Archive for the ‘Trends’ Category

Booms Go Bust

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Japanese fashion subcultures can sometimes appear a little too “orderly.” Gothic-lolitas are 120% “gothic-lolita.” Hip hop kids are perfectly constructed “hip hop kids.” Everything is obvious and cleanly delineated. Glancing at most books about Japanese pop culture history, subcultures appear to have always been organized into immaculately-distinct units. For example, 1955 was the year of the Mambo Style, 1956 was the year of the Sun Tribe (Taiyo-zoku), and 1957 was the year of the Calypso Style. A socialist Pop Culture Politburo could only dream of such efficiency in trend adoption and abandonment.

Both the Japanese media and pop historians generally conceptualize post-war popular culture as a linear progression of “booms” (ブーム) — the Japanese word for short-lived “fads” that define their respective eras. The book Japanese Trend Timeline Seen Through Charts (『チャートでみる日本の流行年史』) is a prime example of this boom-centered perspective on constructing a narrative within Japanese culture. According to the book, Freshly Baked Cheesecake was all the rage in ’91, but ¥500 Cheesecake took over in ’93. Even the nature of romantic relationships changed on a yearly basis: The bakappuru (“idiot couple”), for example, was something that happened in 1995. This approach owes a lot to the Japanese media’s own over-obsessive reporting on minor social changes. In 1986, “DINKS” — couples with double-income no kids — were all the rage in the media and marketing worlds, but it’s hard to imagine this particular demographic disappeared after everyone moved on to obsessing over gyaku-tama (逆玉, men marrying rich women for their money) a few years later. The media just needed a new story.

Whether or not booms seem like a product of media excess, the market ended up organizing itself around predictable patterns of short-lived trends. By setting up each year as the nest for a different “boom,” cultural producers were able to reduce risk. The usually fickle youth consumer behavior could become as planning-friendly as steel or coal. No one could perfectly forecast exactly what would boom in a few years’ time, but they knew something would.

The cover story in the February 1, 2008 issue of marketing journal Senden Kaigi — “All About Youth” (「若者のすべて」) — gives credence to the idea that booms had long been a “top-down” cultural trend rather than a “bottom-up” one. In an interview with several editors for teen magazines, Nicola‘s editor-in-chief Matsumoto Mihoko gives an interesting quote about the difficulty of marketing to teens in recent years (translation and bold mine):

When we started publishing Nicola 11 years ago, it was an era where girls in the target readership felt a sense of hunger towards fashion. So, it was easy to create booms.

Here the media does not see its natural job as merely reacting towards consumer tastes, but creating the booms themselves. The article goes on to explain (translation mine):

Apparently it is growing much more difficult for those booms manufactured by the media or companies to permeate (into society) as they did in the past.

Japanese companies in the cultural industries have not always succeeded in pushing products on consumers, but they should probably take most of the credit for creating the society-engulfing booms that really mattered. Now that consumers are much more dispassionate about following media-created styles (either a sign of Western-style individualism or hikkikomori-style solipsism, depending on whom you ask), the result has not been more consumer-driven booms, but less booms total. Booms always needed media and manufacturer coordination to make the boom visible on national level, put the products in stores at the ideal time, and then pull the rug out from under everyone in a year’s time to make room for something new. Now that consumers are behaving more freely from the “mass media,” tastes have diffused and consumer needs no longer change on the exact same schedule as the industry’s seasonal framework. Booms no longer fit the market.

Not to say there are no booms: the Keitai Novel phenomenon definitely qualifies (the book industry launched a coordinated television campaign to make Mika’s Koizora into a mass success). Fashion magazines last autumn called for girls to go out and buy pink color tights, and suddenly the streets of Omotesando were glowing with fuchsia knees poking out between miniskirts and leather riding boots.

But there does need to be a reconceptualization of the relationship between producers, consumers, and the media. Japanese manufacturers have been spoiled in the past with too much power over editorial-voice-for-rent Japanese magazines and a populace generally interested in consuming the exact same things as everyone else on a strict timetable. Now that the media is losing its authoritarian voice, youth are broke (or saving for the future), and consumers are more interested in their own needs rather than fitting in with “society at large,” perhaps companies will have to rethink the cultural forcefeeding and start… marketing?

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The MacroTrends Behind Top 2007 Products

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

On December 3, Nikkei Marketing Journal (MJ) offered a refereed list of the top 36 products from 2007 within a mock sumo wrestling ranking chart. (Click here for an explanation of the makuuchi sumo rankings.) The winners were:

EAST

Yokozuna – Nintendo Wii & DS
Ohseki – Face recognition technology (used in digital cameras)
Sekiwake –  “Mega” fast foods (MegaMac)
Komusubi – Video uploading (YouTube & Nico Nico Douga)
Maegashira – iPod Touch
Pilot Frixion ballpoint pen
– Region-differentiated pricing (started by McDonalds)
– Luxury hair-care products
Billy’s Boot Camp
Blu-ray disc recorders
Tomato liquor
National A-La-Uno toilet
Leggins
“My hashi”: carrying personal chopsticks
Sen no kaze ni Natte (hit song)
– India-style calculation method (Vedic Mathematics)
– New operating systems (Vista, Leopard)
“Balance” fitness

WEST

Yokozuna – E-Money
Ohseki – High-quality video cameras
Sekiwake – Tokyo (Midtown, Shin-Maru Building, Yurakucho ITOCiA, etc.)
Komusubi – Softbank White Plan
Maegashira – Axe body spray
Charmy “Power of Foam” dish detergent
– Constant prices at supermarkets despite rising material costs
Transino liver-spot remover
Model planes that can be flown inside the home
(Return of the) Nissan GT-R
Calorie-zero sodas
– INAX Kururin Poi Drain
Unicharm Lifely Slimwear for seniors
Eco Bags
“Butt Biting Bug”
Salt-flavored sweets
Grand Pianist toy
PuchiPuchi “infinite bubble pop” toy

Underlying Macro Trends in this Ranking List

1)  No Kids or Youth Products / Lots of Middle-Age or Elderly-Marketed Products

A decade ago, Japanese schoolgirls gained a reputation for leading trends and creating hit products — essentially the “early adopters” for the whole of society. Looking at this 2007 list, however, there is almost nothing that gained massive popularity within or growing out of youth cultures. Axe body spray is apparently a huge hit with the kids, but hard to detect from the sights and smells of the city. On the other hand, the DS and Wii succeeded precisely because Nintendo took gaming into society at large — including women in their 20s (with their custom-bejewled DS lites) and the elderly. Leggings — the only apparel item on the list — experienced broad adoption, but it was women in their 20s that led the charge. Even the few toys on the list — Grand Pianist, PuchiPuchi, and inside-friendly model planes — seem to be relatively adult-oriented. (MJ makes the note that the Grand Pianist appealed to 40 year-olds). Maybe the “Butt Biting Bug” song was a “kid” thing, but the slightly grown-up nature of the lyrics attracted the most attention. Young students probably have to do the Indian-style method of calculation, but only because their parents force them to.

If there was an item that showed Japanese youth contribution to culture, surely it was Koizora — the “keitai novel” turned hit book and film. High school students love melodrama, and hoaxy-anonymous authors like “Mika” deliver the goods: dead boyfriends, gang rape, and miscarriages.

In addition to a lack of youth products, there also seem to be lots of “mature” products in categories normally attracting teens. For example, the big hit/development amongst non-alcoholic beverages was zero calorie colas. I seriously doubt the kids are the ones demanding less fattening soft drinks. Nor do I think that they are so jaded with artificial flavors to demand a little salt in their sweets. Needless to say, the youth are definitely not the ones demanding incontinence-ready “slimwear” or liver-spot remover either. Even the pop music market — which has historically been teen-oriented — was best represented by the (year-old) cheesy semi-opera work “Sen no kaze ni natte” topping the charts, perhaps sending a message of impending doom for Japanese youth culture as a whole. The main point is, middle-aged and elderly Japanese are now leading consumer culture in Japan without much competition from their children and grandchildren.

2)  Eco Eco Eco

Judging by the large number of eco-conscious products on this list, Japanese consumers do seem to be making concrete efforts to show more personal commitment to global footprint reduction. The idea of carrying around personal chopsticks (in order to avoid using the disposable wooden waribashi) is a small-scale pro-environment action, but a positive sign if indeed a mass trend. The “eco tote bag” made being green much easier by doubling as a fashion statement. (Yes, there were crowds and disorder before the Anya Hindmarch eco bag went on sale in Ginza, but something about the event seemed different from the normal crowds of patient Japanese youth.)

3)  Class-Bifurcated Market

The Japanese population avoided drinking an even cheaper, worse-quality beer-like beverage this year, but the market continued towards its two-tier structure of providing the wealthy with first-class versions of products while creating low-price goods for everyone else. The “luxury hair care” boom proved that a certain population is willing to pay way more for shampoo and conditioner than ever before — or maybe just that women are willing to pay more to guarantee luxury-quality hair. Meanwhile, people are flocking to the Softbank White Plan to reduce their cell phone bills. If you think about it enough, the Mega Mac and other “mega” fast food can almost be seen as a “freeter luxury” for those poor souls who can no longer afford to partake in giant steak dinners. And now with McDonalds starting region-variable pricing, businesses are clearly starting to add in price differentiation strategies to capitalize on the growing inequalities. This should be a key trend for 2008 as well — for better or worse.

4)  What Internet?

Although there are a lot of gadgets and technical innovations on this list, there seems to be little recognition of Net culture’s impact on society. Yes, YouTube and Nico Nico Douga are attracting lots of viewers, but this is just a continuation of last year’s trend than anything new. And these sites are still filled with illegal copies of TV and music videos rather than original content created by actual Japanese users. (The homemade Halfby videos are a good sign, however.) The iPod Touch’s most innovative feature for Americans — the ability to browse the internet using Wi-Fi — is completely worthless in Tokyo where almost no buildings or cafés offer free wireless service. The new operating systems “trend” is a pretty boring one — neither Vista nor Leopard changed any lives. In general, the list makes it sound like there have been more plumbing innovations — the A-la-uno toilet and Kururin Poi drain — than new evolutions in internet culture.

Due to the state of entrenched industry know-how, Japan has always been more about standalone gadgets than computer-based peripherals and desktop applications. With the Blu-ray recorder and high-quality video cameras, this principle still seems to be in action. Even E-money seems to chart out an alternative future rather than streamlining the concept of currency with the internet.

Although this year saw more internet phenomena — the aforementioned keitai shousetsu cell-phone novels reaching the top of the book charts and 2-ch flaming-related corporate scandals, etc. — we still don’t get the sense that the internet has become interwoven with Japanese life like in the United States or South Korea. This is not to say that these two nations represent the authoritative version of the “future”; simply, Japanese companies remain devoted to pursuing their own conception of a gadget-based technological progress rather than just hopping on the global bandwagon.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Rent-a-Bag and the Meaning of “Trend”

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

The new Japanese company ORB (On-Line Rent-a-Bag) gives women the opportunity to rent luxury handbags from upscale European design houses Louis Vuitton, Hermès, and Chanel for short-term periods. Although its business model is nearly identical to that of American company Bag Borrow or Steal, ORB is perhaps the first above-the-line implementation of “luxury rental” in Japan. Members of ORB’s “Bag Club” pay the not-so-cheap price of ¥29,800 per month for access to a wide selection of high-end products. For such a hefty fee, one could easily afford the monthly credit card payments on a truly spectacular bag. But ORB gives you the never-before-available option of changing luxury horses in midstream. Better yet, a constantly-rotating series of bags from ORB may give your peers the impression that you are a member of the exclusive Japanese upper classes with cash to burn on multiple luxury handbags. (Is the whole “handbag for life” thing suddenly an obvious signifier of the middle class?)

Here’s the deeper question when writing about ORB: Is luxury bag-rental worth identifying as a trend? So far, we only know of one company offering this service, and we have no idea whether the business model will be successful. Furthermore, we should not assume that the service succeeds in satisfying consumer needs simply on the publicized news of its foundation. Sure, it’s a noteworthy idea — somewhat novel, somewhat innovative — but does it pass the threshold to win “trend” designation?

At the end of the year, we are inundated with lists and lists of “The Year’s Hit Products” and “Buzzwords of the Year,” and although the media may not use the word “trend reporting,” they all attempt to give a sense of where popularity congregated over the last 52 weeks. This may seem like an odd time in the course of this blog (and within this particular essay) to start deconstructing the entire trend-spotting industry, but we felt like we needed to take a step back and look at common misdiagnoses of trends — especially in Japan.

(1) Trend Reports Overemphasizing Production/Manufacturing/Innovation: A lot of Japan-oriented trend blogs seem to push “cool” products as “trends” without any evidence that consumers agree. Yes, there are a lot of crazy, zany things that make it to the Japanese marketplace, but not all of these products will see substantial sales or have even been created with consumer research in mind. This is not to say that products specifically created to satisfy pre-existing consumer needs automatically become hits, but there must be some measure of reception to designate any piece of novelty as a “trend.” At best, there is a “production trend” in Japan for companies to make humanoid robots that play instruments; Asimo’s mere existence, however, says nothing about Japanese consumer sentiment towards the possibility of robot cohabitation.

(2) Trend Reports Overemphasizing Media (i.e., the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy): If you want to understand the entire blueprint for the new year (essentially viewing the “spoilers” for the next 365 days of consumer culture), read Dentsu’s forecast for the “Hit Products of 2008” included in their forthcoming “Hit Products of 2007” report. Since the advertising giant has the media budget to secure hits (or at least, create the illusion of success/authority in the media space), their predictions have better odds than the Harlem Globetrotters beating the Washington Generals. For example, just as predicted, Tokyo Midtown was “big” in 2007, but in what possible circumstances could the complex have not been a hit?

Since the Japanese mass media’s central organizational role is to advocate sponsored products from a position of central authority, the media’s definition of trend is always tautological: If the media decides to constantly feature a product, it therefore appears as a “hit” or a “trend” solely from all the exposure. This does not mean, however, that their pronouncement is a lie: The mass plurality of consumers in Japan still buy and participate in mass trends based solely on the amount of media exposure.

But even when consumers don’t take the bait, how can an objective observer really tell? Does the popular advertorial TV show Ohsama no Brunch ever do flashback stories on things that did not turn out to be successful despite its enthusiastic coverage? “Podcasting” was a buzzword in Japan a while back, but when the media dust settled, the “trend” was totally empty.

(3) Trend Reports Ignoring the Importance of Continuity: Xavel’s cell-phone/PC fashion shopping sites fashionwalker.com and girlswalker have been incredibly successful, but the company clearly rode on the coattails of market-leading manufacturers, media institutions, and talent-agencies. The expansion of fashion retail into “new media” has definitely been a real innovation, and objectively, the high levels of mass support have made “keitai shopping” a trend by any measure. The entire Xavel [now Branding] enterprise, however, is still dependent upon the legitimacy of traditional media. Without access to Ebi-chan & Co., it’s unclear if consumers would have ever made the leap into the arms of an unknown retailer. So, yes, Xavel is a real trend, but the company’s innovation has been more dependent upon continuity than innovation.

Our last post on hit novel Koizora makes a similar criticism: what is the difference between the success of a “traditional” novel with a high-expenditure mass market television campaign and a book-form “keitai novel” that receives the exact same promotional treatment? Koizora‘s hit status says more about the constancy of promotional power in Japan than the innovation in content creation.

(4) Trends that Overemphasize the Rogers Model: We no longer live in an unidirectional marketplace where elitist “early adopters” take up products and are then imitated by the less cool “early majority.” These days, popular products often completely skip hipster adopters, and sometimes the early majority intentionally rejects the styles of the well-respected media/art/fashion complex. In Japan, trendy underground culture has become a deserted island; the idea that its Lost-like survivors can somehow transmit their love of RSS, CSS and American Apparel to hordes of Johnny’s Jimusho fans is silly. There are real early adopters — sales clerks at Shibuya 109, for example — but are frequently ignored when they do not share the same taste culture as the actual trend-spotters. So, not only does the classic diffusion model not apply particularly well to the 21st century environment, trend-spotters generally give too much credence to “early adopters” similar to themselves or the Western example but lacking in real opinion leadership.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

This essay is not to say that there isn’t noteworthy reporting on innovations, novelties, and borrowable ideas from the Japanese market, but there is always an error of over-reporting these as “mass trends.” If we return to the initial problem in analyzing the “rent-a-luxury-bag” phenomenon, the best course may be to err on the side of skeptical neutrality. Reporting on new products and services is great fun for blog posts, but overselling novelty as “trend” can create a false sense of market realities.