In The Realm Of The Senses
I was recently lucky enough to spend a month or so in Japan, visiting family and friends over New Year, and then working with the team at Flamingo Tokyo for a few weeks in January.
One of the sadder events during that time was the death of Nagisa Oshima, the Japanese New Wave film director, at the age of 80. Oshima was an artistic rebel, rejecting the nuanced reflections on everyday Japanese relations and customs of antecedents like Naruse and Ozu. His early work looked at the world of the hustler, the hooker, the outsiders and the disenfranchised in the pêle-mêle ofpost-war Japan. In the West he is best known for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and the drama of erotic oblivion, Ai No Corrida, from 1976.
The English-language title of this movie, In the Realm of the Senses, rattled around my brain on a daily basis. The film documents a sexual relationship of increasing and finally destructive intensity, and a moment of famously esoteric consumption. But the pervasive sensory delivery of the Japanese world is striking to the foreigner – and it plays a foundational role in how brands are constructed.
Door-top multiple shirt-hanger for the spatially challenged urban dandy.
The attention to detail in Japanese design is well-known. Products and services embody an inventive, obsessive focus on how small changes can maximize space and time and deliver a better everyday experience.
There’s a certain mass psychological sacrifice being made for this systemic near-perfection, and a whole lot of compensatory pleasure and release spaces, but that’s another story.
The primacy of the tangible, the sensorial, the experience before the idea, is what I want to focus on when thinking about the implications for marketing and brands. Richard Nesbitt’s book The Geography of Thought looks at the classical Greek and Confucian traditions and suggests, to summarize crudely, that the West is ‘high concept’ and East Asia ‘high context’. It seems to me that the cultural momentum is with the latter.
The Japanese consumerist environment is relentlessly innovative, often driven in the fmcg sector by manufacturers competing for the attention of the trade, and for space and visibility on shelf. Think of how the toothpaste category works in the West and apply that to…everything.
Bowie’s sand trap: a metaphor for the paralysis of choice in Family Mart?
Alongside this you have a general commitment to quality product. This has its roots, and higher manifestations, in the world of kodawari, or specialist artisanship. But it finds easy mass expression: there’s a reason beyond cultural cachet that Muji and particularly Uniqlo are doing well. Their stuff is well-made. Pick up a pair of Uniqlo jeans and check out the quality of the denim, the robustness of the stitch. Then try the same with a pair from GAP. Or pop down the Lawson’s convenience store you’ll find on every third street in Tokyo for a Mont Blanc cake – and wonder where you might find something as delicious in the UK. Certainly not at Gregg’s or Caffe Nero.
Accordingly, the brand in Japan is built from the bottom up – albeit with the protective ‘roof’ in some categories of the company name. Hence the candid VO and titling on commercial television, ‘Our brand sponsors are…’ (Google, Mitsubishi, P&G, Fujifilm, Sunstar…).
You deliver first and foremost a great product – or service – experience; and one which will often be debated and rated on a highly influential review forum, such as http://www.cosme.net/. And from that experience, and its specificities, comes the beginning of the brand idea. You extrapolate up, you build on the sensory delivery, and the experiences and conversations around it. The series of ads for Daihatsu Tanto cars (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRuzcYyegdQ) is a simple example: the absence of the B-pillar (the central vertical) in the car becomes a springboard for romance, happiness and family harmony. It may seem something of an over-claim for a missing piece of metal, but crucially it starts with the real and the tangible.
There is a form of innovation and brand development which runs broadly as follows: scope out consumer motivations and needs in a category; look for the white spaces; find a concept, a name and a pack design whose associative qualities appear to deliver against that need; retro-fit a credible RTB; get the product teams working on it; run the iterations through legal; aim for the maximum balance of credibility and profitablity; hire a couple of great creative agencies to market it. It’s a simplified version of events, and it’s a model that works extremely well in some categories and markets. But are we not seeing the rise of an approach where the brand ideas comes from a more authentic integration with the product experience? That starts from the ground up?
I would argue that Apple functions in this way to some extent: the user interface is the brand, pretty much. If the company has a vision of an intuitive, enjoyable, harmonious and liberating relationship between humanity and technology, you feel it every time you use a bit of their kit. And of course they do the company-level marketing pretty well too. Ditto Google. Or nike, evaluating their flagship city centre stores not by revenue per square metre, but as brand experiences and brand builders. Johnnie Walker is a great example of a brand that gets it (mostly) right across the idea, the pack, the innovation stream, the liquid, the environment – although the retail and bar experience could often be better. But the House of Walker Shanghai – average nightly bar tab, £4000 – has been a huge success.
Or think of the craft movement, the proliferation of artisan independents across categories – coffee, beer, spirits, denim, cosmetics… What they’re all about, first and foremost, is the product, and authentic lived experiences of it. What it’s made of, how, where, by whom – and why they’re so passionate about it.
And one of the things that the buyers – and makers – of these brands are saying to the mainstream is, ‘Stop bullshitting me.’
In the mid-90s, Mary Goodyear, one of the pioneers of cross-cultural research as applied to commercial strategy, suggested a ‘hierarchy of brands’. Her paper calibrated 5 stages in the life of brands, different forms they might take, according to the economic conditions of a market and the brand literacy of the public. A rough synopsis, with some examples of mine, would be:
Producers have power
Brands as reference
3. CLASSIC BRANDING
Brands as personality
Brands as icons
5. POST-MODERN MARKETING
“I’m Ray Gardner…I’ll take you all on.”
In my opinion it’s a great and useful set of ideas. Looking at it now I would say it is biased to the Western / conceptual / Greek model, written as it was in the heyday of ATL advertising and ‘travels in hyper-reality’, and before the economic rise of Asia.
So what might an emergent model look like, the next stage of how brands are constructed? The context is the fragmentation of media and the consolidation of trade; rising consumer control of messaging; transparency of marketing, advertising and production processes; increasing mass design literacy and expectation of sensory delivery; and the best, most respected brands out there being genuinely great innovators of product and experience.
So could the next set of behaviours be something like:
6. THE RISE OF MATERIALITY
The tangible, the sensorial, the experiential.
Less image saturation, more primacy of the product
Closer integration of marketing and product teams; purpose-led innovation
Retail and trade that provides curation, socialization, experience – not just transaction
Brand as a ‘sensory environment’, and the ‘message’ as the experience of that environment.
Brand architecture as… real architecture; and at the top end, cultural institutions, with not only ideas, but sites and spaces.
Underpinned by more understanding of real contexts and how brands live there
We’re hearing the early rumbles of a global cultural re-boot, and a necessary step change for marketeers. Japan has become associated recently with a host of ciphers of decline: natural and man-made disaster; an ageing population; the rise of China and Korea. But perhaps in this, the most sophisticated consumer society in the world, the realm of the senses, we see a shake-up of how brands might have to start acting a little closer to home?
POST BY CHRIS FRANCIS
Chris is currently a Managing Partner of Flamingo London and is joining the Flamingo Tokyo team as Managing Director in the summer