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Japanese Tea Culture
Green Tea
- vol 3-2 -
< Marketing Strategies and the Latest Trend >
By looking at the top three brands that dominate the share of the majority of the green tea refreshment market, one can say that even though the specific leaves and water they use are each different, the tendency of tea making such as their policies of using only domestic tealeaves and emphasizing the green-tea-unique flavor does not differ so much. Although I did not cast the spotlight on the other brands sold from other soft drink companies, the exact same thing can be said for another dozen green tea refreshment brands. They all claim to use the top quality ingredients and brew green tea in their exclusive methods. Is it that the tongues of Japanese people are so sensitive about green tea flavor and aroma that they can clearly distinguish one brand from another by taste? Certainly, people have their own preferences and the brands in the market have flavors different enough to have their own fans. Nevertheless, the differences are so small that if blind tasted, most people probably wouldn’t be able to tell exactly which one is which brand. Then, what is it that plays a crucial role in altering the sales volume of these brands?

The answer to this question has to do with the affection of Japanese people to brand names and the marketing strategies of the makers making use of this national character.

When Namacha first came into the green tea refreshment industry, it used for its TV commercials two famous figures in the TV entertainment world. The first one was a very popular actress with a gentle and fresh impression Matsushima Nanako and this series grabbed the attention of young females. The second series featured Takakura Ken, an experienced and a dignified actor, gulping down the drink. An actor like that gulping and not courteously drinking tea from a bottle gave the viewers an impression of green tea as an easy refreshment for anyone drinkable anywhere. Thus, in case of Namacha the “name brand” associated to the drink were the famous figures most of the country’s population is familiar with.

As opposed to Namacha, Iemon did not put much energy in advertising the product at its first release despite its goal to sell twice as much as it’s target rival O’i Ocha. Nevertheless, despite the rather modest advertising activities Iemon sold out so well that the production of the bottles became unable to catch up with the demand and had to postpone sales in only three days from its release. This is believed to come from the “brand elements” of Fukujuen, a tea specialist in Kyoto established in 1790. Kyoto, as known worldwide today, is the ancient capital of Japan and from its history of more than a thousand years anything coming from Kyoto almost all times automatically obtain the status of authenticity and nobility, even more so when it comes to things that represent Japaneseness like tea. The entire project of the development of Iemon focusing on “what green tea is to Japanese people” and the answer to this theme, “green tea is not a business product, it is the heart of Japan” enabled Iemon to let out authentic Japaneseness in its impression from name, taste and appearance (label), riding on the social trend of reflecting upon wa (Japaneseness). Also, the fact that it sold out in three days made the product even newsy heating up its popularity.
Additionally, like any other drink Iemon has a TV commercial series that enhances the Japaneseness by starring actor and actress Motoki Masahiro and Miyazawa Rie, in a historical drama-type series.

Unlike the relationship of SUNTORY FOODS and Fukujuen in the Iemon project, the king of green tea refreshments O’i Ocha did not have a partner with centuries of tradition. Yet having years of head start in the tea refreshment business, ITO EN itself has established its name as a leading green tea brand in the modern society. Its brand power is so commonly spread among the people that canned/bottled green tea was most times immediately related with O’i Ocha or ITO EN at least until the emergence of the other popular two brands. Therefore, even though the company is rather young as a tea manufacturer in the Japanese tea history, it is the “authentic” leader of the green tea refreshment world. Recently (as far as I can recall especially since the Green Tea War started) O’i Ocha has been airing TV commercials featuring leading figures such as actress Nakatani Miki and kabuki actor Ichikawa Ebizo in the most recent series.
In addition to the brand strategies, there is also the strategy of adding quantity and/or term-limited novelties to the product, which is not necessarily limited to green tea refreshments. In case of Namacha, it was the Namacha Panda goods such as key chains and mobile phone accessories. Namacha Panda was originally a mascot character for Namacha that only appeared in TV commercials (it didn’t even have a name at first) as a puppet Matsushima Nanako acted with starting in 2003.
Iemon along with other tea products from SUNTORY FOODS had tealeaves of the product as giveaways (meaning you could get the ingredient for Iemon and make hot tea from it yourself) as well as other little goods that had Japanese designs.
Aside from the recent appearance of the mascot character and goods Ochaken (“tea dog”), O’i Ocha also has a long-going project of gathering haiku (short poems) from the consumers and printing the selected prize winners’ works on the package label.
< Overall >
The green tea refreshment industry experienced an enormous blow in the first few years of 21st Century. With the sudden appearance and rise of Iemon in 2004, the competition became even fiercer forcing all brands and makers to go through a major improvement and restoration including the top sales shareholders O’i Ocha and Namacha. Hence 2005 was a year of major change for many of these brands.

The heat seemed to have cooled down a little in 2006, however. Although leader of the industry ITO EN keeps to maintain its double-digit growth, the growth rates for the other brands are rather dull, foretelling that the growth the industry experienced in the past five years will lose its rapidity sometime soon.

On the other hand, however, executives of the top brands assert that the market will grow more than twice as big in the following decade. One says that the ratio of canned/bottled green tea refreshment (comparing to teapot brewed green tea) is still small and the figure would double up expanding the market into a 100million-yen-size. Another claim that the calming down of the market right now is only a preparation to the next battle also believing the market to expand.

Whilst the makers suffer coming up with new ideas that can win the market, the consumers keep on choosing their own favorites. The number of brands of green tea refreshment drinks like O’i Ocha, Namacha and Iemon is only a dozen or so, the sub-brands that are different versions (first pick, season limited, stronger, sweeter, etc.) of the parent-brands vary widening the selection three times as much. The latest trend seems to be the thicker and stronger ones.

At the same time as exploring all ideas and means to get hold of patron consumers in the Japanese market, the green tea refreshment brands do not fail in looking into the overseas market and catching the latest news. Most recently, the Japanese food culture becoming increasingly popular seems to encourage the demands of green tea. In the next volume I would like to wander the world of green tea outside of Japan and outside of just drinking.

Related Links:

ITO EN (English) / O’i Ocha CM (Japanese) / O’i Ocha haiku (English)
Namacha (Japanese) / Namacha CM (Japanese)
Iemon (Japanese) / Iemon CM (Japanese)
About TV Commercials and Marketing Strategies in Japan (English)
Next: Variations of Enjoying Green Tea - from Japan to the world


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