Rent-a-Bag and the Meaning of “Trend”

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.

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2 Responses to “Rent-a-Bag and the Meaning of “Trend””

  1. W. David Marx on the meaning of trends in the Japanese marketplace Japan Economy News & Blog - Business, Economy, Marketing and Economic Reports Says:

    […] At any rate, the article is waiting to be read… […]

  2. Ireja's Transform Your Business Blog :: Blogging for Business, Web Marketing, SEO and Web Identity from Tokyo » Around the Blogosphere: Clast and What Japan Thinks Says:

    […] be reading this blog, though it is certainly built for a wider audience. W David Marx’s recent piece on trends in Japan is certainly worth your time. My only complaint about Clast is that I wish it were updated more […]