Japanese brands have had a huge impact on European markets in recent years with consistent innovation and quality.
In 1959 the French philosopher Alexander Kojeve said: "The interaction of the West and Japan will result not in a vulgarisation of Japan but rather in a Japanisation of the West." More than 40 years on, it's clear his prediction about the Japanese influence on Western culture was absolutely right. Today the UK has embraced Pokemon and PlayStation, manga graphics and Muji minimalism, and cosmetics and toiletries ranges.
In product development terms it is without doubt the most consistently innovative place in the world. But its inventiveness and thirst for the new stretches far further than corporate R&D departments. You need look no further than this September's issue of Vogue with its feature on Tokyo's hip teenage 'tribe', the gunguro girls, who "tan until they are chestnut brown, bleach and perm their hair until it's a frizz of yellow straw and cake their faces with ultraviolet white lipstick and eyeshadow."
In truth, some elements of Japanese culture can appear bizarre to Western eyes. But some of what seems bizarre one year will be mainstream the next. Consequently, UK marketers and designers can learn a huge amount from the trends and attitudes emerging from one of the most vibrant places on the planet.
Advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty keeps close tabs on developments in Japan. It has organised an exhibition, Tokyu!Wow (open until September 28, see www.tokyuwow. corn for details),for clients and members of the public, which sets out to display and explain contemporary cultural elements drawn from the world's largest metropolis. The show, which is sponsored by media agency Starcom Motive Partnership, features such oddities as electronic halitosis devices, mouth shapers, nipple covers and ear alarms.
"One of the interesting things for brands here to look at is the way a lot of Japanese brands are better at putting themselves in a 3-D space," says BBH cultural consultant Nick Barham, who put the Tokyu!Wow show together. "Brands such as Sony will have a big six-storey building where nothing is sold, but you can immerse yourself in the world of Sony.
"The other interesting area is how much of an accelerated consumer culture it is in terms of the speed and variety of product design turnover. There is a real restless drive for difference. When you look at Tokyo you get a sense of how urban life is developing. It is a catwalk for young people."
This restlessness for difference is served by a deluge of new product launches. It is estimated that this year alone Japan has seen 480 new products every month. Even if four out of five launches fail, this still means that over 1000 new products find a market each year.
"In terms of new product development, Japan is Nirvana. Time to market from initial idea is unbelievably fast," says HanVandijk, head of planning at Beacon, the Tokyo-based advertising agency created by the merger of Leo Burnett and D'Arcy, in which Japanese advertising colossus Dentsu also holds a stake.
But speed of development seldom equates to shoddiness. Steve Hughes, director of product design at UK design agency PSD, says he is consistently impressed by the quality of mouldings and materials used by Japanese companies, even for products with a low price point. Just leafing through a Japanese cosmetics catalogue can be inspirational for a designer, he says.
PSD currently works with Japanese client Mitsubishi on the development of its Trium range of cellular phones. What Hughes admires is not just the technology and original design concept, but the attention to detail given to ensuring the design is realised in the most attractive way possible. "When it comes to the finishes of products, the Japanese are exceptional. They always go for fantastic quality," says Hughes.
What fascinates Europeans about Japan is the way it can reconcile and export two seemingly opposing cultural perceptions. …