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From made-in-Japan to made-for-you: Asia’s evolving lifestyle brands

31 Dec, 2015

We have been hearing a lot about “buying local” here in Asia. Some argue it is part of a cultural sentiment, but we think that is just the beginning of a larger consumption pattern.

 

According to a recent focus group study, we saw there is a rising trend among Hong Kong consumers to buy Brand Asia. Millennials, compared to their older counterparts, are keener to support local products and actively encourage others to do so. Supporting local artisans, handcrafted beers, and indie designers and actively sharing these experiences through social media is almost becoming a trend within itself.

On the surface level, it is convenient to say that brands can ride on the localism wave to drive preference and loyalty, but the finding revealed a more significant insight: one that reflects Barbara Kruger’s stencils: brands serve as extensions of our personalities.

Traditionally, lifestyle brands would mostly sell on their heritage origins and high-quality craftsmanship – headlines related to the product’s quality. But moving forward, we will be seeing more products that claimed to be superior increasingly giving way to the era of “self-expressionism”.

This change of perception is not completely irrational from a branding perspective. With the increasing number of lifestyle brands, and more brands that are selling essentially the same products and stories, it has become harder for new brands to stand out in the cluttered market.

On the other hand, as well-heeled and well-travelled Asian consumers are craving for more curated, personalized experiences, generic brand values such as made in Japan, handcrafted with 50 years of heritage, etc. will soon lose their lustre.

 

Take long-standing brands like Muji for example, which increased its stores by 27 this year in China. Muji has long been tapping into the unique lifestyles of its target consumers, who appreciate minimalism and the smaller details in life. This is reflected by their marketing communications and selections of products: one would normally pair a Muji pen with a Muji notebook, then a Muji shoulder bag with a Muji blazer, and what about the pajamas? – in order to complete the full expression of a Muji life. And to quote Masaaki Kanai, who runs Muji, “Even as we integrate with Chinese traditional culture and communities, we continue to promote Muji’s feel-good life’ concept.

Needless to say, the confluence of social media is also fueling this growth in “self-expressionism”, in which consumers tend to curate unique personalities by liking and sharing content that best represents themselves. Brands that talk too much about themselves and brag their values will ultimately lose relevance and interest.

Moving forward, lifestyle brands need to reinvent their communication strategies and live the life that the consumers associate with them.

 

When Base Creative was enlisted to work with one of the leading Japanese lifestyle brands, Tsuchiya-Kaban, we discovered the brand was still selling on heritage and product qualities: age-old values that are shared with many other brands. ­

While this strategy has garnered a group of loyal consumers for Tsuchiya over the past few years, the brand has been struggling to reach new audience segments. For younger consumers, Tsuchiya is considered to be an expensive brand selling products that may not live up to the price-point as there are similar but more affordable alternatives. In other words, the brand lacks relevance to be the “first-in-mind” brand of its target consumers.

As a starting point, we set out to uncover the target customers’ perceptions and the common personalities shared between the existing and potential customers.

 

Our new brand strategy for Tsuchiya focuses on a shared insight: as everyday life in Hong Kong is becoming more burdensome, we desire only objects that we cannot live without yet seek to look effortless at the same time. We developed a brand concept of “Considered Minimalism”, describing the specific kind of minimalistic lifestyle that the brand offers through its products and one aspires to live in while unifying existing and new values that would appeal to both loyal and potential customers.

Such branding methodology is about building common ground with the consumer’s interests: the kind of eclectic association you would see in the recent “knolling” design trend, in which one object conceptually relates to another.

Perhaps all this is good news for brand managers who struggle to discover unique propositions or selling points, as they can increasingly focus on the changing attitudes, aspirations and behaviours of the consumer as opposed to the details of the product. In coming years, we shall be seeing more successful lifestyle brands that build on spheres of interests, rather than idiosyncratic products.

 

Woody Yip

Research and Strategist