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At the 2019 Better by Design CEO Summit, Icebreaker’s Shelley Guerard explained how the brand successfully pivoted in Japan with help from its in-market partner.

Japan is a highly unique market – no doubt about that. Many a brand has stumbled in its quest to resonate and find scale in this highly competitive and culturally-defined consumer environment.

Icebreaker, a New Zealand icon, was one such brand. However, its ultimate success in the Japanese market has proven to be a tribute to design collaboration; an example of how adapting your brand storytelling and product mix based on the tastes and size of the local market can pay major dividends.

It can also lead to exciting new, even bigger opportunities across other global markets.

To explain this remarkable story, I caught up with Icebreaker’s Head of Asia, Shelley Guerard during the recent Better by Design CEO Summit in Auckland.

Shelley (pictured bbelow), who has many years’ experience in the merino industry working with international brands, recalls when she first joined Icebreaker four years ago. In Japan the company had already been working with its Japanese distribution partner Goldwin – a long-established company regarded as best-in-field in the outdoor industry. However, despite having great product and partners, the brand hadn’t scaled satisfactorily in the Japanese market.

The question was: how could Icebreaker empower their partner to unleash the brilliance that they knew they had? “We’d already seen the brilliance that they had achieved with other brands,” recalls Shelley.

Despite Goldwin having a passion for Icebreaker, the brand and product itself wasn’t resonating strongly enough in-market.

Identifying where things were stalled was a challenge, explains Shelley, due to the cultural barriers when dealing with Japanese firms. “It was certainly a bit of a journey to unlock and understand, through them; to work out why we weren’t a commercial success.”

One issue, as it turned out, was diluted resources allocated to the brand – it was time to up the investment.

The big lesson here is that you must really understand the consumers you’re dealing with and who you want to target, says Shelley. “They’d been targeting our traditional consumers but also felt there was a wider opportunity.”

What followed were product trials and consumer insight studies involving a new consumer target group of ‘urban lifestylers’. Some subsequent small wins confirmed they were on the right track and encouraged Icebreaker to reframe their business plan and partnership.

The market opportunity was there – it was time to unlock it.

Icebreaker immediately empowered Goldwin to use its in-house design capabilities together with the talents of an ‘urban lifestyle designer’ to create a whole new category. They knew the Japanese had the skills and talent for the job – Goldwin is the same company behind the rather cool, edgy look in Japan for The North Face and creator of TNF Purple Label.

The belief and the purpose of the Icebreaker brand were aligned, but pretty much everything else was recalibrated by unlocking the design expertise of their partner, explains Shelley, in order to resonate with the Japanese consumer.

“In doing that we literally created a collaboration of new product talking to a new consumer looking for an adventurous life in an urban setting. We’re talking millennial mindset, but no specific age group.”

That collaboration is called ‘Journeys’, and it’s an urban consumer category totally separate to the rest of Japan’s traditional outdoor business.

“Journeys is a product line using the brand’s same belief and purpose, but talks to the Japanese consumer with its more refined, understated and sophisticated aesthetic.”

Shelley and Icebreaker founder Jeremy Moon quickly realised that Journeys represented a wider opportunity too, and today this sub-brand has gone international, marketed under the name 旅 TABI (Japanese for ‘journeys’).

“This is merino product that can be worn on an everyday basis,” says Shelley. “It’s a whole new collection using our base core foundations of fabric and fibre, and aligning with Icebreaker’s belief that nature has the answers, that nature is better than plastic.”


Lessons learnt

The key to Icebreaker’s brand rethink in Japan is identifying and understanding your target consumer. “Who are they and what do they need in their life?” says Shelley. “And what are the cultural nuances?”

It’s also important when working with distribution partners in international markets to ensure you’re setting up a solid business structure, and their return on investment is worthwhile.

In terms of the Japanese culture, Shelley describes it as “very respectful”. “Kiwis must take a humble approach – that’s in our nature anyway,” she says. “It’s also important to listen and not rush things; to understand who you’re working with and the hierarchy of their business. That deserves respect too.”

Her other advice for fledgling exporters is to spend time in the market. Who are your consumers? How are they shopping? Where are they shopping? What’s driving them?

“Take a really collaborative approach. Once you’ve built up trust with your [distribution] partner, then this really brings out what a true partnership is all about.

“Ensure that there is a really clear framework to work within, so they know what they can and can’t do. And ensure that you’re holding tight to the approval side.”


An exciting future

With the rise of environmental awareness around the world, Shelley’s excited about the brand’s future. “We know we have a great product – it’s natural, biodegradable and wears like a second skin. Now it’s really just about helping fuel that move to ‘natural’ for global consumers. It all starts with awareness, and natural product absolutely resonates with certain cultures, in particular the Japanese.

“In fact, some natural dyes in our products are foraged from the Japanese countryside.” The use of natural dyes in clothing is ingrained in the local history of Japan, she explains.

“If you can unlock these points of differences in cultures and enable that to elevate your brand, it’s a really beautiful recipe.”

The ‘Nature Dyed’ programme is one of the most rewarding aspects of working with Icebreaker’s in-market partners, she adds. “Everyone associated with the brand around the world is desperate to get involved with it. It has inspired our global product team to now adapt a global product line using this Japanese-inspired Nature Dyed concept.”

All this goes to show that while cultures may differ, when you meet in the middle and values align, that’s when the magic happens.

Just as it did for Icebreaker in Japan.

To view a video of Shelley Guerard’s talk at the Better by Design CEO Summit go to:

Story by Glenn Baker, editor of NZBusiness and ExporterToday.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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