese consumers?
A simple example is that Japan is a safe country. So, Japanese people are much more open to carrying a bag that has a non-zipper closure at the top. If you do this in other parts of the world, you could get your wallet stolen. Also the size of the wallets could be different. Japanese people carry a lot of point cards, cash and coins. Things that are rooted to everyday lifestyle reflects over to the things Japanese people carry and things they decide to buy.
How do you feel creative agencies better partner to luxury brands?
For example, when there is a big exhibition in Tokyo, a lot of the event planning [centers on] all the physical elements. The brand events are beautifully catered by experts and have strong direction from headquarters. What I try to do is then [focus on] omnichannel communication. Is the registration process just as beautifully crafted as the story to enter the space? Is the entire end to end consumer journey as it should be? Sometimes there are gaps.
As soon as you enter the website to register you go into a pretty boring redesign or a not so well designed web form. Suddenly, you're into a clumsy interface, even though it's supposed to be a beautiful luxury experience. That comes from a lack of expertise within the brand. But it’s also a lack of leadership on the agency's side or the production side to be able to hold things together and uplift the overall quality of experience.
What advice would you give agencies in terms of creative direction?
Luxury brands have a high sense of aesthetics and design principle. I think people tend to hesitate to bring innovations, but I think that it would be great if any agencies can propose more boldly. Of course, it has to follow the brand identity and study the brand well. But then the purpose of the brand is not to stick where it is today, to evolve and show the next iteration of that where that brand could be.
How is working in luxury different than working at an agency?
The advertising world is still dominated by men. When I moved to the luxury sector, I learned that the balance between men and women shifts, and there are more women in this sector than men which was shocking to me. But also, very freeing.
Everyone is more like a human being. When I was in the agency advertising side, I was always conscious of the fact that I'm a woman. I was not always a minority, but in a leadership position, I often was. Now I don't hesitate to say something just because of my gender which I used to do a lot when I was at AKQA as well as earlier in my career when I worked in telecoms. This was because the default state of the gender was always like straight male, and I wasn't. So, I think that was an unconscious hesitation that I always used to have. Now I'm working with incredibly talented pool of women and men. These women don't have any hesitation based on gender at all. That was liberating and encouraging.
Barry Lustig is president of Cormorant Group, a Tokyo-based executive search practice specializing in marcom, digital, creative, design and corporate communications.