Speaking at the New Economy Summit in Tokyo in April, footballer turned sake entrepreneur Hidetoshi Nakata suggested that a big reason the Japanese sake industry is struggling is a lack of branding: neither foreigners nor many Japanese people can read the labels on the bottles, he said.
Instead of despairing at this oversight, Nakata has been developing an application to translate the labels. It’s not just a question of legibility though. In many cases, the design is also in need of refreshment. Encouragingly, some producers are rethinking their approach to be more in line with modern graphic tastes.
Last week, Akashi Sake Brewery introduced a brand redesign for Akashi-Tai, a range of five sakes. The aim of the rebranding effort, led by London-based consultancy Cowan, was to present the lineup as premium and artisanal while appealing to consumers in both Japan and international markets.
According to Cowan, the old design “looked neither premium nor artisan, but was known simply as ‘the one with the fish’”.
The new labels retain the fish—a sea bream, which is an important part of the company's heritage—but in more calligraphic form, designed with the help of French artist Aurore de la Morinerie. Japanese calligrapher Hirano Sogen developed the kanji characters.
In a statement, Akashi-Tai’s brand team said the new design “perfectly balances Japanese purity with an iconic and visually powerful aesthetic that will appeal to the western eye, whilst at the same time retaining unquestioned traditional credibility in the domestic market. The brand is now in a perfect position for growth”.
The company is targeting the UK, US and Germany and plans to extend the brand to other European markets in the near future, it said.
Campaign’s view: The rebranding highlights an interesting challenge for a sector in which adherence to tradition is both a strength (in terms of the product itself) and a weakness (in terms of the way it’s marketed).
Clearly, branding is a subtle art, and the change here seems fairly incremental. The more abstract fish and the new design overall are a definite improvement, however, and importantly, the label remains easily legible to all target consumers. Employing a European artist for traditional ink painting might seem counterintuitive, but the result still looks sufficiently ‘Japanese’.
Getting more breweries to admit they need branding help is undoubtedly going to be hard given the enduring belief that a good product should sell itself. But combining Japanese and western aesthetic sensibilities could be the way of the future for internationally minded producers of traditional Japanese goods. Whether they choose to mix cultures or not, at the very least, being open to some degree of modernisation in terms of design should not hurt sales prospects.