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Mainstream Products Turn Niche to Access the Japanese Market

A number of exhibitors at this year's Design Tokyo event highlighted the need to rethink many of the accepted marketing strategies when it comes to successfully navigating the idiosyncrasies of this most singular of consumer markets.

Photo: Ziniz’s more aesthetic take on the fire extinguisher.
Ziniz's more aesthetic take on the fire extinguisher.
Photo: Ziniz’s more aesthetic take on the fire extinguisher.
Ziniz's more aesthetic take on the fire extinguisher.

The latest edition of Design Tokyo focussed on the ongoing relationship between innovative design, specialised interest, and niche marketing when it comes to design products. It also highlighted the importance of the bridging role of distributors with regard to linking increasingly specialised products with increasingly diversified markets.

In many ways, this reflects the way that the Japanese consumer market has moved on from being the simple mass market of yesteryear and its subsequent evolution into something far more complex. In its current state, it offers plenty of hidden opportunities for those prepared to explore or create specific markets with good designs and specialised knowledge.

The show itself also has something of a niche-like quality, occupying a not particularly extensive area at Tokyo Big Site, while also taking place alongside a number other shows organized by Reed Exhibitions. Its limited size, though, is deliberate, with a four-person Screening Committee – composed of specialists working within the design industry – vetting products before they can be displayed. This means there is little repetitiveness and a high degree of interest in the approved product ranges.

This year, the committee comprised an academic, an entrepreneur, a designer, and Michelle Millar Fisher, a member of the curatorial staff of New York's MoMA Museum. Thanks to this level of quality control, Design Tokyo remains an excellent show with a particular penchant for highlighting new products and interesting twists in the market.

A case in point this year is the fire extinguisher exhibited by Ziniz, a Taiwanese design company. Typically, fire extinguishers are designed solely on the basis of functionality, with little thought given to aesthetics. They are often garishly coloured in order to ensure they can be quickly located in an emergency. This has left a "design gap" in the market and one that Ziniz is now successfully exploiting with its range of elegant, smaller (800g) fire extinguishers that simply don't look like fire extinguishers. Favouring such colours as champagne and gold, many of them actually resemble cylinders of fancy hair mouse.

Explaining the thinking behind the design, Pellen, the company's Design Director, said: "Conventional fire extinguishers are ugly, so we decided to make them beautiful. With this product we are not going for mass market, but rather for luxury hotels and other establishments where style is at a premium."

Ziniz's designer-led range, which also extends to ashtrays and inkpads, tends toward the sleek and minimalist. As a sign of their quality, the fire extinguisher was one of the items chosen for a special award by MoMA's Fisher, who suggested it had a particular appeal for museums and galleries. With Ziniz attending the show in the hope of securing a number of distributorship deals, it couldn't have hoped for a better endorsement.

A similar quest to find unique design opportunities also seemed to provide inspiration behind the Moktak range of Bluetooth mobile speakers (US$100). These seem to exist somewhere in the space between conventional speakers and headphones, while also being particularly suitable for outdoor operation.

With their two hemisphere-shaped speakers linked by a flexible handle, these waterproof speakers have more than a passing resemblance to headphones, and can even be worn draped round the neck. Produced by Yamazoki, a German company, these were one of several electronics devices exhibited by Tama Electronics, a Kawasaki-based manufacturer and distributor of mobile phone-related products.

Photo: Tama’s tangram puzzle and app combination.
Tama’s tangram puzzle and app combination.
Photo: Tama’s tangram puzzle and app combination.
Tama’s tangram puzzle and app combination.
Photo: The Moktak range of Bluetooth mobile speakers.
The Moktak range of Bluetooth mobile speakers.
Photo: The Moktak range of Bluetooth mobile speakers.
The Moktak range of Bluetooth mobile speakers.

Tama's stand also highlighted another approach to developing new markets – taking existing products and finding new applications for them. The smartphone, in particular, has proved particularly fertile territory in this regard. In line with this, the company was showing a tangram-shape puzzle, which uses a mobile phone app to cue the user and provide hints (US$100). It also had on offer an assembly kit toy robot that can be operated via a smartphone (US$160).

Despite their aesthetic appeal, such products often have a certain scattergun feel to them. Something may be a hit or may prove a dismal failure. A far surer means of building a market is to have a distinct understanding of a particular hobby or activity group. It is then just a matter of finding products that match a group's subculture and appeal to the tastes of its members.

In essence, this has been the approach adopted by Sport Business Associates (SBA), a Tokyo-based distributor. This year, the company was exhibiting a range of wireless speakers and power banks with a distinctive turtle-shell finish, courtesy of California-based Outdoor Tech. Retailing at prices from US$40 to $330, these products have been specifically designed to withstand the rough and tumble that form an inevitable part of camping, hiking, or climbing.

According to Tomotaka Ishikawa, a Director of SBA, as with many other Japanese markets, the country's sports and outdoor goods sector was becoming much more niche-organized oriented. In light of this, he saw it as vital to identify each niche and develop a real understanding of its preferences.

He says: "It helps if you personally share the same interests as your market. In my case, I have a very real interest in the outdoors life. This In fact, this helped me discover and appreciate this particular brand."

In a racially and culturally homogenous society such as Japan, hobbies and activities form a very important part of self-definition and even identity. The Outdoor Tech brand, with its tough-looking sci-fi appearance, then, has a particular affinity with certain male tastes.

Not everything, however, is niche-related. Obviously, there are also a huge number of products that have mass appeal. A case in point here would be Rabbit Air, a US manufacturer of air conditioner units. This year, the company was showing the BioGs 2 (US$470), a mid-market air-conditioning unit designed to be quieter and less powerful than typical American units and, thus, better suited to the typically smaller Japanese home.

In order to market its products in Japan, the company has now opened a small local office in Kobe. It is also hoping to increase its level of online sales. According to Arisa Tateishi, one of the members of its new Japan-based team, it was facing something of a problem in capitalising on its positive social media standing in the US with its new target market in Japan.

He said: "At the moment we are waiting for customers here to write their own online reviews. In the meantime, we are translating some of our US Amazon reviews into Japanese and putting them on our site."

While breaking into a mass market, such as the air conditioning sector, may seem preferable to the limited revenue likely to yielded from successfully accessing a niche market, it is not necessarily that straightforward. This especially the case with products that represent more of a discretionary purchase, such as fashion goods.

In cases like this, a number of company have actually resorted to more of a niche marketing approach – accepting the likelihood of limited appeal and targetting a specific demographic – instead of going for a mass market approach.

It was very much this approach that Sony seemed to have opted for its Fes watch (US$300). The watch's face and strap come covered in a strip of e-paper, allowing the user to completely change the watch's design at the touch of a button. At present the watch has more than 20 alternative designs, from all-white to all-black.

While this is the kind of product that has instant appeal, if marketed incorrectly it could all too easily quickly spike in popularity before rapidly falling out of favour. In order to avoid this, Sony is avoiding capitalising on its brand association while looking to roll out the product across the broader retail sector. Essentially, the company is taking a design and style-led approach, with a focus on elite boutiques, rather than mass-market electronics stores.

Explaining the company's approach, Machiko Segawa, a member of Sony's New Business Creation Department, said: "We are still thinking about this technology and its other possible applications, such as bags or clothing. At this stage, intelligent feedback is more important to us than wider sales."

The marketing of this particular product, as with so much else at Design Tokyo, highlights the importance of the niche structure in the Japanese market, as well as the complexities involved with doing business in this singular society.

Photo: Stealthily marketed: Sony’s Fes watch.
Stealthily marketed: Sony's Fes watch.
Photo: Stealthily marketed: Sony’s Fes watch.
Stealthily marketed: Sony's Fes watch.

Design Tokyo was held from 6-8 July at Tokyo Big Sight. The event was held in association with the ISOT and GIFTEX shows, with the three events attracting a total of 56,907 visitors.

Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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