Marketing: Japan

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[tokyo] In an intriguing three-year experiment that will be up for renewal in late July, seven Japanese companies are finding mixed results in marketing a group of diverse products ranging from cars to microwave ovens under the same brand name.

The marketers banded together to create a single lifestyle-oriented brand called WiLL in an effort to appeal to affluent-but-fickle young people in their 20s and 30s, a group with more individual personal tastes than the rest of Japanese society. About 30 WiLL products are now on sale in Japan.

The WiLL partners include Toyota Motor Corp. and Kao Corp., which are Japan's two biggest advertisers but are not known for trendy products appealing to a youthful market. Marketing executives from the seven WiLL companies meet weekly to monitor promotions and discuss new products. Hakuhodo, Japan's No. 2 agency, handles WiLL, but each marketer also has its own ad agency handling specific product ads. The Hakuhodo umbrella campaign, paid for by all participants, focuses on WiLL products as part of the lifestyle of young professionals.

The individual companies, for example, pooled their feedback from consumers who wanted to see the whole range of WiLL products at once. In response, they leased space in a stylish 20-store retail chain called the Loft, selling everything from stationery to appliances. Consumers can also turn to willshop.com on the Web.

Some products have done better than others. Asahi Breweries' first entry, WiLL Smooth Beer, nearly tripled its sales targets, selling 750,000 cases in the three months after its November 1999 launch. But Asahi's next WiLL brew, a sweet brown beer, was quickly pulled from the market. Matsushita's WiLL laptop was a disappointment, but its retro refrigerator and microwave oven have done well enough that the company added a mini WiLL fridge and vacuum cleaner in 2002. And about 10% of travel agency Kinki Nippon Tourist Co.'s sales come from WiLL travelers.

For most of the marketers, their WiLL offerings are niche products, making it difficult to measure success. Matsushita, for instance, sells a collapsible WiLL bicycle intended to also be an attractive adornment in a cramped city apartment.

Hikeaki Koizumi, a professor of advertising and mass communications at Sakashin Gakuin University, noted that WiLL's marketing doesn't really zero in on the concept or strategy behind WiLL.

"It misses tapping into the synergy effect to communicate product and brand value or lifestyle," he said. "Even if you consider it to be a lifestyle brand, which is a good idea, consumers don't understand how the products are related to each other."

It's unclear what's next.

Toru Honda, a WiLL leader in Toyota's Virtual Venture Co. said, "We're still in our third year, so we would like to evaluate the results after the end of this period and then decide what to do."

"I know the orange logo and the Toyota retro car, and I liked the smooth beer," said a young female ad agency executive in Tokyo. "But even though I fit their demographic, I haven't really tried anything else."

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