Classic Japanese beer is a strongly flavored Germanic brew. In the 1980s, it was challenged by lighter tasting but more alcoholic “dry” beers. Then came happoshu, low-malt “sparkling spirits” designed to evade the higher tax on beer. Now is the era of the “Other miscellaneous (2)” beer-like “third beers” that contain no malt at all. But how are they being marketed? The 2005-2006 MCEI Marketing Excellence Award goes to Kirin Nodogoshi-nama.
The Japanese beer industry is squeezed in a trap with three sides. Consumer tastes continue to shift from heavier tasting, more bitter beers to lighter, “more drinkable” beers. Taxes raise the cost of beer at a time when Japanese consumers are increasingly cost-conscious. And the elephant in the room is the fact that Japan’s shrinking and aging population simply drinks less beer. In their home market Japan’s brewers are forced to launch new products that attempt to redefine their markets. At the presentation that won the Marketing Communication Executives International (MCEI) Marketing Excellence Award for 2005-2006, Kirin sales promotion chief Oki Tadahiko explained how Kirin Beer attacked this problem with the launch of what is currently the best-selling “third beer” in Japan, Kirin Nodogoshi-nama.
Research showed that price was a major consideration. The proportion of price-conscious Japanese women had risen from 35% to 61%, and Japanese women control the pursestrings of the working men who are heavy beer drinkers. Taste preferences were shifting, too. In a four-cell table with mild vs. sharp as one dimension and clean and flavorful as the other, the trend was clearly in the mild and clean direction (bad news for sharp and flavorful Kirin Lager).
Development of a no-malt third-category beer began in 2000. More than 160 experiments on 20 possible alternatives to malt were performed. Finally Kirin settled on soy protein. Meanwhile debate raged inside Kirin. Was creating a third category the right strategy? Wouldn’t the new product cannibalize existing brands, especially Kirin’s successful Tanrei happoshu brand? If competitors moved first, wouldn’t Kirin be stuck in a me-too position? But the critical question was still, would the new product be what consumers were looking for?
New Category Research
Research focused first on the issue of whether the new product would be mistaken for happoshu. Tanrei was launched with a message and packaging that emphasized its connection with Kirin. Its label featured the same Kirin, a mythical dragon-giraffe , as that on Kirin Beer labels. There was also the issue that 125 yen per 350ml can, the proposed price of the new product, was only 20 yen less than the 145 yen charged for happoshu. Attention turned to how to differentiate the product and offer consumers something truly new. The brand concept that emerged was “A beverage you want to drink a lot of with friends, without having to worry about it.” You’d like the taste and wouldn’t have to worry about the cost.
How to Make it Look and Taste Like Beer
A vital technological issue in producing a “third beer” product is achieving the right taste and color. Kirin’s solution, for which patents are pending, is browning, a process in which sugar is added to the fermented soy protein and then the mixture is heated, caramelizing the sugar and giving the beverage the color as well as the taste of beer
Designing the Brand
Instead of the mythical Kirin, Nodogoshi-nama cans are stamped with a logo that appears to be a large red seal. This design is carried through in 6-packs and other packaging. At the end of the day, though, a critical factor in selling the product was the TV commercials in which a comedian plays the role of an earnest Kirin salesman who works all out to help his customers sell the product. He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere, always dressed in his yellow jacket and full of smiles and optimism when it comes to his product.
Down-home and Upbeat
This is a point that Oki stresses. Kirin’s edge in Japan is still its huge distribution network. To the audience he was speaking to, he didn’t have to belabor the fact that Kirin hadn’t been feeling very good about itself, ever since the disastrous 1980s when Kirin Lager, the brand that had truly been the king of beers in Japan, had been dethroned by Asahi Super Dry. The success of Tanrei had helped to repair its image, but there was still work to be done. Nodogoshi-nama would not only be tailored to the shifting tastes and growing price-consciousness of Japanese consumers, it would also become a symbol of a mood at once down-home and upbeat. The not-too-bright but comically cheerful salesman is a Japanese Everyman. He works hard and is always pleasant and helpful, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. The contrast with Asahi Super Dry’s hard-charging international journalists, photographers and businessmen is striking and seems somehow a better fit with the mood of Japan today.
But that’s only speculation. The fact is that Kirin Nodogoshi-nama is No.1 in its segment, and the segment is growing?\a success by any business measure.
The material reported here is extracted from the MCEI Bulletin, No. 448, May 2006. More information on Japanese beer categories can be found by Wiki-ing Japanese beer and happoshu. Images and additional information (Japanese only) can be found at the Kirin Nodogoshi-nama campaign site.