Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Toyota and Japanese Branding

My last blog posts have referenced Langley Esquires podcasts as they related to "nation branding" and "Cool Japan". 

I said that "Cool Japan" is generally misconstrued as "nation branding" or some form of "soft power".  The problem here, as I see it, is that a lot of otherwise intelligent, knowledgeable and educated people don't really understand what "branding" is for one -- or "soft power" for another -- and that includes Joe Nye who invented the "soft power" concept !

In politics, people throw around terms carelessly without considering what they actually mean, if only because in this Brave New World defining things tends to limit your options. 

The term "branding" is like "love".  We use it all the time and we all think we know what it means. But clearly, as a behavior,  it means different things to different people at different times, according to context. It actually comes down to one thing: identity.
But "identity" is another difficult to define concept.

In business "branding"  is better defined, than, say, politics, if only because you will be out of business if you get it wrong.

Steve Jobs argued branding is not about the product so much as values.  He pointed to Nike, as an example, saying the Nike spent its advertising dollars not so much on extolling the virtues of its products but promoting the concept of athleticism -- so that the name “Nike” became synonymous with something bigger than shoes. When you buy Nike, you buy into imagined power.

So with Apple, Jobs decided to sell dreams.  

After all, what is the difference between an Apple computer and a Windows one –or, for that matter, a PC using a Linux distro?  They all use the GUI invented by  Douglas Englebart and later developed further by  Xerox.  

You can do all the basic tasks – email, word processing, and so one with any GUI -based OS.  Windows machines are cheaper than Apple machines and run more software.  Linux software is completely free and, in modern iterations such as Mint, will handle MS Word and most other software.  It also gets the job done.

So why do people spend more to join the “Apple” religion,  as one of my Apple friends calls it?  Why do they choose a product whose symbol is a partly eaten, leftover apple?

Largely because Apple is not selling computer functionality – rather, an idea understood emotionally – elegance – and, especially, social certification.  Yes,it is a religion. You buy it on faith. And you get a community, signs and symbols.  You're "in".

Apple products look good.  They all have that mark-- the Apple you would never buy in the fruit store because somebody else -- or maybe a rat -- took a bite out of it.  

Apple laptops are elegant. Slim.  They cost a little more – but not enough to dissuade the ordinary consumer, who wants the status of a premium product.

Of course, to use them professionally you need Microsoft Office and Adobe.   And MS Office and Adobe are optimized – of course – for Windows.  

Windows has tried to be Apple-ish in Windows 10.  But they don’t really “get” it.  Nobody wants an Apple clone.  Well, almost nobody.  In fact, the clones often work better than the real thing -- but that is another story and doesn't matter because....

Linux OSX clone
...when all is said and done -- brand identity is personality  .  

When we meet people,  we introduce ourselves in terms of the things that define us, make us different on the one hand -- and those things that we share -- seeking emotional connection.  We can be different but we cannot be "other". Apple does it one way, Microsoft, another -- but they serve the same community- digital users.  That's personal branding.

Product branding,  ironically is not the same as individual socialization -- but still always personal.  Which is why when we think of Apple, we see Steve Jobs, dead or not.And when we think of Microsoft, we see Bill Gates, retired or not.

Human beings are simple social beings so we like to put faces to things -- even huge corporations -- in fact even to nations -- although we will come to that in other post.
Over at Langley, they will tell you the Japanese are different.  They will also tell you they are not.

How can they say this?

Think: “ It’s a Sony.”  The values implied in this slogan were innovation, reliability, elegance of design, pride of ownership. Yeah – “Sony”  Yeah, “nuff said”.  And the face of Sony?  Morita Akio, of course. 

Then Sony gave up this approach, and had a succession of faceless leaders, without personality,  to become just another electronics maker.  Sales plummeted .  Goodbye Sony.  Hello Samsung. Welcome LG.  Who is  Sony today?  Dunno....

So the Japanese can  emphasize individual uniqueness,  personality and the like.

In addition, however,  the use their culture --  “J-Marketing”, making use of semi-mystical cultural concepts that have elements of magic, that say, "Made in America" lacks.

Toyota, for example, set up Lexus as a separate company to add luster to the overall brand, which was seen as solid, reliable – and boring.  They wanted Toyota to be classy.  Not just plain old classy but really classy.

This was values-based promotion -- innovation, quality, elegance of design and pride of ownership.  Classy.    Luxury befitting a premium product – for premium people.  So, social accreditation -- especially important for the Japanese who used to regard themselves as conventional, conformist and boring. 

Lexus stressed design – just as Apple did. 

It sponsored design events and published a “lifestyle” magazine for the snob class.  It cam eup with the the world’s ugliest automotive grille ever --  a huge nasty gaping maw  that any Predator would love – and which puts the finger to conventional taste. 

I hate the grille. 
No, bigger is not always better!   As any woman will tell you.   But does catch your attention.  And I loved the Predator movies.

To enhance the impact,  Lexus also”J-markets” --leveraging the foreign world’s perception of oriental culture as somehow magical or mystical.   Luxury car buyers are mostly upperly mobile men, with testosterone soaked dreams of power and a hunger for sophistication.   So Lexus pushes  power cars with samurai personalities, embodying sophistication and lots of zen. 

Lexus Ad

Its designers are therefore not just engineers – they are artists in the Japanese tradition -- so-called “takumi” – “masters”.      

No tie, no grey suit, styled hair, beard.  "Takumi".  Chief Designer:Tadao Mori

In reality of course --  they are just engineers --and, in fact, their ideas are often the results of consensus,relying on the creativity of their juniors or  borrowed from other makers.  This collective process is the Japanese way -- but they are presented as personal  inspiration – moments of automotive satori.   

Lexus touts “monozukuri” -- the Japanese tradition of craftsmanship through attention to detail – although its quality levels  -- in fact the whole “Toyota Way” owe much  to Arthur Deming and Toyota’s early studies of automotive manufacturing in the US.   Not that  a car is  a monozukuri pot or woodwork.

Add to that: a face. Toyoda Akio is now a "master driver". 

If you follow Toyoda,  he has moved from being a typical Japanese company executive to international trendsetter -- an amazing transformation.   As the great swordsman Musashi said, you must never stop moving. And Toyoda has two swords --flair and innovation.  .

But Lexus is not all automotive bushido.  

It offers omotenashi – a buzz word in Japan since Rio.  In modern Japanese it just means “hospitality” or “welcome” but the concept goes back centuries, having its origins in zen.  The modern idea is complete customer service – as long as you can afford it – and relative to social status.   Sorry to say, but omotenashi is different at the Hilton than at a “business” hotel. 

If you go to Lexus showrooms in the Middle East, you will see little Japanese gardens and tea rooms.  This is advertised conspicuously as  Omotenashi....  Hospitality but with meticulous attention to detail.

Does this account for the popularity of Toyota with ISIS?  Does this explain why ISIS  uses Hello Kitty notebooks to do flowcharts of massacres?  They too pay attention to detail.

Lexus was the best selling premium brand in the US for eleven years!

Yet, Lexus is only  rated No. 10 in customer satisfaction after …um…Chevrolet and Chrysler! Toyota itself is No. 5 in the US.   

Quality?  Lexus is far down the list.  Again in the US 

Then, such comparisons are meaningless.  Exactly what is the difference between a Lexus or top-class Toyota and a BMW, Audi or Benz?  It is really a matter of taste.  

Now, I adopt a very irreverent approach. Because,  logically most branding is pretty silly  But in the end, good branding is not about logic -- it is about emotion and personality.

So it is easy to make fun of any company's branding efforts-- including Toyota and Lexus. Or to criticize them for dumbing down or misapplying Japanese culture.  Branding is a show --and the shadow of the sublime is ever the ridiculous.The fact is, however, Toyota and Lexus sell better than many others, that might even be superior in some respects.    Whatever they are doing -- they are getting it right.  And frankly it is all right to dumb down culture for people who won't understand it anyway, so long as don't actually falsify it.

The Japanese government people funding Cool Japan could learn a lot from Toyota.

We will deal with that in my next post. 

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