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The marketing of a consumer icon: Mini Cooper into Japan - coals to Newcastle?

Introduction

The charge of the Light Brigade and the battlefield at Thermopylae are apposite images when considering a plan to market small cars in Japan. Each conveys a sense of inevitable doom against overwhelming odds. However, Rover has managed to do just that. This article aims to determine the origin of such a seemingly audacious plan, the strategy and tactics employed and to extract the key success factors of this intriguing achievement.

In doing so, the importance of brand bonding (de Chernatony and McDonald, 1994) and how this may vary spatially are explored. Given that any sustainable improvement in the UK's economic situation will need to be, in large part, export-led, then any lessons that can be drawn from this case study will be of great value in understanding the interplay between product and corporate brand equities. The maintenance and development of the competitive advantage of nations in global economies (Porter, 1990) will increasingly require that such brand categories work symbiotically.

Background

The Japanese buy nearly one-quarter of all the Minis produced (Halstead, 1995). This is an astounding achievement in a market that, according to Nicki Darzinskas, Rover's small-car brand manager, has to be "one of the most strongly fought markets, with a wealth of product choice and, in particular, innovation".

How this very British brand has been so successfully positioned in the Japanese market exemplifies some important insights to how a consumer icon can be internationally marketed to accommodate the ever-more comprehensive demands of increasingly sophisticated consumers, spoilt for choice. Such insights should be carefully considered by those responsible for managing and promoting consumer icons, as history demonstrates that the longevity of these products is by no means guaranteed and requires careful stewardship - witness the rise, fall and rise again of Harley Davidson (Oxley, 1996).

Icons

An icon is an artifact that crystallises and embodies a set of mental associations far beyond its functionality and immediate environment. Religious icons were designed with the intention of representing a recognized and powerful metaphysical concept. This is the art of iconography. However, in the new religion of consumerism (Featherstone, 1991), objects such as Levi 501s have become icons post-hoc by being perceived to embody a particular vigorous set of associations of time, place and culture (Baudrillard, 1983a, 1983b). This iconic nature of certain brands has been recognized in formal taxonomies such as DMB&B's leadership equity model (DMB&B, 1994).

The Mini Cooper icon

The Mini Cooper's attraction is not primarily at the functionally-tangible level but at an iconically intangible level. Since this is historically based it is not possible to re-engineer or duplicate, and thus its competitive advantage will remain while there is demand for that piece of history and the associations it embodies. The Mini Cooper, like all icons, is the manifestation of a sentiment - culture made flesh - and a representation of a vastly image-rich period in British culture. It is, therefore, a case not so much of "coals to Newcastle" but of a culturally and historically unique selling point. While this means that the threat of obsolescence by competitors' innovation is greatly reduced, it nevertheless exposes the product to the capricious wants of the fashion conscious. However, this vulnerability to whim must be accepted as the unavoidable downside of an image-based marketing platform. Fortunately, the ideals represented by the Mini Cooper - essentially freedom and empowerment - are universal and eternal and thus the Mini, as an integral part and embodiment of Britain in the 1960s, should see continued success for some time to come.

Mini and Rover in Japan

Prior to 1985, Mini products were being imported into Japan through Nichi Ei Jidosha (Japan England Autos). Rover Japan by this time had a growing dealership network which allowed it to successfully position and place premium and prestige products such as the Range Rover. It was felt by Rover that the Mini should be brought within this admired group. The Mini had always been positioned in the Japanese market as a premium product since interest mainly focused on the then top-of-the-range Mayfair and also on more prestigious limited edition models.

In 1985, Rover Japan took over Nichi Ei and the import franchise for Mini. This sent out clear signals that Rover was committed to supporting the Mini in Japan. Such support is often a prerequisite to success in Japanese markets where the qualifying and order-winning criteria often include clear signs of commitment to a long-lasting relationship (Coopers & Lybrand, 1993). In 1990 the Cooper was relaunched on the world stage with projected sales in Japan exceeding those in the UK. Why should this have been the case?

Market attractiveness

Japan, though large, seems to be a market where domestic players such as Suzuki and Honda have developed world-class small cars in response to Japan's unique Kei laws and where return on sales would be unacceptable due to the high amount of communications' spend which would be required.

A market attractiveness grid [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] is a useful tool for assessing the relative appeal of international markets (Boyd, Walker and Larreche, 1995). On each dimension of the grid the Japanese small-car market is indeed formidable, with large numbers of world-class domestic manufacturers and a variety of trade barriers for the would-be offshore competitor (Economist, 1995; Ozawa, 1996; Sazanamin et al., 1995).

The parent company had not carried out extensive research in the Japanese market for the Mini brand and had clearly distanced itself by leaving distribution to Nichi Ei. The level of demand for the product was not being nurtured by the parent but Rover eventually appreciated the extent of interest and decided that the relative success of the Mini in Japan boded well for the relaunch of the iconic Mini Cooper.

Japanese buyer behaviour

The Mini Cooper was able to offer "genuine Britishness, traditional design, traditional materials and, perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to personalize their purchase and stand out from the crowd" (Nicki Darzinskas, small-car brand manager, Rover).

In the increasingly homogenized world of the automobile, and particularly in the somewhat regimented Japanese society, the opportunity to "get back to basics" was a latent need [ILLUSTRATION FOR PLATE 1 OMITTED]. The Cooper variant builds on this attractiveness, adding its own flavour as a piece of sporting history and as a "star" of such movies as The Italian Job (1969) alongside the very British Michael Caine. Such qualities help explain why the Mini Cooper has exposed a profitable niche in a market big on tangible attributes but low on intangible character-clearly a case of a non-commodity nugget of coal.

The fortunate situation of possessing a consumer icon does not mean that these intangible qualities cannot/should not be managed to maximize their impact. Rover's increased interest in supporting collectors' needs and their patronage to recreate the halcyon days of British racing should be seen as part of a market positioning approach aimed at maintaining and strengthening these perceived intangible qualities [ILLUSTRATION FOR PLATE 2 OMITTED].

Standardize or adapt?

Tangible product adaptation required for the Japanese market

The 1990 relaunch of the Mini Cooper in Japan required a number of modifications to the British specification to meet Japanese consumer preferences and overcome some non-tariff barriers. A different type of catalyst was fitted to meet emissions' standards. Air-conditioning had to be fitted as standard, initially done by Rover Japan, but later in the UK - another important sign of commitment. Other alterations were: the fascia was altered to accommodate the air-conditioning; fixed rear quarter lights; rounded ends on bumpers; automatic transmission; Japanese labelling; warning flare mounting bracket; unique number-plate mounting; unique lighting requirements; catalyst overheat warning light; and KPH speedometer.

Another adaptation was to place Rover badges on the bonnet and boot. Such an explicit link between the Rover house brand and the Mini product brand was unique. So why this approach in Japan?

Intangible product adaptation - brand bonding

The process of brand bonding involves the coming together of a house brand and a product brand with the intention of enhancing the total brand strength (Mihailovic and De Chernatony, 1994). Onkvisit and Shaw (1989) suggest the marketer will have to consider branding issues such as brand v. no brand before engaging fully in this brand-bonding debate.

The view an organization takes of how product brands in its portfolio might transfuse with one another and with the corporate brand to maximize total brand equity dictates the shape of the brand strategy which is adopted. Such strategy options have been categorized in a variety of ways. Kotler and Armstrong (1993) proposes a "family-brand" approach consisting of:

* individual brand names (e.g. Procter & Gamble detergents);

* blanket family brand name for all products (e.g. Heinz food products);

* separate family name for all products (e.g. Sears in retailing); and

* company trade name combined with individual names (e.g. Kellogg's cereal product).

Gray and Smeltzer (1985) propose a five-form relationship model consisting of:

1 single form: where the organizational focus is on a tightly-defined product area so the images of the organization and the product area become synonymous (e.g. Gillette's focused personal grooming product portfolio);

2 brand form: where the brands are not linked explicitly with the corporate brand (e.g. Procter & Gamble's soap products);

3 balanced form: where there is an explicit link between the corporate brand and the product brands in the portfolio (e.g. Ford motor vehicles);

4 variety form: where the organization will at times use the company brand and at other times use product brands (e.g. Bosch power tools carry the corporate brand but their radios are branded under the Blaupunkt name); and

5 corporate form: where although the organization operates in a variety of business areas the communication of product offerings draws on the corporate name and identity and therefore reinforces/builds the corporate image (e.g. ICI chemical products) (see Fill, 1995).

de Chernatony and McDonald's (1994) brand name spectrum proposes four key possible mixes of house brand and product brand along a spectrum. This framework is further developed (Mihailovic and de Chernatony, 1994) to evolve the brand-bonding spectrum which proposes five broad categories of reciprocal relationship which define possible bonded-brand positions.

The brand-bonding spectrum (see Figure 2) refers to the corporate image as the house brand (HB) and the offerings in the product portfolio as the product brand (PB). Like the Gray and Smeltzer (1985) framework, Mihailovic and de Chernatony's application of their brand-bonding spectrum categorizes ICI as emphasizing its corporate brand name across the portfolio with its various product propositions identified by generic descriptors (zone 1). Unlike the Gray and Smeltzer framework application, Mihailovic and de Chernatony (1994) do not put Ford in their balanced category (zone 3); instead they put it in zone 2, arguing that it is the Ford house brand that is the stronger, with the product brand (e.g. Escort) playing a supporting role. The example given of reciprocal brand bonding (zone 3) where the house and product brand are projected equally, and thus draw equity from each other, is L'Oreal's studio line. Nestle is seen as often playing the supporting role when endorsing strong product brands in its confectionery product category (e.g. Kit Kat in zone 4), and Marlboro is cited as an example of an independent product brand which attempts no brand bonding with its parent (zone 5).
Figure 2

Brand-bonding spectrum, incorporating national metabrand

Total reliance on HB                                         Zone 1
HB umbrella                                                  Zone 2
Balanced reciprocity between HB and PB                       Zone 3
HB endorsed                                                  Zone 4
Independent PB                                               Zone 5

Source: Mihailovic, P. and de Chernatony, L., 1994




Mihailovic and de Chernatony also recognize the existence of sub-house brands which are used increasingly by large multi-product category organizations such as Nestle to act as category figureheads, often bringing some focus to previously "maverick" product brands. Witness the current repositioning of Crosse & Blackwell to act as such a sub-house brand for Nestle's dehydrated/packaged food product in the UK (Murphy, 1996).

The brand-bonding spectrum

In the case of the link between the Mini Cooper PB and the Rover HB, there is a marked spatial variation in the approach employed to bond the brands. In the West there has been no attempt to overtly link the Rover HB with the Mini PB by badging the Mini with the Rover symbol. This branding approach would be categorized within zone 5 of the brand-bonding spectrum (see Figure 2).

This stance was adopted in the West because the Mini was perceived as a basic, small, economy car, and would therefore not support Rover's attempts to develop a premium HB position. Also, we would suggest, the rather conservative image of Rover would not fit the Mini's idiosyncratic positioning for a relatively young Western audience as a liberating, fun, anti-establishment proposition. For the Western market the positioning of the HB and the PB embodies conflicting core brand values. The dilution of brand identity would work both ways. Kapferer (1992) has noted that effective bonding is likely to depend on appropriateness as well as individual brand strengths. So why has brand bonding paid such dividends in the Japanese context?

The Rover-Mini Cooper bonding in Japan is zone 3 in nature. Crucially, the Mini has been positioned only as a premium brand in Japan and thus house and product brands are compatible and mutually reinforcing. However, there would appear still to be a danger of diluting the "radical" icon status of the Cooper. Perhaps the Rover-Cooper composite represents socially acceptable free expression in a nation where population density and culture are not conducive to "rebel without a cause" attitudes (Nishina, 1990).

Conclusions

Spatial variation in desired product attributes is evidenced by any number of international marketing cases (see e.g. Keegan, 1995). In the case of Rover-Mini Cooper, the adaptation required of the tangible product was relatively minor. However, the adaptation of the intangible product in terms of associated brand components differed radically from that applied in the home country and exposed the scope of brand bonding to adapt the profile of the proposition to suit historically different brand perceptions of the target market.

The brand-bonding spectrum is useful in helping organizations focus on opportunities to maximize total brand equity by bonding corporate and product brands where perceptions of these brands allow them to work synergistically. There will always be a danger in such bonding f core perceptions of the brands are not compatible or f one of the brand partners gets into problems and the association then dilutes the brand equity of the other. Increasingly in competitive markets the brand manager needs to identify bonding opportunities and the stewardship that follows should ensure that the brands continue to work together to enhance the proposition.

The issue of linking the corporate brand to the product brand in a portfolio is often termed "umbrella branding". The pros and cons of this explicit bonding continues to be an ongoing debate, with perhaps a tendency to overplay the cost savings of closer bonding without considering the risk of image confusion/dilution (Mitchell, 1996). Also the manner in which the umbrella branding label is often applied implies that it is the house brand alone that transfuses equity into either existing product brands or new/enhanced product. In some cases it may be the product brand which has most to give to the relationship, as is the objective, we would suggest, of the current bonding of the Crosse & Blackwell sub-house brand to product brands like Branston Pickle and Sarsons Vinegar.

Like the other brand-category frameworks, the brand-bonding spectrum focuses on the possible equity opportunities of linking the corporate and product brands. The case of the Mini demonstrates that both the corporate and the product partner can benefit from such bonding if the perceptions of their core values do not conflict. Such perceptions may vary spatially, in the temporal and geographical senses, and the Mini Cooper case highlights this geographical difference in image. Other examples of recent trade with the Far East suggest that there is important equity to be drawn from "Britishness" (Halstead, 1995). How might this be factored into the brand-equity equation?

References and further reading

Baudrillard, J. (1983a), Simulations, Semiotext(e), New York, NY.

Baudrillard, J. (1983b), In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, Semiotext(e), New York, NY.

Boyd Jr, H.W., Walker Jr, O.C. and Larreche, J.-C. (1995), Marketing Management: A Strategic Approach with a Global Orientation, 2nd ed., Irwin, Holmwood, IL.

Coopers & Lybrand (1993), Tailor-made for Japan: Marketing Strategies for Success, Corporate Television Networks (video).

DMB&B (1994), A New Strategy for Leadership, DMB&B, London.

de Chernatony, L. and McDonald, M. (1994), Creating Powerful Brands, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford.

Dowling, G.R. (1993), "Developing your company image into a corporate asset", Long Range Planning, Vol. 26 No. 2, pp. 101-9.

Economist (1995), "Japan's protection racket - how much do barriers to imports cost Japanese consumers?", Economist, 7 January, p. 66.

Featherstone, M. (1991), Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, Sage.

Fill, C. (1995), Marketing Communications, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Gray, E.R. and Smeltzer, L.R. (1985), "SMR forum: corporate image - an integral part of strategy", Sloan Management Review, Summer, pp. 73-8.

Halstead, R. (1995), "Asia's brand bonanza", Business Age, August, pp. 30-34.

Kapferer, J.N. (1992), Strategic Marketing Management, Kogan Page.

Keegan, W.J. (1995), Global Marketing Management, (5th ed.), Prentice-Hall International, London.

Kotler, P. and Armstrong, G. (1993), Marketing - An Introduction, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Mihailovic, P. and de Chernatony, L. (1994), "Brand bonding", Marketing Business, October, pp. 31-4.

Michell, A. (1996), "The single issue", Marketing Business, March, pp. 36-8.

Murphy, C. (1996), "C & B seek easy branding route", Marketing, 27 June, p. 4.

Nishina, S. (1990), "Japanese consumers: introducing foreign products/brands into markets", Journal of Advertising Research, Vol. 30 No. 2, pp. 35-45.

Onkvisit, S. and Shaw, J.J. (1989), Product Life Cycles and Product Management, Quorum Books, London.

Oxley, M. (1996), "Will the real Harley please stand up", The Sunday Times, 21 July, p. 8.

Ozawa, I. (1996), "The third opening", Economist, 9 March, pp. 19-21.

Porter, M.E. (1990), The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Macmillan, London.

Richards, S. (1994), "UK plc: trapped in a time warp", The Sunday Times, 30 October, pp. 8-10.

Sazanaami, Y., Urata, S. and Kawai, H. (1995), Measuring the Cost of Protection in Japan, Institute of International Economics.
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Author:Laverick, Stuart; Johnson, Kevin
Publication:Marketing Intelligence & Planning
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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