In a May 30 column, I described the BrandJapan database, which has tracked 1,000 brands over nine years using some 20 measures, and discussed the implications of the unexpected finding that the top 30 or so brands were remarkably stable during that period. Now I want to go one step further and ask, beyond brand equity momentum, why are those strong brands strong? Why those speci­fic brands and not others? And how do they maintain their position? These are difficult questions, partly because the brands are so varied and represent different product classes. In an effort to stimulate thinking, let me make several observations about these top brands.

Familiarity and Visibility

Many of these brands, such as Suntory, Kirin, Fuji TV, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Cup Noodle (a dehydrated noodle product), are leading-share brands in widely used product categories. They not only deliver on their value proposition, as they have done for many years, but also they are visible in the marketplace and are a part of people’s routines. People like the familiar, whether it is the route to work or even nonsense words.

Value Function

Japan always has been the land of self-expressive bene­fits; however, that has changed during the past decade because of declining income and changing cultural habits. To get a flavor of the changing Japan, consider the following: Business ­ firms used to give holiday presents to friends and customers, and entertain in bars and restaurants. Not so much anymore. The younger generation used to aspire to the status of having a car and families would try to upgrade out of small living quarters. Again, it can be said, not so much anymore. People used to stretch for self-expressive bene­fits. Now value is “in” and even considered cool. More than 70% of the top brands are value-positioned or have value offerings. Uniqlo (a Gap-like retailer with much lower prices), Muji (a retailer who takes pride in offering stripped-down, functional goods), and McDonald’s (home of the low price burger) all have value as their central position. Others, such as Toyota, Sony and Sharp, have value offerings as part of their product mix. Software ­ firms like Windows and Internet brands like Google or Rakuten (an online mall) are free to the user, the ultimate value.

Quality

Most of the brands have a history of offerring perceived quality that is high given their categories. Mos Burger, unlike McDonald’s, has more variety, uses organic ingredients and adapts the menu to the Japanese palate; for example, its rice burger has a bun created from rice. Seven-Eleven in Japan has freshly baked bread delivered three times a day at 13,000 outlets and has a private label line that competes with highend options. Cup Noodle is the authentic and best in its product form. All have visible, tangible attributes that differentiate.

Success

We know that brands associated with business success will bene­fit most. In addition to engendering respect, business success can imply quality, reliability and value. Further, past success counts; the marketplace has a long memory. Therefore, most of the top brands are connected with business success. GE, for example, has developed a strong brand with little brand-building activity simply because of its business success. Four of the top brands, as learned in a business manager survey conducted by BrandJapan, actually are perceived as driving the most successful business organizations in Japan, namely: Toyota, Honda, Sony and Panasonic.

Brand Vision that Inspires

Many top brands have a clear and often inspiring vision that leads to shared values, interests and lifestyles with customers. Google has an unrelenting pursuit of clean and fast. Muji, described in my article of January 30, is about simplicity, moderation, humility and self-restraint. Tokyo Hands enables people to create and build with their own hands. Panasonic, with its “ecosolutions” for the entire home and building, “eco-car” systems and “eco-ideas” for individual lifestyles, is a leader in the green movement. Cup Noodle and Nissan have innovation thrusts.

Energy

We know, both instinctively and through empirical research, that energy is a key to brand health – and there is a lot of energy in these top brands. One source is innovation, and new products, such as the Sharp TV line with fourcolor Quattron technology, the new Heattech clothing from Uniqlo, the hit movies from Studio Ghibli (the Pixar of Japan), McCafe from McDonald’s and Nintendo’s Wii, exemplify this ideal of innovation. Other sources of energy are the software (Windows and Google) and Internet industries (Rakuten). Still other sources are the branded energizers, such as the baseball team owned by Rakuten, the Disney characters and theme park rides, and several branded CEOs.

This set of observations explains why few brands move into the top echelon and show why gaining that brand equity position is so valuable. Much of a top brand’s brand equity momentum is hard to create or counter. It is based largely on having the most visible market share, a compelling value position, a quality reputation garnered over years, a history of business success and an inspiring vision or energy based on associations developed over time. These attributes accumulate over years and cannot be easily or quickly created. Brand building is a long-term journey and a tactical program.

No matter how splashy an ad is for a new brand, it has only a limited ability to affect brand leaders.

Follow Dave on Twitter: @davidaaker

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