Gonzalo Brujó

Japan’s Trajectory Through the Brand Moves Lens

View from the inside

Japan’s recent economic history is marked by a challenge: recovering from the ravages caused by the recession in the 1990s; A far from simple task.
However, the GDP of the 3rd of the world´s largest economy increased by 5% in the third quarter of 2020, exceeding analysts’ forecasts, thanks mainly to two factors: the increase in domestic consumption (leisure, cars) and exports, a vital activity for Japanese development.

There is still a long way to go, but, without a doubt, Japan´s trajectory and ambition are aligned and on the road to recovery driven by an ecosystem of brands (some of them among the most valuable in the world) that we claim in the Best Japan Brands 2021 report, launched today by Interbrand in Japan.

This study, which is now in its 13th edition and which includes the 100 most valuable Japanese brands, faithfully reflects the very complex year we have just left behind, with the total value falling by 3.9% compared to the previous edition. Nonetheless, there are dazzling cases of growth worth celebrating.

At Interbrand, we believe that in order to drive growth for a brand and its business, three interconnected ingredients must be brought together: leadership, engagement, and relevance. At Best Japan Brands 2021 we find inspiration in a wide range of companies that respond to this recipe.

If we focus on leadership, we find:

Daikin (# 26, + 18%), Ajinomoto (# 43, + 19%), BANDAI NAMCO (# 55, + 19%) or Mercari (# 94, + 19%), among others, were able to respond quickly to the pandemic thanks to a clear and well-defined purpose that provided direction and meaning to its employees. Likewise, brands such as Kirin (# 22, + 11%) or Yamaha (# 30, + 8%), which have made brand equity a corporate objective, have promoted the management of this intangible throughout the company through messages from the top management closely combined with the titanic effort of the employees of these companies.

The purpose defined by a strong and coherent leadership allows to reinforce engagement with consumers, a factor in which other Japanese brands stand out:

Nintendo (# 8, + 31%) has seen outstanding growth after allowing players to interact with each other during lockdown with games such as Animal Crossing. On the other hand, WORKMAN (# 78, + 57%) is the brand that grows the most in this edition of BJB2021 thanks to its effort to work with the most ardent fans of the brand in the creation of unique products from the customer’s perspective.

Likewise, UNIQLO (# 6, + 16% YoY) has managed to develop a unique brand experience during the toughest months of the pandemic, launching masks with its AIRism or “RE.UNIQLO” technology, a recycling initiative that creates “a new life for clothing ” possibly in the most difficult moment in history for retail businesses with a -43% decrease in terms of retail sales in 2020 when compared to 2019, according to Japan´s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Lastly, solid leadership combined with value-added engagement manages to increase relevance in the minds of consumers, which is really the role that brands play in an ever-changing world. In Japan we find several advantageous brands in this regard:

Lead with Purpose

Sony (# 3, + 14%) increased its presence during the health crisis by contributing socially with a $ 100 million relief fund aimed at helping doctors, teachers, students, and employees in the entertainment industry. For its part, Fujifilm (# 38, + 21%) gained trust as a comprehensive and agile healthcare company by increasing the production capacity of Avigan, an anti-flu drug that could be effective against COVID-19, and by developing a technology diagnostic based on AI.

In addition, Nitori (# 69, + 39%), managed to adapt quickly to the new needs of consumers and working remotely by increasing its product catalog and combining a competitive price and outstanding functionality. Its success has allowed it to evolve towards a brand chosen for emotional reasons.

Japan in the spotlight

The celebration of the Olympic Games is a world showcase for the organizing venue, an immense marketing/branding strategic iconic move for Japan that projects the image of the city, the country, its citizens, its brands and their ability to present themselves to the world and the perception they have of the world and vice versa.

For this reason, many cities launch themselves into the Olympic race in search of an opportunity that brings them that world notoriety. They seek to receive great benefits in terms of socioeconomic and political leadership and now it´s Japan’s turn.

Despite the concerns generated by COVID-19 about the celebration of the Olympics, it seems that due to the good work and the pronounced decline in the Japanese wave of cases, which reached its maximum peak in December of last year, the Japanese are going to oversee celebrating the games in 2021.

“Let’s reflect this time on a new type of Olympic games” said Yoshiro Mori. Indeed, the improvement of the economy, society and the value of brands will largely depend on the good work of the Japanese and the image of security that they can transmit to the rest of the world.

Speaking of the country’s brands, at Interbrand we are clear that the local strategic sponsors of the Olympic games are giving the best of themselves to continue developing them. A clear example is Toyota. The brand is located at the head of Interbrand’s Best Japanese Brands in 2021. It is a Japanese company that faithfully represents Japanese values. Toyota, belonging to the automotive sector, has a Brand Value of US $ 51,595 million and has only lost 8% of its value compared to 2020 despite the pandemic which is truly positive data proving them as a category killer.

The country’s goal is to bring light to the world´s society. This has been reflected in the words of the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshilide Suga whose words were that the celebration of the games “will bring hope and courage to the world.”

Japan is ranked 26th out of 196 countries in the GDP per capita and after the celebration of the games that today represent a challenge for the country, they hope to improve the figures and establish themselves as one of the most competitive countries in economic terms globally.

Source: Charly Triballeau / Getty Images


Despite the resentment caused by COVID-19 which clearly reflected both in the economic power and in the character of society in global terms, the Olympic games in all cases have a positive effect on those who live it both in first and third person. Tokyo’s brand image is going to improve noticeably in the public eye due to the positive attitude of the Japanese. I invite you see our report so you can witness how the Japanese brands are changing the world.

In short, although the Japanese economy faces important challenges, like the rest of the leading economies, we can affirm that it is more than probable that they will recover and grow founded on strong brands, rooted to a clear ambition and iconic trajectories. It is not a coincidence that Japan is known as the land of the rising sun. Japan has a lot to say to the world and this year will give them the opportunity be seen in a new light. This is the year for Japan to make their iconic move.