11 Sept 2017
Piggybacked Products and Range Diversity Loom Large at Design Tokyo
Launching products that basked in the halo of established items or taking in-demand ranges into new directions were the key trends at this year's event, with companies only too aware of the need to be flexible if they want to prosper.
If there's one lesson to be taken away from this year's Design Tokyo event, it is that companies need to be increasingly adaptable if they hope to survive in the current market, one characterised by rapidly changing requirements and intense competition. Thankfully, due to ongoing advances on the IT front and the increased facility to manufacture on a smaller scale, it has never been easier for companies to diversify, introduce new products and target an ever more precise demographic.
One consequence of this – and a reality reflected at the event – is that the market has been inundated with new products, with the sheer volume of fresh innovations making it difficult to pick winners and losers. Against such a bewildering and cluttered backdrop, then, how can any company ensure its own products stand out? Thankfully, this was an issue that was at least partly addressed at what turned out to be a busy and largely optimistic expo.
The most obvious reason for the overall upbeat mood, of course, was the recent improvement to the prevailing business conditions. Indeed, the majority of participants seemed positive about the general state of the economy, with several reassured enough to book bigger and grander stands compared to last year.
One of the problems with completely new products is that, although they frequently excite a degree of curiosity, it takes a good while before they are accepted by the market and orders begin to trickle through. For many wiser heads, a better approach is to introduce products that can piggyback on the popularity of existing items, such as the ubiquitous smartphone. This was pretty much the strategy adopted by T. N. Nomura, an Osaka-based watch importer and retailer.
This year, the company was promoting a new line created by Kronaby, a subsidiary of Anima, a Swedish luxury watch brand largely funded by Chinese investors. Selling for about US$400-700, each model offers a surprising degree of interaction with most of the popular smartphone brands.
Outlining how these two digital accessories can operate in harmony, Naoya Sato, an Assistant Manager at Nomura's Tokyo office, said: "Basically, there are a number of ways that this watch and your phone can work together. For instance, the watch has an alarm that can be connected via Bluetooth to your smartphone, so when you get an email, the alarm vibrates.
"In addition, should you have trouble finding your phone, you can just push a button on the watch and your phone will ring. Another popular feature is Remember this Spot, which allows you to make a record of a bar or restaurant you have visited, making it easy for you to return on subsequent occasions."
Smartphone connectivity was also the way into the market chosen by MS Solutions, a Fukuoka-based consumer-electronics company. Occupying a large and seldom unattended pavilion, the company had on offer a comprehensive range of phone accessories, including an extremely diverse selection of wireless/Bluetooth amplifiers.
With a unit price of about $50, MS Solutions' amplifiers were available in a variety of shapes and sizes, with the company claiming to have a model suitable for every location – from your home to your office to the beach. The perhaps unsurprisingly bottle-shaped Bottle Compo amp, for example, can easily fit into the drink holder that comes as standard in many cars. All of the speakers can be powered up via a USB connection and are said to offer six hours of operating time when fully-charged.
While launching a product on the back of the popularity of an established item is clearly a sound marketing strategy, it is an approach that is not suitable for every new range. One alternative tact, which was also widely on display this year, was for companies simply to extend their existing ranges.
One of the most interesting examples of this approach came courtesy of Aiba Sangyo, an 80-year-old steel parts and tools company based in Japan's Niigata Prefecture. Traditionally, the company has specialised in supplying tooling to industrial businesses, but has had to rethink its approach of late.
Explaining the company's change of direction, Chief Executive Kenichiro Aiba said: "Downward price pressures have made it difficult to maintain quality and craftsmanship in the tooling sector. As we didn't want to make cheap tools, preferring to make premium, high-quality items, we switched into producing bicycle tools and a number of high-quality home and office products."
Ubiquitously sleek, stylish and a little on the macho side, the company now offers a wide range of items under its Runwell brand. Among its most popular products are pen stands ($15), bottle openers ($30), and shot beakers ($80), all of which are fashioned from high-quality stainless steel.
In the case of Daigo, a Nagoya-based sock manufacturer, its diversification was perhaps a little less dramatic. Faced with falling demand and increased competition in its core market, the company began making face masks, a product for which there is a surprisingly large market in Japan.
Explaining their appeal, Madoka Ishikawa, a Senior Manager with the company, said: "Overall, there are many reasons why face masks are quite so popular in Japan. While some people wear them because they have a cold or are afraid of catching one, others wear them because they are shy or want to conceal their feelings.
"This year, we are primarily presenting silk masks, which are largely bought for cosmetic reasons. We also have a range that you can wear while you are sleeping and that prevent your mouth from becoming too dry."
Another company keen on taking an increasingly diverse approach to its product range was Ibility, a Hong Kong-based fashion brand with a focus on women's and children's wear. This year, the company's large and frequently packed stand featured an array of bags, up-market skin tone-matching watches ($1,200) and personalisable baby shoes.
Digging down into the appeal of the latter item, Peter Lin, the company's Managing Director, said: "The baby shoes are our best-selling products. When you buy them, you get all the materials, component parts and the tutorial in one box. By following the straightforward instructions, it's easy to create a highly personalised product. For many of our customers, making their baby's first pair of shoes is all part of the bonding process."
Explaining the company's expanded presence at this year's event, he said: "We got a very good response last year, so we decided to come back with a bigger stand and an extended product range. Overall, things seem to be going well in the Japanese market, with DIY items and products that you can accessorise particularly popular."
As well as diversifying product ranges as a means of attracting new customers, many exhibitors at this year's event also emphasised the importance of finding novel retail platforms as a way of grabbing consumer attention. In particular, many companies reported positive results from using pop-up stores, temporary outlets that briefly trade within department stores, railways stations or other public spaces.
One clear fan of this approach was Ishikawa, who maintained that Daigo had successfully run such operations on a number of occasions. Relating her own experience, she said: "For us, it's an important way to generate soft demand. In the case of socks, for instance, even if people have decided they need to buy some, they may delay doing so for a variety of reasons.
"If, however, we pop up somewhere with a huge variety on offer and clearly for a limited period, people are more inclined to purchase. Typically, we run pop-up stores for two weeks or maybe, at most, a month."
Design Tokyo 2017 was held from 5-7 July at Tokyo Big Sight.
Marius Gombrich, Special Correspondent, Tokyo