Mini has been German since 1994, but few would acknowledge that fact in Japan. With its Union Jack roofs and accessories, the brand remains as proudly British as it was when it first developed something of a cult following back in the 1970s.
Despite a relatively long presence in Japan, Mini remains a niche brand. In that respect, its development in Japan is no different from any other market where it has found popularity. But it stands out as a brand that has remained true to its origins while understanding and adapting to the tastes of local consumers.
BMW introduced its "New Mini" to Japan in 2002. But the country had already been one of the most important markets for the original brand since the 1970s, and, while elsewhere BMW’s interpretation of the car was controversial, Japan accepted it apparently without fuss, snapping up 10,000 units within the first year.
Today, Mini shifts around 21,000 vehicles annually in Japan, having grown consistently year-on-year since 2011. Michaela Kieninger, who has led marketing activities in Japan since 2010, says the brand projects growth of a further 20% this year.
With her no-nonsense manner, Kieninger does not personify Mini’s lighthearted image. But she understands what resonates with its target consumers. While the appreciation of the car’s "Britishness" in Japan is somewhat similar to that in US, there are some important differences.
While in European markets, Mini tends to find the most favour among female drivers, in Japan, men make up 60% of the market, Kieninger says. They also tend to be older, with most buyers being in their 40s upwards.
"People who own cars in Japan are getting older and older," she observes. "But Mini drivers are typically young at heart and active in their free time. They buy Mini because they want to express themselves."
In certain markets, the brand is seen as popular among the LGBT community, but it has not targeted this group specifically in Japan beyond once donating a car for a parade. Mini wants to avoid defining itself too narrowly. "We don’t look at sexuality," Kieninger says.
But localization has been an important part of the brand’s growth. A lot of branding has been achieved through social channels: Mini has around 190,000 Facebook followers and 100,000 on LINE, an account it only recently started operating. Kieninger is adamant that tactical, sales-oriented communications have no place on social media, and this principle seems to have served the brand well. Anything tactical takes place at the dealer level.
At the same time, BMW, Mini’s parent company, is trying to ensure Mini speaks in a more unified voice globally, and Kieninger says this has led to something of a "tonality change." But the brand is likely to continue to emphasize its heritage more in Japan than in other markets, and will continue to enjoy some autonomy. A digital campaign to launch Mini’s new cabriolet in March was created independently of headquarters, based on feedback from driving enthusiasts and Mini owners.
While Kieninger thinks adapting to local interests is important, one thing is for sure — that Mini will never aim to compete on the same level as Japanese automotive brands, even though it now faces the challenge of marketing the Clubman, which is aimed at more rational, price-oriented consumers than Mini’s regular market.
"I would never want to communicate Mini like a domestic brand," says Kieninger. She admits cars like the Toyota Prius offer some competition but at a lower price point. She lists key competitors as the Fiat 500, the Audi A3, the VW Polo and the VW Golf. VW in particular, she says, has gone that route by using "a lot of Japanese celebrities, bands and actors."
"They’ve moved closer to domestic brand communications," she says. "For us I think it’s important to stay true to where we come from and not adapt too much. That’s a selling point. People who buy a brand like Mini want to buy an import brand."
This article first appeared on campaignasia.com.