Archive for the ‘Consumer Behavior’ Category

The Non-Story of Bottega Veneta’s No Logo

Monday, May 14th, 2007

Bags from Italian luxury brand Bottega Veneta (part of the Gucci group) have recently moved into the pantheon of iconic accessories for women in the Japanese market. According to Nikkei, Japanese sales in 2006 increased almost 70% to reach ¥12 billion. In the June issue of CanCam, BV were tied with Hermès for the No. 4 spot (only behind LV, Gucci, and Chanel) in a poll of 100 readers about their favorite handbags. These objective numbers back up the anecdotal evidence of seeing the woven-leather bags pop up more and more across Tokyo over the last year. In an environment on the brink of Gucci and Louis Vuitton fatigue, brands like Bottega Veneta and Goyard have managed to win the hearts and minds of young women looking for fresh new possibilities in luxury.

The media spin on Bottega Veneta is that the brand’s success heralds a new era of no-logo luxury. BV bags do not brandish initials or logos, and this is an intentional strategy: A sign with the message “When Your Own Initials Are Enough” is located behind the cashier desk of their huge Ginza flagship store. The management claims to emphasize quality over easily-recognizable markings, and they are happy to announce that this is at the root of recent success. Japanese consumers, the conventional wisdom is barking, have lost interest in something as base and vulgar as logos.

The success of Bottega Veneta, however, says very little about new developments in Japanese consumer behavior. The logo vs. no logo debate is a red herring. The most representative and best selling Bottega bags feature a consistent woven texture that gives the brands a very unique visual identity. Even without logos or initials, the pattern/texture alone is able to act as asignifier for the bag’s make.

With the bags receiving so much press attention in women’s fashion magazines, the woven BV visual signifier has reached a wide enough social penetration to make the products “safe” for consumers. To be fair, logos themselves are never the appeal of a brand like Gucci of LV: It was always the safety in knowing that the signifier implied in that logo had widespread recognition. So the innovation of BV is not a change in consumer psychology as much as a slight expansion of the means of brand representation. Bottega Veneta may be more classy in its subtlety, but the company is not making a product that cannot be recognized.

Also, the success of Bottega Veneta resembles Japanese female consumer esteem for Hermès in recent years. The main lines of Louis Vuitton and Gucci have been unfortunately defined by their mass fans, and a certain group of well-to-do, upwardly-mobile women want to set themselves apart from the “luxury standard.” Bottega Veneta has been well-positioned to fill this need, and although the prices are slightly high for the important clerical sector, the prices tags are nowhere as exorbitant as Hermès. Like Chloé, the BV bags hit a price-range that creates distinction from the mass luxury sector without proving an impossible buy.

Of course, there are some Japanese female consumers who are not interested in whether peers can recognize the make of their bag, but the acceptance of Bottega Veneta with the CanCam set says that those who need social legitimatization for their products are as fine with a distinctive pattern as they are with a logo.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Intentional Rudeness in Japanese Retail

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

In books like Robert M. March’s Honoring the Customer: Marketing and Selling to the Japanese, Western observers often proclaim the existence of a “Japanese” style of over-polite customer relations. This is seen as a natural outgrowth of Japanese culture and not based on marketing management decisions. March’s idea suggests that the philosophy embodied in the famous expression “the customer is God” (「お客様は神様」) drives sales clerk behavior at an unconscious level. Certainly, this ethic materializes in most retail experiences in Japan: The shopping pageant usually opens with the staff screaming out the welcoming phrase “Irasshaimase!”

While this may be the conventional mode of consumer relationship, the theory above has little explanation for the large numbers of high-end fashion boutiques and brand shops in Japan where intentional rudeness is a well-honed strategy. Walk into the Comme des Garçons boutique in Aoyama, for example, and breathe in the deep, stylish silence of calculated alienation. Not only do the staff sternly hold back on verbal greetings to customers, the managers often flash you a look of utter disbelief — as if your presence caused massive disruption in the spirit underlying the brand ethos. I can partially blame this treatment on my own insufficiencies in living up to the proper sartorial and styling standards, but the frigid atmosphere and Medusa gazes are also curiously directed towards the store’s largest consumer base: fashionable young people.

A Bathing Ape and some of the other Ura-Harajuku street brands famously followed the same rudeness strategy in the 1990s, which worked to add an adequate cachet of elitism to counter any detrimental image effects resultant from the relative low price of the clothing. This was unlike the typical antipathy of American street brand store staff, however: Bape employees were never surly as much as they seemed like worker bees programmed to not appear too helpful.

There is something decidedly uncool about deconstructing this practice of cold silence and service deficit. Viewed within the context of that deep-seeded conviction that “being cool” comes naturally to a privileged few and involves no rational decision-making, assuming that marketing policy sets the tone of staff behavior is outright presumptuous. Greeting the customer with smiles and offers of help implies that (1) the store/brand wants to assist customers and (2) the store/brand is interested in playing that dirty, low-rent game of “selling” things. This attitude is common across the entire global high-end fashion industry, but perhaps its presence is much more striking in Japan where the “average” level of service is so consistently high.

The technique of customer alienation apparently went mainstream in Japan the mid-1980s when the super-elite artistic designer brands were suddenly swamped with “average kids” who threatened to weaken the retail environment’s appeal to the original core of up-scale consumers from the art and fashion worlds. Although few brands could resist the huge increases in revenue by expanding market reach downwards, they had to devise a way to take the sales of unideal consumers with one hand while continuing to maintain brand integrity with the other. As a solution, the staff was instructed to treat the young consumers with total derision.

And it worked. First, the treatment reinforced the fact that the kids were being into something “above them” rather than on their own level. Second, specifically-targeted customers would very clearly receive better treatment, bestowing on these special consumers a sense of importance. As long as the cash-heavy young consumers do not interpret the neglect as arrogance, the strategy makes sense. Moreover, this customer relations style has become so internalized within the high-end sector that being nice has ended up being a strange, contrarian measure. (I can anecdotally state that it sometimes works well to be polite and attentive to customers who expect to be contemptibly ignored.)

As we saw with the consumer demand driving the Tokyo Girls Collection, younger Japanese women do seem to be put off by the elitism at heart in high-end brand’s rudeness. They want comfort and ease, and one of the appeals of the brands located in the Shibuya 109 shopping complex is that the staff generally resemble the shopper. Relations are friendly — not just in terms of politeness, but the shop staff is positioned to act as the best friend or older sister of the customer.

At this point, high-end brands and restaurants would gasp at the idea of abandoning the alienation strategy since it is hardly within the reach of intentional decision-making. But brands on the border — those looking to entice mass Japanese consumers with a high-quality product — may want to reconsider the effects of making average customer feel like he is illegally breaking and entering into the retail space.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Dokusha Models and Charisma Clerks: Transferring the Aura of Authority

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

In a very large number of cases, Japanese mass consumer culture diffuses in a top-down manner. Manufacturer conglomerates work closely with oligopolistic ad agencies and shadowy production companies to determine the It Girls and Hit Products of the Year. There are, however, many contradictions and complications that challenge the singularity of that conspiratorial narrative. Very little may rise straight to the top in a grass-roots manner, but the presence of dokusha model (読者モデル) and charisma clerks (カリスマ店員) shows that the top needs to recruit those at the bottom to speak their message more directly to the target audience.

Dokusha models (literally, “reader models”) are amateur models used in youth fashion magazines. They are either scouted on the streets or chosen from readers who have sent in letters to editors offering their services. Dokusha models are as likely to be aspiring hairdressers, stylists, and artists with good fashion sense as aspiring “models.”

Magazines like to use these models for several reasons. First, they are much cheaper than “real” models. Second, they usually lack management, which makes them much easier to work with. Third, they give readers “life-sized” idols onto whom they may project themselves. Fourth, they can sometimes break these models as “stars” which reflects very well back upon the status of the magazine.

Charisma clerks are members of a popular store’s staff (usually sales, but sometimes PR) who become famous from their appearances in the media. This became a particularly big boom in the young women’s fashion based around Shibuya 109 — with girls flocking to stores to meet these minor celebrities in the flesh.

Some dokusha model and charisma clerks have been able to make the leap from amateurs to professionals. Most famously, the charisma clerk Yoco Morimoto went on to form her own brand Moussy and several other spinoffs. Kaela Kimura became the face of Seventeen and then a successful Sony recording artist. Visual artist Asami Kiyokawa was often seen in issues of CUTiE in the late 1990s.

Even those dokusha models and lowly clerks who do not end up using their sudden fame as a way to jump to the big time generally experience a very intense celebrity with magazine readers. Part of the idea of “charisma” is that kids show up at stores and ask the charisma clerk to pick out their wardrobe — relinquishing most decision-making to the famed store employee who could not possibly do them wrong. In this way, “charisma” has little to do with the Western meaning of “being charismatic” and is more about the possession of petite authority within a specific sphere.

The charisma clerks and dokusha models generally benefit everyone in the commercial chain. The semi-celebrities themselves enjoy the respect and fame, especially those in trendy low-level jobs that do not offer high financial rewards. (Here is a guide book for aspiring dokusha models hoping to be “discovered.”) Young consumers like having normal, “everyday” celebrities who they have a good chance of meeting in person and asking for shopping advice. Or at worst, they can least steal practical styling tips from afar.

Manufacturers and brands also see the value in giving the dokusha models celebrity status. Senken Shimbun reported that popular male dokusha model Yuya Nara can no longer go into his favorite stores without the staff offering to give him items for free (4/18/07 「親しみ覚える選択眼」). By using these readers as human billboards, brands hope to legitimize their own products through these free agents without dipping into the promotional budget. Media always win points for identifying trend-makers before they blow up, and they get extra points for creating fame out of thin air. So by picking individuals who embody the styles they champion, they can create an army of closely-related comrades who keep the magazine’s curatorial ethic alive and well within their target audience community.

Everybody wins, but it hinges upon a consumer base accepting these non-celebrities as possessing a certain amount of authority and stature. This may seem somewhat difficult to achieve in the West, but in Japan, the dokusha models and charisma clerks fit nicely into a systematic hierarchy of style and consumption.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

AneCan: Media Leads Production and Consumption

Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

The auspicious launch of AneCan magazine may have appeared at first as the simple spread of CanCam‘s conserva-cute culture up to an older female demographic. But the inauguration did not just concern the birth of a single publication: AneCam worked with apparel makers and department stores in a coordinated effort to create a whole new market segment.

Last year,  CanCam‘s publisher Shogakukan released a special Oneesan-kei CanCam (Older Sister CanCam) issue to test the waters for starting a more “elegant” version of the magazine that would target women in their late 20s. Sales were superb, and decisions were made to push towards a regularly-publishing separate monthly magazine for this audience. The effort culminated in AneCan‘s March debut.

While Shogakukan experimented with an older audience, domestic apparel makers who supply the specific brands featured in CanCam started working towards a new set of brands that would represent  the AneCan style. For example, the following companies created the new brands:

The first issue of AneCan apparently sold almost 90% of its projected 320,000 copies in five days. To correspond with the magazine launch, Isetan department stores held a special exhibition of the main “AneCan” brands for a week period in their seven stores across Japan. In just that short time, the six brands sold ¥35 million. Between other stores and online sales, the brands all reported amazing sales (Arpege had ¥7 million sales in just one week), and many reported that their items specifically featured in AneCan sold out completely. From the perspectives of the publisher, the apparel makers, and the retailers, the AneCan launch was a massive success, and they gave form to a new market segment to which they could continue to sell products.

General lessons to learn from this successful media-manufacturer-retailer coordination:

  1. Japanese magazines often define markets rather than respond to them. In this case, a successful magazine did not “curate” or style its own look out of pre-existing brands but instead coordinated the creation of new brands appropriate for its readership.
  2. Consumers will gravitate towards the purchase of specific items featured in the magazine as these are seen as perfectly “safe.”
  3. Consumers want clarity in branding: i.e., these brands are “AneCan” brands featured in an “AneCan” retail space. Everything from all angles lined up to make the purchase an easy choice.

Sources: 『売れる「姉キャン」系ブランド30代もつかむ』繊研新聞平 成19 4月4日

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Tokyo Girls Collection

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007

The Fourth Annual Tokyo Girls Collection was held on March 3 at the Yokohama Arena, attracting an audience of almost 22,000. Press and members of industry organizations may have been well represented, but the majority of the crowd was normal everyday women in their late teens and early 20s. These nominal “fashion shows” have the energy of rock concerts, but not just because of the guest musical performances. Girls congregated from all over Japan to see their heroes — models Ebihara Yuri and Fujii Rina etc. from their beloved fashion magazines (Can Cam, ViVi and JJ) — prance upon the stage in real life.

Created in 2004, these events intend to give proper exhibition to domestic brands that supply the “real clothes” worn by Japanese girls in their daily life. In this, they are challenging the idea that runway shows and collections are the sole property of European import brands, domestic high fashion, and indie avant designers. And in this bottom-up rebellion, they are wildly succeeding.

Participating Brands in Tokyo Girls Collection:

ALBA ROSA JAPAN alicias Apuweiser-riche CECIL McBEE
DELYLE DOUBLE STANDARD CLOTHING gMALOUSE HbG
JAYRO Joias Jolly Boutique Kai Lani
L’EST ROSE LIP SERVICE LITIRA
MAISON GILFY
Noble Birth Private Label
RADEESSE Ravijour
rich rienda SWORD FISH UNIVERVAL MUSE
VIERGE

Some History

Over the last several decades, there has been a growing synthesis of two major conceptualizations of “fashion” in Japan. High fashion — “designer brands” in local parlance — started to become a familiar aspirational item to Japanese middle-class consumers in the 1960s. At first-rate department stores like Seibu, shoppers were able to browse European luxury apparel in the same environmental space as their everyday household goods. Although mostly unaffordable at the time, high-end brands became convenient symbols of economic success for the society as a whole. Incomes and taste standards rose up to a point in the mid-1980s where the DC Boom (DC = Designer/Character) swept Japan and made domestic designer brands the fashion standard. With the Plaza Accord doubling the value of the yen in a short time, “normal” consumption of the world’s greatest luxury brands followed in tow. An important note: The locus of legitimacy for the high fashion stream is clearly overseas — especially Europe (Paris and Milan). Even the dominant domestic brands like Comme des Garçons or Issey Miyake won most of their local esteem after widespread international recognition.

Running parallel to high fashion has been the street brands which range from the casual Ivy League fashion of Van to the myriad subcultural looks of social delinquents and their middle-class imitators. In 1988, after a few years of being displaced by the DC Boom, casual anti-fashion made its way back to the top through the Shibu-Kaji (Shibuya Casual) trend. Epoch-making street brands have mostly been domestic, and while Japanese fashion may take influence from foreign trends, the codification of style usually happens at the hands of Japanese actors, whether bottom-up subcultures or top-down magazines.

The 1990s explosion in street-wear — especially the brands geographically based in the Ura-Harajuku neighborhood — saw a synthesis of the two trends in the form of high-priced casual brands that won foreign recognition. These brands used limited-edition supply to build an aura of exclusivity similar to high-fashion. On the Men’s side, several brands like Under Cover, Number Nine, and N. Hoolywood have managed to win high-fashion approval for clothing that began life within a street brand association (although you cannot deny that these brands boast superior concepts and loftier aspirations than their meat-and-potatoes t-shirt-and-sneakers peers.)

Stealing the Thunder from High Fashion

The Tokyo Girls Collection is a new type of synthesis between street brands and designer fashion. Rather than the “exclusive” street fashion of the 1990s, TGC fashion is a group of low-priced domestic brands — mostly sold at the “gal” (gyaru) culture center of Shibuya 109 rather than in snobby boutiques or upper-crust department stores. These brands are appropriating the language and actions of the high-fashion world, and like H&M and Topshop, many of the ideas as well. In order to throw their enormous fashion show each year, this coalition of brands join forces with their media partners in the internet sales sector, the publishing world, powerful modeling agencies, and now also, the Japanese government. The end result is a very impressive and un-ignorable “media-mix” event that creates a new sort of unified promotional front for a tier of clothing once perceived closer to commodities than “fashion.”

The organizers describe the clothes as “real” — implicitly creating a dichotomy between their products and the “fake” or “imaginary” apparel on display at traditional fashion industry shows. Tokyo Girls Collection models are not tall and skinny high-fashion regulars nor foreigners, but instead, the “cute” and familiar girls from Can Cam and the other popular fashion consumption bibles. While on the runway, the models wave to the crowd in a friendly way instead of sternly projecting ice cold stares. There is no frozen and rigid hierarchy between participants nor polite silence at TGC. Most importantly, all the clothes featured are within the realm of possibility — nothing is experimental. The female commentator notes that ensembles featured in the show are perfectly styled to give specific direction to the girls “studying” this fashion look. TGC attendees should feel as if they could immediately buy the pieces and wear them the next day.

In the video above [now removed], the commentators use a few choice words to describe the event: soft (柔らかい), safe (無難), and easy-to-understand (分かり易い). Designer fashion has become perceived rightly or wrongly as a product group opposite of these three critical descriptors. The vast majority of young Japanese women no longer aspire towards international designer culture and couture. High-fashion and typical runway fare is seen as the exact opposite of our three key descriptors — conceptually-difficult, socially-risky, and “hard” in its often confrontational stance. The central focus on the designer/auteur in high fashion is seen as selfish and not allowing the wearer to insert her own “individuality” (個性) (even though girls are really asking for a mediated and safe individuality that will not cause social friction rather than a completely inimitable differentiation from others.) The young women have explicitly refused to be impressed or interested in the artistry and intellectual ideas behind contemporary fashion — because neither “intellectualism” nor “artistry” (as they are being widely defined) can serve this demographic’s social intention for apparel.

As the female commentator notes [in the removed video above], these girls want to be popular with boys (モテる) and that means curiously (1) no glasses and (2) no designer fashion (mode, モード). This romantic angle on consumption could end up being a very big problem for international luxury brands in that the average young Japanese girl believes her consumption of expensive and trendy clothing to be a serious impediment towards meeting boys rather than a tool for better self-presentation.

Populism and National Interests

From a populist angle, the Tokyo Girls Collection is a triumph. Girls can feel that these once “low fashion” brands are “fashion” — complete with runway shows and media attention. And honestly speaking, these brands are for the most part designed and sold by young Japanese women very similar to their consumer base. From a certain perspective, this is fashion by the people for the people — with the financial backing of some big local corporations, but not necessarily the usual suspects.

This trend towards populist fashion could lead to a serious disaster for the international brands that dominate the Japanese market if the TGC manages to challenge the Euro luxury brands or design school graduates’ sole possession of the “fashion halo.” By proudly proclaiming “soft” and “non-challenging” and “domestic” as the most important characteristics of a “good brand,” the Guccis and Chloés could hit a serious philosophical discord with their biggest consumer demographic. Over the last two decades, import luxury brands have gone from providing the entire outfit for trendy girls to now just the expensive handbag accessorizing a wardrobe constructed from cheap domestic product. And if this TGC conglomeration of brands and influential media organizations finds it necessary to redefine handbags in a more “accessible” and “real” way, things may get hairy. Coach and Samantha Thavasa are already creating an authoritative position with a much cheaper product than the traditional luxury standard.

On March 26, the TGC organizers threw a version of their 2007 Japan show in Beijing at the CHIC (China International Clothing & Accessories Fair). The Japanese government is fully behind helping these domestic brands export to the enormous Chinese market, and with Japan at the top of the fashion and entertainment hierarchy in Asia, they may be able to succeed in mass exports. In terms of national interest, the success of these brands may become a higher economic priority than the continued success of the European luxury houses. Whether this will impact how top-down trends are started remains to be seen.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

The Changing Brand Value of Bape

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

Fourteen years ago this April, two Japanese twenty-three year-olds straight out of vocational colleges with little in the way of professional experience opened up a small boutique fittingly called “Nowhere” in the quiet back-streets of Harajuku. One of the young men was Jun Takahashi — who used his half of the shop to sell his own avant-punk designer brand Under Cover. On the other side of the shop was Nigo — who would soon become the total director behind the international wünder-brand A Bathing Ape (Bape). For the first few months of Nowhere’s existence, the Nigo-side sold adidas and other select import goods, but pressured by the almost instant success of Takahashi’s label, Nigo realized that he needed to start an original brand of his own. Brainstorming with his graphic designer friend Skatething, the two came up with the semi-English phrase “A Bathing Ape in Lukewater” as the brand name and appropriated the gorilla face from the Planet of the Apes films for the visual icon.

Within two years, those ape heads could be seen on half the t-shirts in Harajuku, and the success of Bape ushered in the Ura-Harajuku style moment in Japan. This look combined the casual vibe and comfort of street clothing with the rarity-factor, celebrity-connections, and high price points of designer fashion. Bape’s continued domestic success in the 1990s eventually led to international acclaim. For many years, however, Bape could only be found outside of Japan on the backs of Nigo’s foreign music and graffiti allies and had thus attained a mythic status as the ultimate prize in the hunt for limited-edition apparel (The Face in 1999 called the brand “Truly underground,” totally incognizant of the brand’s mass status in Japan.) Starting with the 2002 opening of Bape’s Busy Work Shop London, however, the brand began its remarkable journey from being a super-rare insider commodity to becoming the clothing of choice for the American hip hop elite and a prop in every other video on MTV.

Although Nigo may not frame his story in marketing language, A Bathing Ape is absolutely an exemplar branding case study for the Japanese market. Nigo is not a fashion designer, nor does he make claims on such titles. His success has been a product of his impeccable skills in marketing and curation: i.e., it’s about what he sells and how he sells rather than what he “creates.” There are probably ten-thousand small T-shirt companies in Japan that use images and themes from Western popular culture and old sci-fi movies, but Nigo was able to masterfully leverage his celebrity connections in the media to create a total lifestyle around the clothing. Bape was never just apparel — the “brand” encompassed concerts and record releases from musicians in Nigo’s orbit, collectible toys, and self-produced media. By only selling clothes through directly-managed retail outlets, Nigo controlled the entire shopping experience from the background music to the architecture (courtesy of Wonderwall) to the long lines and intentionally-unhelpful staff. Instead of fitting his brand to a pre-existing consumer subculture, Nigo just invented his own. And the kids fell into line accordingly.

The Big Change in 2001

Bape’s success stood upon three strategic marketing pillars that emphasized the “underground” brand image at every turn: limited-edition supply, obfuscated stores, and a rejection of traditional advertising. This worked wonders from 1993 to 2001. Everything changed overnight, however, with Bape’s collaboration with soda brand Pepsi. Suddenly, the brand’s trademark ape-faced camouflage was in vending machines all the way from small towns in northern Hokkaido to beach-side huts in Okinawa. Regardless of any intentions of ironic subtext, here was an open acceptance of commodification after a career based on decommodifying the T-shirt and jeans. Although some at the time claimed that the move was not a “sell-out” because of Pepsi’s “outsider” status in Japan (see the similar idea behind the October 2001 Relax issue on Pepsi), the move loudly signaled a new direction for Bape. Nigo no longer seemed apprehensive of going too mass, and large-scale aspirations rerouted his once modest strategy.

Around 2003, Nigo made friends with Pharell Williams from the Neptunes, and this connection made the Bape brand (especially the Bapestar sneakers and colorful camo hoodies) must-haves for hip-hop royalty in the United States. Bape subsequently became a hit item there — a market Nigo had willfully ignored in the ’90s because he had believed selling to Americans was too “mass market.” By the early Aughts, however, his values had changed from emphasizing brand cachet-über-alles to wanting the bling-bling cash-out in the short-term. He could have engaged the American hip hop market while staying true to the limited-edition concept, but once Nigo crossed the Rubicon, he never really even half-heartedly withheld supply to demanding parties besides constructing barriers with the high product prices.

So Goes the Brand

Nigo seems to justify this change as “brand growth/expansion” but this new direction unfortunately created points of radical difference to the original and established brand image. The following outlines the changes to the total brand experience for BAPE:

Consumers: By obviously going for the mass market, Nigo abandoned his core base of fashion-forward teens who had previously believed to be buying a certain level of “safe exclusivity” in A Bathing Ape. Once Nigo started selling to the Chinese cultural sphere in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Japanese fans saw their brand being consumed by a group which they fairly or unfairly considered lower on the global style hierarchy. Even though Bape found a fan base in first-tier American rappers, most Japanese kids in the hip-hop subculture remembered Bape’s old market position too well to be able to use the brand to express belonging to their particular subculture. Before the globalization of the brand, Japanese core consumers only saw the brand being consumed by the proper parties who understood its meaning. The willful abandonment of the founding principles to market to other countries confused this message on the home front.

Supply: Nigo was very careful at first about selling to the Chinese market. His first Hong Kong store had been “by appointment only,” but the brand’s introduction into the Chinese-language world coincided with the mass production of fake Bape by counterfeiters in China and Korea. I remember an Ebay in 2000 with a maximum of three A Bathing Ape t-shirts. Today there are more than 2000 — few of which are real. The supply not only increased over time, but the counterfeiting problem degraded the aura the brand enjoyed in which low quantity implied high quality.

Retail Locations: In Japan, there are Busy Work Shops in almost every major (and minor) metropolitan center. Overseas, New York and London have been or will be soon joined by Los Angeles, Hong Kong, and Taipei. Tokyo once had a few select locations, but now there is a surplus of Bape-branded ventures — the BAPE Cuts hair salon, BAPE Café, and a Bape Kids children’s clothing store — each spreading the customer base thinner and thinner. The shopping experience no longer feels special and exclusive or has the air of destination shopping.

Now certainly, we should admit that A Bathing Ape would not have been able to forever keep up the ruse of selling on a mass scale while claiming an underground credibility. Nigo changed the brand partly because he had nowhere left to
go. Nigo himself often claims that “times have changed,” and he is right that “limited-edition” (限定) was a bit of a ’90s phenomenon that outlived its usefulness.

The ’90s phenomenon of exclusivity, however, was core to his brand, and since he will never be able to charge Dior-like prices for his street clothing, abandoning his artificial attempts to control supply (or appear to be doing so) means a decrease in the exclusivity still necessary for his semi-luxury goods to work. Marketing for short-term success and creating a durable brand value are polar opposites, and while anyone would be hard-pressed to write off the current state of Bape as a “failure,” the brand value at least appears to have struggled for the last five years in Japan. As a clothing line that once famously attracting huge lines on the weekends, the Tokyo stores are often quiet, and when populated, have an image of being populated with Chinese-speaking tourists. (Some of the rural locations apparently still attract a large fan base.)

Japanese fashion editors in the 1990s spent year after year privately pronouncing A Bathing Ape “dead,” but the brand kept growing stronger and stronger. I do not want to suggest that Bape has come to any sort of end, but in sheer terms of brand value, Bape has gone from a model of perfection in the Japanese market to a confused hodge-podge of messages, images, and subcultural affiliations. A Bathing Ape’s success in the 1990s Japanese fashion market should be attributed to their brand-centered marketing, and although Nigo was right to abandon some anachronistic parts of his strategy, I can’t help feeling that the concept of unified brand has fallen by the wayside.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

AneCan: Can Cam for Your Big Sister

Monday, March 26th, 2007

Sorry to keep harping on Can Cam week after week, but if there’s a giant elephant in the room, we think it’s best to give the pachyderm detailed coverage. We could hardly ignore the news that Can Cam‘s publisher Shogakukan has started a new spin-off publication of its best-selling mag called AneCan. The first issue hit streets on March 7, accompanied by much fanfare. The name AneCan comes from adding the Japanese word for “big sister” — ane (姉) — to the “Can” of Can Cam. The magazine targets women older than 25 — giving the graduates of the standard Can Cam student/OL look a way to continue their style education well into their late 20s.

The editors have picked the 27 year-old Oshikiri Moe to be AneCan‘s sole mascot model — without the help of her peers Ebihara Yuri and Yamada Yu at the flagship Can Cam. In the former model triumvirate, Yamada was the exotic and sexy Okinawan princess and Ebihara was the textbook definition of “cute.” In contrast, Oshikiri always acted as the more accessible member of the team: She looks very literally like somebody’s older sister. When it comes to commercials from Can Cam models, Oshikiri was selling down-to-earth Dr. Scholl’s leg-related health products rather than fast food or makeup. But now as vanguard of her very own magazine, Oshikiri is being pushed by her powerful management agency to be a major media star — most notably, recently taking a job as the female host on NHK’s English language show “Eigo de Shabera Night.”

Magazines in Japan often create consumer subcultures rather than correspond to a pre-existing groups’ needs, but AneCan has gone one step further. The magazine’s launch went hand-in-hand with a coordinated retail initiative at leading department-store Isetan. On March 14, Senken Shimbun reported that the limited-edition “AneCan Style” shop had sales of 30,000,000 JPY (~$250,000 USD) in just four days. A vast majority of fashion consumers in Japan are almost totally dependent upon fashion magazines as their guides, catalogs, textbooks, and teachers. And now with the level of cooperation between media and retail seen in the AneCan launch, core readers have it even easier to buy the recommended brands and complete the look prescribed by the magazine’s stylist authorities.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Leon: The Cult of the Italian Middle-Aged Man

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

Coming in at an almost equal gross weight as Can Cam every month is Leon — a fashion magazine aimed at Japanese men in their late 30s and early 40s. The name comes from the Luc Besson film Leon to perhaps channel the good looks and charm of its French middle-aged star Jean Reno (the [now defunct] sister publication for women is naturally called Nikita.) The magazine began publication in 2002 and has attained a certain notoriety in recent years. Although it only runs at a circulation around 92,275 (2007 printer-certified figure), Leon’s identification/creation of an exciting new market segment for bad-boy middle-aged men has made it the center of much social attention.

Leon employs the 45 year-old Italian expatriate Girolamo Panzetta as its cover model and official mascot, and just like with the Can Camsenzoku models,” the suave Neapolitan appears in countless pages of the magazine to show off specific apparel items for readers. Forget the long-held strategy of selling youth to the older generation: most of the models in Leon are older men proudly displaying cases of male pattern baldness and a week’s worth of stubble. Unlike other magazines on the market, not a single Japanese model appears in Leon — except when accidentally used in adjacent advertisements. Most women’s magazine readers aspire towards Japanese celebrities who may indirectly aspire towards the West, but the Leon man’s aspirations are directly pointed towards (white) Western men (and perhaps, the young blond women on the white models’ arm). Many Japanese fashion magazines skim the streets of the world’s major cities for street snaps of the latest international trends, but Leon looks to only one specific foreign locale: Milan, Italy. The magazine is filled with photos upon photos of well-groomed Italian men, and other sections include longer interviews with Italian “experts” on various topics. Leon firmly establishes the original homeland for the self-confident, stylish middle-aged man squarely in the Apennine Peninsula.

Unlike the standard men’s magazine in the West like GQ, Esquire, or even Playboy, Leon has very little in the way of general-interest material, interviews with celebrities, or long-form articles. Almost 95% of the magazine is product information — with a majority of the content veering into unabashed advertorial “tie-up.” All the major luxury brands are represented. For suits, the range spans from Ralph Lauren to Paul Smith to obscure Italian tailors. Few items gain attention outside of apparel — only cigars and whiskeys, but even these generally appear as accessories to a wardrobe rather than areas in which the gentleman should develop expert knowledge.

Some of the content veers so much towards (Japanese perceptions of) Italian male customs that the advice may not be particularly practical within Japan. In the November 2006 issue, for example, Leon recommends spraying a little cologne on your suit jacket label — something I would guess is too aggressive for famously scent-conservative Japan. But the overall Leon styling is not interested in “classic” nor “traditional” looks to begin with. The editors create contemporary and fashionable ensembles that work to enhance the best qualities of the older, masculine male. Watches are enormous. Street wear is acceptable as long as it is classed up a bit, like hooded sweatshirts with fur inner lining. Sometimes this veers into the absurd: Their exemplar burly men often don crocodile skin vests and envelope their girlfriends in long black capes.

The Leon man is a “choi waru oyaji” — a term for a middle-aged man with a bit of a bad-boy charm. Unlike the desire for subcultural “uniforms” seen in youth fashion magazines, Leon does not offer readers a group-specified conformity. The ideal reader may not be a traditional success at a first-tier company, but Leon shows him how to set himself apart through world-class clothing and conspicuous success with younger women. Since most of the readers are men in the 40s, or at least, younger men aspiring to look older, the magazine is more interested in instructing methods of distinction rather than proscribing socially acceptable outfits. Leon readers already know fully well how to wear a blue-suit and not be seen. They are going out of their way in response to conformity to find themselves something with a little more edge. An advertorial piece for Ermenegildo Zegna in the Nov. 2006 issue has the headline “差が付く休日の過ごし方” — the way to pass time on the weekends to separate yourself from others. Leisure is no time to relax in this grand social competition!

Like the young women reading Can Cam, the Leon man feels a need to purchase luxury goods, but his two main purposes for those goods are not “fitting in” to a social standard. He wants differentiation from his peers and the ability to attract younger members of the opposite sex. Although the Leon movement does not have the readership numbers of the Can Cam explosion, that may be for the best: If all the Japanese middle-aged men became a little bit bad in this quasi-Italian imitation, that would only make it that much harder to stand out.

You may not see so many real-life “choi waru oyaji” prowling the streets of Tokyo, but Leon has made itself relevant by creating a sexy, yet plausible consumer subculture that well-reflects the spirit of our time. As Japanese society gets older and teens don’t have the spending power of the previous generation to make society-wide trends, middle-aged men have to pull up the slack. Leon lets them do this in style.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

LOHAS by Default

Monday, March 12th, 2007

Don’t drink, don’t smoke
What do you do
Subtle innuendo follow
There must be something inside
– Adam Ant, “Goody Two Shoes”

This This Nikkei Business Online article summarizes some recent trends in the consumer behavior of Japanese men under-35 (U-35男子). According to the NB‘s findings, the older generation resents younger men (U35男子) for not following the accepted patterns of adult male recreation: namely, indulging in coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, paid sexual services, and gambling. The article may be too overreaching — any trip to a Tokyo bar will remind you that many U-35 men drink in excess and enjoy chain smoking — but the basic message seems to echo a lot of what we are hearing about the somewhat ascetic lifestyle of “young people” in Japan these days. Young men are being called “shirafu danshi” (素面男子) — “sober men.” One would think that the underemployed and undermotivated “freeter” and NEET (Not in Employment, Education, or Training) would at least be drowning out their boredom and career failure in cheap booze and bummed cigarettes, but apparently, they have rejected both as a lifestyle choice.

They don’t like drinking with their bosses or haunting traditional Japanese izakaya. Some of this is a prideful resistance to being lectured by their seniors, and some of it is just a fundamental desire to pass time alone. However, the change in behavior does not seem to be based on a new set of moral values opposing these “sinful” recreations. The question is more of aesthetics and economics. Young men are bewildered why you are supposed to spend so much money to listen to old men chat in loud and smokey places. The U-35 male does not see the need to go visit semi-legal prostitutes when he can just rent adult videos or meet (fake) girls through online dating sites. Tobacco and coffee are out because this new generation is not down with the smell. (NB believes this aversion to stench comes from a spoiled childhood of clean flush toilets.)

Refreshment is the ultimate desire — whether that be from mints, quiet places, aromatherapy, or a nice tea. Walking and talking with friends is important for building human relations — not the marathon shochu sessions of yore.

In the last few years, LOHAS (lifestyles of health and sustainability) has been a strong buzzword in the Japanese media — with dozens of magazine titles like Sotokoto appearing on the scene to cater to this supposed heightened interest in environmental-friendliness and “slow life.” Broadly speaking, this Nikkei Business stereotype of the U-35 man seems to suggest a lifestyle focused on health. These men, however, are not embracing the tenets of LOHAS from a philosophical angle as much as falling into the set pattern of the movement by default. A need for refreshment is not necessarily a dedication to health or the environment.

Many producers seem to be now marketing towards young people through a LOHAS perspective, seeing that the LOHAS aesthetic most closely fits this new pattern of behavior. I have yet to see, however, any real success stories — outside of small service industries like yoga. Marketing towards the U-35 group is not so simple as just framing everything as LOHAS — where the locus of consumption shifts from “unhealthy” to “healthy” items — because these younger males are not specifically nor actively changing their behavior in order to adhere to LOHAS rules. Young people in Japan — especially males — have just grown up in a long recessionary environment and have adapted their behavior away from the joys of spending money. They find joy now in abstention, in the free walk around the block.

This may mean that some products like tobacco could be headed towards a long-term decline, but others like alcohol have a chance of revival. The challenge now is to create new cleaner and fresher contexts for the products which generational and environmental associations have ruined. Alcohol may only be “unrefreshing” because of the traditional locations in which it is served and the general manner in which it is consumed. Since the U-35 crowd are only passively-LOHAS and partially anti-consumer, they could possibly be brought back to the table — if the table is nice and clean.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

Can Cam: The Number One Fashion Magazine in Japan

Tuesday, March 6th, 2007

The Japanese magazine market has seen relative decline over the last few years after peaking in 1996. Some blame the increasingly large amount of free information available on the Internet, but the sales drop began well before online media made a significant penetration into the Japanese market. Since most youth-oriented magazines in Japan are mostly “consumer guides” — with loads of product information and very little in the way of critical review — it logically follows that the decrease of consumer budgets in the recessionary environment would cause less need for consumption guidance of the latest and most fabulous items. Whether this is the main reason for decline or not, women’s fashion magazines are generally holding their position against the market turbulence compared to other categories of titles.

One particular magazine Can Cam has seen unmatched growth in the last few years, and broadly speaking, dominates the women’s fashion world. The name derives from an abbreviation of “I Can Campus,” reflecting the magazine’s roots as a publication for college and junior college students. Now the median reader age is 23.02 (2005 data), and more than half of the readers are employed. The publisher reports sales of 715,417 (2006 data), but even Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC)’s more conservative estimate of 594,499 for late 2005 is an astounding sales figure. (For reference, magazines with much wider general audiences and longer histories such as Shukan Bunshun and Shukan Post only hit 575,343 and 436,775 copies in the ABC data from late 2005, respectively.)

Like other magazines, Can Cam peaked in the late 1990s and saw a steady drop in readership. From the nadir of 320,135 in early 2001, sales increased and grew to the current number – entailing an 85% increase in four years. Most attribute the growth to the magazine’s innovative use of senzoku moderu (専属モデル) – a half-dozen young female models who appear exclusively within Can Cam. Each month’s fashion features employ these girls wearing the latest styles and products, and they rarely materialize in rival publications. Readers make strong associations with themselves and these female models and pick up a copy of Can Cam with the guarantee that their favorite will appear in at least 20 to 30 pages of the magazine every month. Rival publications such as Ray, and JJ offer similar content, but the exclusive celebrity models have given Can Cam an edge over the competition. (Titles JJ and ViVi targeted at a similar audience have seen sales fall in the last two years. ) Can Cam’s sales cannot be solely attributed to readership movement within the same fashion look, however. Female fashion magazines in totally different “lifestyle genres” such as non•no and Classy have also seen a decline.

Lately, the most prominent three of these models – Yamada Yu, Ebihara Yuri (aka Ebi-chan), and Oshikiri Moe – have branched out into other media like TV with the backing of their strong-armed production agencies to become stars in their own right. Ebihara in particular has been the “it girl” of the last two years and found herself as a top spokesmodel for many consumer goods.

Young Japanese consumers have always made their fashion choices through strict adherence to “manual magazines,” and the aggregation of females into the Can Cam readership has created a certain level of visual homogeny in the streets. Issues frequently hit 600 pages – almost all of the content dedicated to detailed information on mixing and matching specific apparel items. Although the mass of information presents a large number of possible arrangement options, individual permutations upon the ingredients would all lead to similar results: a style fun and young, safe for work and play. The general strategy is inexpensive clothes augmented with luxury brand accessories, such as bags and jewelry. Hairstyle and make-up advice run somewhere between a catalog (which prices and brand names off to the side) and detailed instructions for scientific experiments.

The Social Phenomenon

The Can Cam style hardly resembles a traditional “conservative” look, but its basic philosophy is fundamentally aligned with the goals of mainstream society. The core readers may want to have fun in college and in their first years serving the corporate world, but there still remains a subtext focusing upon the teleological mission of finding an appropriate husband (and less explicitly, of taking on the responsibilities of wife, then mother). Serious discussion of long-term career would be best served by another publication. For this large class of young women, the clerical assignment immediately following college or junior college is something like a set course of “quaternary education” — a period of life to be passed through as a shared experience with other girls in other firms, and Can Cam provides guidance towards its successful “graduation.” Long ago, there may have been more pressure for girls of this age range to marry earlier, but their current divergence into fun and consumption has become their de facto accepted social task — especially when other segments of society have slacked on their appropriate consumption duties. Choosing luxury brands over domestic concerns is no longer widely regarded as a deviance from the “proper” social path, and in this meaning, Can Cam is “conservative” — albeit a conservatism transformed to meet the realities of today’s society.

Opposed to the “erotic cute” of recent pop idol Koda Kumi or seen in popular lingerie catalog Peach John, Can Cam readers are less determined to use fashion to express their own individuality or show off their sexual appeal and more interested in attracting widespread interest from possible boyfriends. In Japanese, this style is called “mote-kei.” A central concept to the current milieu is the goukon (合コン) — traditional parties where an equal number of boys and girls meet at an izakaya (sit-down bar) and get to know each other. Ebihara Yuri is the golden child of the moment, precisely because of her perfect fit within the goukon paradigm. Rival Can Cam model Yamada Yu on the other hand has a more stylish, sexy image that is somewhat perceived as threatening to boys, and therefore, relatively unsafe for the dating environment. Designer fashion is also a no-no for these dates, although designer bags would not cut into the cuteness.

What is the winning prize in the goukon game? From the looks of Cam Cam’s photographic-comic series “Double Fantasy” (starring Ebihara), dream boyfriends may have stubble and designer haircuts, but they are still in suits. Things have not changed so much since the ’80s when “the Sankou” (tall, well-educated, high salary) was the ideal. Young women, however, may be less “realistic” than their ’80s counterparts, who usually “settled” for a nearby opportunity at their own companies. Can Cam now suggests widespread social desires where liberation is celebrated through brand consumption and communal dreams are upwardly-mobile.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.