Behind Diesel's surprising success in Japan

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Localization, unusual media placements and a certain amount of controversy are factors that have helped the brand establish its place in one of the world's most advanced fashion markets.

Diesel recently brought out a Japan-specific version of a global campaign designed to criticize US president Donald Trump’s policies of exclusion. The Japanese work was notable both for its creative direction and for the fact that it differed from the global directive. Japan’s status as Diesel’s largest global market, where it operates around 120 branded retail premises, means the brand has flexibility for local adaptation that it might not do elsewhere. We spoke to Hitoshi Kato, SVP of marketing and communications, for a better understanding of what drives the brand here.

Why do you think Japan has become Diesel’s biggest market?
Early on, we changed from a focus on wholesale to retail business. That was a big starting point. At the same time, most global brands weren’t translating their websites into Japanese, so we did. Then we started doing a loyalty program for our retail business. This is really the key to success in retail in Japan, but it’s quite different to Diesel’s international business model. Local adaptation is very important.

How much do you spend on advertising and how do you split your budget?
Around 70 percent goes on traditional media and 30 percent on digital. Print is still a big player in Japan. We still see it as effective because you have to pay for magazines. So customers who are willing to buy magazines have more potential than people who don’t. We also use these assets for digital media. But investment on traditional media is decreasing and digital investment is getting bigger year-by-year as digital is an essential tool for urban lifestyles.

Some people say fashion advertising has become too tame. Does it pay to shock people?
That’s extremely important for us. It’s part of our brand identity. There was a period where we took a break from this kind of thing, but for this season we made a point of coming out with strong messages because we think all brands are doing the same kind of thing, with the same kinds of products. No brand stands out these days. If people can understand what Diesel is about, it can stand out. I think it’s really important to send a message as a brand.

Does that mean being political? That’s an area many brands are afraid of, especially in Japan.
If possible we want to avoid those sorts of things. But we are an international global brand and we can’t always just do things differently in Japan. There is a bit of a risk but I think any brand is always at risk as long as the consumer has a voice. As I said, standing for something is important. We need to have our voice heard, or else people won’t select us.

People are up in arms about ‘brand safety’, but advertising on Pornhub seems to have proved successful for Diesel. What’s your perspective on advertising next to controversial content?
I think that being the first to do something can be effective. In Japan, we’ve put advertising on Tinder and on gay applications like 9monsters. No other brands did, so we got a lot of feedback on it. [The click-through rate on 9monsters was four times the original expectation.] Of course it also has to do with our brand slogan ‘Only the brave’. We are more of a brand that says "let’s do this". It’s not the second or third round though—it’s the first round that we get the biggest reaction. People respect it because it’s something different.

Marketing that speaks directly to the LGBT community has been slow to take off in Japan. What direction do you think it’s going to take?
I think it’s going to grow. The Rainbow Pride festival is getting bigger year by year with more companies taking part, like Shiseido and Panasonic. We just started, but our ‘Make Love not Walls’ campaign isn’t only focused on LGBT, more about embracing diversity. It was quite relevant to Rainbow Pride so we took part, but what’s really important is that we need to have a point of view on all kinds of diversity issues.

More brands are producing creative work in-house. Is this the way of the future?
I think that every company will shift toward in-house creative work, but it depends on the situation. Our recent campaign is what we’d consider a big public campaign, and for that sort of thing we still need agencies. But for smaller campaigns, using owned media and talking to fans, we would do it in-house.