Does 'japanising' a brand help win over HK consumers?
James Hill, Managing Partner of SEC Newgate Greater China, adds his commentary and analysis to an article in MARKETING-INTERACTIVE about global Chinese retailer Miniso, which publicly apologised for presenting the company as a Japanese designer brand.
Let's face it Hongkongers have a fascination with Japan. This is not only demonstrated by number of times they have visited the country, but also seems to on occasion influence their preference in choosing brands. According to YouGov's latest recommended rankings, Japanese clothing retailer Uniqlo was the third most recommended brand (75.8%) among HongKongers, whereas Japanese-based multinational cosmetics brand SK-II ranked the eighth (74.2%). Meanwhile, Don Don Donki saw the opening of its tenth store in Whampoa Garden despite the difficulties of COVID restriction in Hong Kong.
This appeal towards Japanese culture isn't isolated to Hong Kong alone. Recently global Chinese retailer MINISO had to publicly apologise for presenting the company as a Japanese designer brand as an early part of its marketing strategy. Moving forward the brand promised to “de-japanise” its stores a by March 2023.
“Japan has long been a cultural and fashion icon for global consumers. Brands have often incorporated Japanese styles and features into their products. Take for example the fashion retailer SuperDry. Its products lean heavily on Japanese characters and graphics, and yet it is headquartered in the leafy town of Cheltenham in the UK," said James Hill, managing partner of SEC Newgate Greater China.
Specifically in Hong Kong, the market has been a fan of Japanese culture for many years, added on Desmond Ku, founder and director of The Bridge Agency. The high quality generally associated with Japanese products has left a lasting impression on consumers, and transcended generations. The Japanese image has impressed locals since the 90s, and "Japanising" a brand definitely helps the brand image to communicate well with audience, explained Ku.
As long as "Japanese quality" is still carrying a certain level of positive image in that particular product industry, japanising a brand could help resonating with consumers, according to Wilson Wong, marketing director of Price.com.hk.
Sushiro and DON DON DONKI are typical recent examples in Hong Kong for the food and supermarket industries, said Wilson Wong, marketing director of Price.com.hk. Both brands launched and grew very quickly in Hong Kong by emphasising Japanese quality as consumers see positive values from food and supermarket goods in Japanese quality. "Japanese quality also boosts product demand in segments such as consumer electronics,” Wong added.
Not a new phenomenon. But its getting trickier.
According to SEC Newgate’s Hill, there is a history of brands borrowing the brand attributes of another country to help sell products and services. “Countless examples can be found in the electronics, alcohol and automotive industries. However, in today’s world, where authenticity is prized and nationalism is on the rise, borrowing the brand attributes of another country carries considerable risk,” he added.
Moreover, “Japanising” a brand could backfire sometimes, said David Ko, managing director of RFI Asia. “Yes it does resonate with consumers in Hong Kong who have had decades of a love affair with Japanese culture, with many residents even jokingly referring to vacationing in Japan as visiting their “homeland”. But this strategy can only work if there is a fundamental commitment to integrating Japanese sensibility into the DNA of the brand,” Ko said. Should the adaptation feel forced and inauthentic, or come across as an opportunistic tactic to gain mindshare among Hong Kong consumers, it can backfire.
"Once the brand is found out or even just accused of cultural appropriation, then trust is lost and it will be very difficult for the brand to recover,” he added.
Recovery for Miniso?
As a solution for the hot water MINISO found itself in, SEC Newgate’s Hill said it is time for Chinese brands to proudly assert their local heritage and Chinese characteristics. This is not just because domestic consumers are increasingly championing Chinese brands over overseas alternatives, but also because despite all the geopolitical noise, international consumers increasingly see Chinese goods and services as higher quality, more innovative and better value.
"Companies should label their goods: ‘Made in China – and proud of it’,” Hill added.
On the other hand, The Bridge Agency’s Ku suggested that the brand should focus on its product design and the brand vision. “Apart from apologising, it should avoid mentioning which country of culture it is resembling. What matters is the innovation and vision of the brand.”