Brands & National Identity: Part 2

Back in 1946, the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, who had first become famous for her groundbreaking Patterns of Culture, published another best-seller called The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which was a “national character study” on Japan as a culture. Benedict had been able to advise the FDR administration during the War about the importance of cultural and political symbols in Japan such as the Emperor, Shinto-ism, national identity, and even the importance of Mount Fuji and other symbols. It’s rumoured that at one point, Truman had even considered dropping the atom bomb on Mt. Fuji, and was advised by Benedict and other cultural experts against it, as it would have done irreparable damage to the Japanese psyche beyond merely ending the war. A crippled and humiliated enemy—is a dangerous one, so the Truman administration decided against it. Probably a wise decision.

After the War, as Japan rebuilt itself and began to focus its considerable energies and ingenuity to economic power, versus military prowess, a fascinating evolution took place. For the first time, during the 1960s, Japan started to export brands to the rest of the world, starting with appliances, and moving to cameras, electronics, automobiles, then numerous other industry sectors. Since the memory of the War was still fresh in the minds of Americans and Europeans, Brand Japan, like Brand Germany, had to begin in humble ways, occupying the lower, cheaper end of the spectrum. Japanese brands were considered to be “copycats”, the cheaper, most disposable alternatives to better-made, more expensive American and European marks.

But gradually, through the success of their first global brands such as Datsun and Panasonic, Japanese brands started to establish a reputation for affordable quality and by the 1970s had begun to be perceived as sometimes having even superior quality to equivalent affordable mass brands. The reliability, durability and low-maintenance of Japanese automobiles such as Toyota and Honda, started to create more “permission” for Japanese brands to expand outward—and upward.

The rest, of course, is history, as any of us can remember the advent and rise of Japanese luxury brands such as Lexus, Infiniti and Acura. Along with the likes of Toshiba, Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Mitsubishi, the list goes on. And more recently we have innovative new exports in other categories such as Uniqlo in the retail category.

What’s interesting to note is that the brand of a country is always evolving, albeit seemingly slowly, as old perceptions tend to persist. And the brand of a country has a direct bearing on how much room and what territories a brand from that country is able to occupy. A good colloquial way to think about this is: What is a country “known for” around the world, or in the business community? (This is going to be affected both by the perceived cultural tendencies of that country, along with its demonstrated capabilities in different industry sectors, its infrastructure, trade policies, etc.) And if there’s a discrepancy between what that country is generally known for, whether it’s fair or accurate, and what a brand from that country is trying to position itself as—then we have an uphill battle. Today, would we find an airline brand from Russia credible? Or a Brazilian electronics brand reliable? Not impossible, but the tension between origin and aspiration has be acknowledged, and resolved.