Oak Lawn Marketing is building its flagship brand Shop Japan by emphasizing quality products, using omnichannel strategies to make them the leaders in their categories, and extending their reach throughout Asia with the help of its new mascot, WOW-kun.
Not long ago, Oak Lawn Marketing was a successful direct response television company with a host of long-form infomercials on Japanese television and a solid history of successful product launches. But with a shrinking population and the accelerating rate of smartphone adoption, the market for infomercial products in Japan was starting to plateau, and the company needed to retool its strategy for the years to come.
The answer was to turn its flagship Shop Japan brand into a lifestyle brand that would be recognized throughout the country (and ultimately, the world) for bringing shoppers innovative products that make life better for customers young and old, wherever and whenever they shop. Conveying that brand positioning to the hard-working Japanese population would be the challenge.
“The biggest problem facing Japan is a fun deficit,” says Harry Hill, president and CEO of Oak Lawn Marketing, Inc., which operates Shop Japan with equity partner NTT Docomo, Japan’s largest mobile carrier. “We’re saying that Shop Japan is going to help you solve the things that bother you in everyday life, but there’s a deeper message: We’re saying that daily life can be fun.
“This is part of our messaging not only in the products and brands we deliver, but also in how we do business. What people really want is to be happier, and we can help them [by] innovating daily life solutions,” he says. “We think that we’re serving a huge need. The message is that life can be fun—you can be positive and optimistic, and you can do that by making little changes in everyday life.”
Opting for Omnichannel
The company has focused mostly on introducing new and innovative products since its launch in 1993, staking its claim with a successful item to establish itself in each category segment, then building out the product line. “Every major product we have is No. 1 in its category,” says Scott Reid, COO of Oak Lawn Marketing. “If we can introduce an innovative frying pan, for example, we can enter the cookware space.”
Unfortunately, growth in the infomercial market in Japan started to stall at the beginning of the decade. Only about 30 percent of adults were watching DR television, and due to the rapid adoption of smartphones, viewership was decreasing among Shop Japan’s main target customers, 40- to 50-year-olds. And while its infomercials still managed to attract good telephone response, Shop Japan was missing out on sales from mobile and retail. “We needed a new approach,” Reid says.
The company launched a new omnichannel marketing strategy in 2013, merging several different brands into Shop Japan. Today, Shop Japan still typically begins with an infomercial; it’s essentially a “soft open” that gauges interest and helps work out any possible quality and usage “gremlins” that might still exist in the product using feedback from consumers. It then expands its TV presence with :30 ads, and drives consumers to purchase via Web and retail with point-of-purchase displays, catalogs, mobile ads, event marketing, and more.
It’s a strategy designed to meet people as they bounce across multiple channels, often simultaneously. As in the United States, a prospect might see an ad on TV, and later be reminded about it on the Web. He or she might see it in a store three weeks later and seek out the infomercial on YouTube, or see an ad in the newspaper and check out the product specifications on a smartphone. Then, the consumer will go buy it in a store, online, or through their smartphones. “All channels are driving to all registers,” Reid says.
Since 2013, the strategy has produced 13 times more retail purchases, and Web sales have more than doubled. In addition, the company’s name mindshare—quantified by a survey asking people to identify any company that advertises on TV—jumped from a scant 3 percent in 2013 to 58 percent in 2015, eclipsing all other industry players.
Subsequently, the Wonder Core ab-workout machine has been the No. 1 fitness product in Japan for the past two years, selling more than 2 million units, and the company sold an additional 1.2 million units of the compact version, the Wonder Core Smart, during its first 11 months on the market last year. The company’s True Sleeper mattress topper has been No. 1 in sales in its category for several years, and the Shark Steam Portable—redesigned for the market with input from Shop Japan customers—has been the No. 1 device in the steam-cleaning category for three years running.
“We’ve been able to reach out in new ways by breaking out of DR marketing, [where] our world was 30 percent of Japan, and into the omnichannel world, where our world is basically everybody in Japan,” Hill says. “In DRTV, we could perhaps sell 500,000 units a year of a product like Wonder Core, but by playing in the omnichannel market, we can put over 1 million units a year in the hands of Japanese consumers.”
In the United States, mascots and characters are mostly associated with products targeted to children. In Japan, they are a big part of building brands, and WOW-kun, Shop Japan’s new mascot, is a central part of the strategy to join the company’s many product lines under a single, trusted brand umbrella. With big ears for listening and a festive expression, the character personifies fun; even its name adds a sense of warmth, utility, and familiarity, as designated by the “-kun” suffix, which the Japanese often use as an informal way of addressing younger friends.
“WOW-kun is the inner kid in all of us,” Hill says. “WOW-kun flies around the world looking for things that make people happy, but his focus is on everyday life. You don’t have to go to Tahiti to be happy; you can be happy in everyday life and WOW-kun is the face of that. WOW-kun immediately creates affinity.”
WOW-kun appears on all Shop Japan marketing materials, boosting brand recognition. “Are you more interested in a company with 30 percent brand awareness, or 80 percent brand awareness?” Hill asks. “Are you interested in a company that has its products in 20,000 retail locations unbranded, or one that has more than 50,000 branded areas in retail? If you want to be with a company that’s more known, has greater affinity, and offers aspirational value, you look at WOW-kun and say, ‘He’s my mascot, too.’”
30 Seconds, Big Brands
Shop Japan has also invested heavily in :30 short-form ads in its rebranding. While infomercials are still effective among the 30 percent who still channel-surf on Japan’s digital television system, a unique or entertaining ad can catch the casual viewer’s eye on TV and elsewhere.
The company often uses Japanese television personalities in its :30 ads to help create an additional identifier for a product. Lighthearted ads for Wonder Core, for example, feature Japanese TV personality Takashi Ukaji being knocked down in multiple slapstick situations, only to recover instantly by cutting to a demonstration of how easy the ab exerciser is to use. “If you have strong abs, nothing can knock you down,” a sing-song tagline says.
Another campaign features a popular father/daughter comedy duo riding the True Sleeper mattress topper like a magic carpet out of Arabian Nights. And a tongue-in-cheek ad for Cerafit ceramic-coated nonstick frying pans compares other, inferior pans to husbands—they’re good in the beginning, but fail to live up to expectations over time. Set in a courtroom, the plaintiff complains that her pan’s nonstick coating was short-lived—and her husband no longer pays attention to her.
The :30 campaigns have grown the Shop Japan name throughout the country, helping the brand expand distribution in retail stores and dominate search, which is Japanese consumers’ main point of entry for desktop and mobile e-commerce. Shop Japan was 2015’s store of the year in the General Merchandise & Gifts category on Rakuten, and Shop Japan works closely with the juggernaut shopping site and Google to access performance data. “Everybody now knows us, whether it’s from our :30 TV commercials, newspaper ads, or our Shop Japan branded retail displays,” Hill says.
Sourced for the Sophisticated
Japanese consumers are among the world’s most sophisticated consumers, and Shop Japan customers expect a curated selection of quality lifestyle products, backed by end-to-end customer service.
“In Japan, it’s never only about the product,” Hill says. “It’s about the whole experience. If the box is dirty when it arrives or when they see it on the shelf, that’s an inferior brand or an inferior product. When people open the box, how easy is it to throw out whatever the filling in the box is? How easy or intuitive is it to set up and use the product? All of that is essential to becoming successful in Japan.
“I like to compare it to eating at a Japanese restaurant versus eating at a steak restaurant,” Hill says. “When you go to a steak restaurant, you get steak and potatoes, and it’s great. But in Japan, not only is it about the ingredients and how good it is—it’s also about the presentation and the service.”
That said, defect rates must be extremely low to take a product to market, because the customer expects a quality product from Shop Japan, and the company is looking to create sustained, steady growth for its brand.
“If all you want to do is sell us a low-quality product for as much as possible, we’re not that interested,” Hill says. “When we do our job right, we don’t sell something for a short period of time; we sell a lot for a long period of time. Everyone benefits from this value proposition.”
Quality That Translates
With fewer media outlets and uneven infrastructure, less-developed Asian markets are often difficult for foreign companies to navigate. But Shop Japan’s approach is likelier to succeed in countries where most consumers use smartphones as their primary screens. “Creating demand through media and offering a richer, coordinated online/offline experience will allow you to reach 100 percent of the people you’re touching,” Hill says.
Shop Japan launched in the Philippines and Thailand in 2014 and plans to introduce products in India and Indonesia this year. True Sleeper will lead the way in many markets, since fitness products tend to have a more limited shelf life. There are other challenges—for instance, many deliveries must be made by moped in
the Philippines, but the two-wheeled vehicles offer another opportunity for branding.
The idea that Japanese consumers only use quality products translates well to other Asian markets. “There’s an inherent belief that the Japanese consumer is an educated, discerning consumer: ‘If it’s good enough for the Japanese consumer, then it’s good enough for me,’” Hill says. “And to be honest, I think the reputation of the Japanese consumer completely dwarfs that of the U.S. consumer.
“In the Philippines, we find that when people hear ‘True Sleeper from Shop Japan’—not just True Sleeper, but True Sleeper from Shop Japan—there’s a sense of aspiration: ‘I want to live life like the Japanese people live life. If it’s from Shop Japan, it’s going to make me happy,’ ” he adds.
“I think the most important discovery that we’ve made in the last three or four years is how powerful the Shop Japan name is, and how much more potential this name has, not just in Japan, but in Asia,” Hill says. “In various consumer studies, when you ask people in Asian countries which other Asian country has cool products and services, almost all of the other Asian countries say Japan first.”
With its omnichannel positioning, Shop Japan has broadened its approach to product development, expanding its search beyond the confines of proven DRTV products. In the years ahead, the company plans to introduce more products more often, and source successful items from nontraditional outlets.
“We’re always on the lookout, of course, but in the past, we were always limited to media availability,” Hill says. “As we are becoming more omnipresent, I believe we will have more and more product successes that are not just tied to media spend and availability. We are grounded by the idea of making small changes that lead to great life innovation. Anything that ‘wows’ WOW-kun is what we’re interested in.”
With 50,000 branded displays in Japan, Shop Japan is creating the customer expectation that more new and fun products are on the way. “Because we have so many locations, we have more and more people coming to us and saying ‘What have you got today?’” Hill says. “As the cycle continues to grow, we will have more opportunities to release products than we have had in the past. We still plan to be very curated based on what Shop Japan stands for, but we will have the opportunity to reach out to even more people.
“Everybody knows us, everybody is starting to like us more, [and] we’re switching from ‘What can we sell?’ to ‘What should Shop Japan sell?’ because people have expectations about what we’ll deliver,” he adds. “When Apple releases a new product, people immediately have expectations that it will be good. Five years ago, when I said we want to have a reputation like Apple, people looked at me like I had three heads. Now people look at me, and it’s like I’ve only got one-and-a-quarter.”
Behind the Brand Promise
Shop Japan strives to be a good corporate citizen and keep things fun for its employees, too. “I want everyone here at our office to feel like this is the best job in the world,” Hill says. “If they’re working 20 hours a day and don’t have any time for hobbies, outside life, and family, that’s not fun—and if everybody in Japan was like that, we’d have no customers.”
The company also sponsors walkathons, scholarship programs, and other charitable initiatives, and contributes to the Hope International Development Agency, which supports people still struggling in the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. “People want to interact with companies that do good, that make a difference,” Hill says. “If you do a great job and you’re a great company, people want to be associated with you. That is very much what we believe in, and we try to live that every day.”
Hill says that Shop Japan will continue to press forward with its branding efforts in Japan and other markets throughout the world. “When we looked at the products and brands our customers loved, it was always the ones with a before-and-after-style product with an innovative solution to everyday life problems,” Hill says. “That’s what DRTV is, in many ways. What’s happened is that we’ve gone from a product- and brand-focused DR company to being a lifestyle brand company that says, ‘Our promise is this, and we can do it everywhere.’
“In five years, we could be considered the No. 1 consumer brand [and] retail experience company in Japan, and burgeoning in Asia,” he says. “We’re still doing something more product-centric, but as we continue to deliver on the promise that customers are reacting to, more and more people are wanting the Shop Japan experience.
“All of the sudden, Shop Japan is a destination in and of itself,” Hill adds. “In five years, we have the potential to be the company people look at and say, ‘Holy crap, where did they come from?!’ It’s not that we want to be the next Amazon or Rakuten; all of our products are innovative and fun. Our products deliver on lifestyle needs, and make people’s lives a little more fun.”
Ian P. Murphy is the senior editor of ER.