A sweet-tooth in Japan isn’t hard to satisfy. The country’s convenience stores are stocked with a range of intriguing confectionery, but often you’ve got to be quick to catch them.
A short shelf life isn’t because products like Hokkaido cheese chocolate are snapped up by hordes of roving umami-hunters, but because perpetual revolution of a product range is the key to survival for brands in Japan.
As soon as chocolate Christmas cakes and New Year themed sweets disappear from the shelves, a slew of new and splendidly packaged products is ready to be unleashed on the public.
Yet for big Western brands, Japan is a particularly hard nut to crack. Given the unique nature of the Japanese market and home-field advantage, the top five brands for all packaged food products in Japan are domestic.
“Japanese consumers are the most demanding in the world not only in terms of the quality of product but also quality of packaging and visual presentation,” says Atsushi Morisawa, general manager for Mars Japan.
But among the hundreds of special editions and new products that are launched each spring and autumn, one old favorite from the West has managed to be big in Japan: Kit Kat.
But how did the chocolate wafer bar go from its humble origins in northern England in the 1930s to a perennial favorite among Japan’s faddy eaters? The answer has something to do with persistent investment from Nestle and a lot to do with great big dollop of luck.
To Nestlé’s amazing good fortune, the word Kit Kat sounds similar to the Japanese phrase “Kitto Katsu”, which roughly translates to mean “surely win.” It’s a term of good luck often used by students before their exams, but to Nestle it has sounded more like “Ka-ching!”
Running with that tonal advantage and tapping into Japan’s love of novelty, Nestlé has produced over 200 special edition flavors of the chocolate bar since 2000, often sold as gifts rather than snacks bought on the go. From wasabi and green tea to flavors specific to regions of Japan (Hokkaido roasted corn flavor, anyone?), Nestle has kept up the innovation to make it a mainstay on the shelves of stores across Japan, even making souvenir editions around holidays and events.
Without any Japanese-sounding sweets, Nestle rival Mars has had to take the longer route to getting a foothold in Japan’s candy market, says Morisawa.
First there’s getting up to speed with new product launches and a very costly up-front investment. After sticking at it in Japan for 35 years, Mars has managed to get Snickers and M&Ms on shelves next to ever-changing Japanese brands. Often partnerships with domestic companies are the best ways to get your brand noticed, says Morisawa, but they don’t always work; the incentive for the domestic brand isn’t there.
Even if you can’t have a brand made to surely win, simply getting into Japan’s trend-happy market is worth the effort.
“It’s a challenge, but also a great opportunity,” says Morisawa. “If you could win in the Japan market, you could win the rest of Asia, also.”