Spotlight on Difference
Even more so than Meaningfulness and Salience, Difference was the most important discriminator of growth for top Japanese brands after a difficult 2020.
While this year’s growing and declining Top 50 brands posted largely similar average scores for Meaningful and Salience, this was not the case for Difference. 2021’s growing brands were markedly more Different than declining brands. This year, more than ever, difference separates the good from the great.
Just as importantly, perceptions that a brand was weak on Difference was a strong negative driver for changes in brand value between 2020 and 2021. In a year when brand value decline was the norm, Japanese brands with below-average Meaning and Salience scores did not post steeper year-on-year declines than brands with above-average Meaning and Salience scores. Where there was a gap in brand value declines, was in brands that scored below the average score of 100 on difference. Those brands declined more steeply than their more Different counterparts:
Why is Difference so important in today’s Japan? One reason is that in times of crisis, recession, or product scarcity – all of which were seen at various points in 2020 – a consumer trend towards commodification begins to creep in. Consumers begin to opt for the first available product in a category, or the cheapest, rather than holding out for what they really want. They might even feel like their own preferences are a “luxury” that they shouldn’t be opting for!
While 2021 should feature less in the way of supply chain disruption, declining household income is still a very real concern. When people have less money, consumer behaviors like “trading down,” opting for generics, and delayed purchasing all rise to the fore. Which is exactly why Difference matters. If consumers are going to pay up for a brand name, they want to feel like they’re going to receive a product or experience that really justifies their purchase – that offers some type of value that the alternative choices do not.
In this way, Difference is highly related to the concept of “Premiumness” – both in theory and in practice in this year’s BrandZ™ Japan Top 50. In the BrandZ™ universe, Brand Power is the ability to generate demand – it’s what predisposes consumers to buy more. Brand Premium, meanwhile, is the perception that a brand is worth it’s price. It’s important to note that this is not the kind of “Premiumness” that connotes “fanciness” or “expensiveness” – in the BrandZ™ framework, brands are “Premium” when they’re seen as providing exceptional extra value at whatever their price point may be.
In tough economic times, Premium may just make the difference between a product being purchased and it staying the shelf. At a time when generics and “trading down” become an attractive alternative, those brands that feel like they’re truly worth what they cost – or, better yet, are worth more than what they cost – are the ones best positioned to remain a part of consumer’s lives. It’s not enough for a brand to be top of mind for consumer’s – to make the sale, a brand has to be not just popular, has to be genuinely Different.
It’s not surprising, then, that while a combination of Meaningfulness and Salience was highly correlated with Brand Power in this year’s BrandZ™ data, Brand Premium was driven by Meaningful Difference:
Put another way, “Premiumness” can be central to what makes a brand seem “Different” to consumers, and therefore more valuable. Indeed, this year’s growing Japanese brands in the Top 50 all scored above-average on Premium:
Building difference: a matter of personality
So, clearly, Difference matters. But how can brands achieve it?
There’s a standard approach here, one that has worked for decades. Traditionally, Japanese brands have sought to build Difference by focusing on functionality and innovation. Can you claim that your brand is “88 percent more effective in clinical trials” at solving for problem X? Great, then you’ve achieved Difference!
Except that, increasingly, this strategy for Difference – while still undeniably beneficial – is not, in itself, sufficient to give your brand the kind of unassailable edge it needs. Because the very concept of brands, as noted, come under greater threat from generics in times of economic stress. As a result, savvy businesses are learning to combine functional Difference with strong and Different brand personalities.
In other words, most successful Japanese and global brands have gone beyond product differentiation to commit to a distinct set of values and emotion, which they incorporate into everything they do. This is a more holistic approach to Difference – and it works.
As a way of exploring what it means to craft a unique brand “personality,” let’s consider some of the most Different brands in Japan, and in the world. These brands, of course, are functionally very different. But their pursuit of Difference goes beyond this. They commit to a certain set of personality attributes, brand values, and emotions, and this becomes a part of everything they do: