Loving Local: Applying Japan’s Provenance Branding to Any Market

By Soichi Yamaguchi


The pandemic brought new meaning to “staying in.” It didn’t just force people to stay home, it caused people to live their daily lives closer to home as well, forgoing trips to city centers for work and shopping.   


And as consumers have stayed close to home, there’s been an equal rise in localism—the drive to support local businesses. Now, consumers are no longer willing to travel far to make purchases. In fact, according to research firm Kantar, 65% of consumers globally now prefer to buy goods and services from their own country. 

Nowhere has this local acceleration been demonstrated better than in Japan—the leading market in growing authentic, local businesses. Why? Because in Japan, each prefecture has its unique love for tradition, crafts, food, and dialect, driving more and more consumers to forgo big brands for community-owned businesses.

As brands and retailers look to engage a more locally-focused consumer, we look at four best practices from Japan that can be adapted across markets. 

Shop Local, Get Local
Because there is an imbalance in the flow of tax revenues between the urban and rural municipalities, the government established a tax initiative program to help locals buy from locals. When the urban residents donate an amount to their rural hometowns, the Japanese government offers a gift emblematic to the different prefectures to the donors in return for their thoughtful act. These can range from tangible items, such as traditional handmade umbrellas from Kyoto, to intangible experiences, such as flying on a hot air balloon in Tochigi.

The donation process works similarly to shopping in an online marketplace where customers can select a gift based on their donation amount. And it’s effectively a free platform for local manufacturers and retailers to display their seasonal offerings from each prefecture. As the locals continues to support their hometown, it nurtures local businesses around the country to flourish. 

Rethink Retail with Vending Machines
Think of the iconic red (phone) box in London. Vending machines in Japan hold the same uniqueness as London’s phone box. With over 4 million vending machines, Japan is one of the world’s leading vending machine markets. It speaks to the convenience culture consumers have cultivated to manage their busy lifestyles. 

But vending machines in Japan are used for more than dispensing food and beverages. They are the reflection of each prefecture’s specialty. At Haneda airport, they host local products that are unique to each prefecture from rice packs to towels to food and drinks. These machines are accessible 24/7, creating both a strong brand touchpoint for consumers and a convenient retail outlet, especially during the pandemic lockdowns.

Don’t Move, Just Travel
Imagine travelling without leaving home. Exploring experiential tours began pre-pandemic, but the lockdown restrictions elevated this new possibility of “travel” enjoyment for consumers. In Japan, thematic tours and mental retreat experiences were brought to where you live without travelling. 

Take the Funassyi mascot-themed online bus tour as an example. Funassyi, Chiba prefecture’s mascot, was used to attract tourists to take an online ride with him to Chiba to experience the city’s highlights. To bring the experience to life, tourists received an in-home bus tour kit consisting of the tour’s agenda, pamphlets, and lunch menu serving a selection of the local fresh produce. 

Many individual freelancers and smaller companies adopted this online tour format where they ‘took’ tourists from around the world to the prefecture of choice. These dedicated tours brought their clients around the prefecture through an online video meet and shopped locally to send gifts back to the tourist. Such tours have been an added support for provenance-branding within Japan. 

Support Local, Empower Businesses
Through the power of sensory branding, activate the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste to tell an authentic brand story to your consumers. 

One Bite Fish has cultivated sensory branding beginning with a tantalizing website and extending the experience to the delivery pack. The sashimi packs are wrapped with fishnets to retain the smell of the sea. And a postcard with their choice of fish is added to the pack to visually connect with the fresh produce that they are consuming. 

It’s not just creative storytelling, but it’s coupled with a clever, collaborative business model with the Nagasaki prefecture and the local fishermen to supply sashimi directly to the consumers. By bypassing the big players, the benefits attained from the sashimi business are directed to improve the lives of the Nagasaki fishermen, once again supporting local communities. 

So how can brands tap into the new “local love” movement?

For product-driven brands, take a storytelling approach to tap into the power of provenance. Beyond the product, use design and branding to tell the story of the locale, local culture, and producer. When consumers are eager to give back, think of how business models can work with and benefit local communities directly.

For destination-driven brands, bring all 5 senses of your destination to new places and new audiences. Consider where else you can show up, with new distribution and comms channels like vending machines and games. Consider whether vehicles such as mascots can personify your locale and achieve marketing cut-through, especially in Asia.

For travel & hospitality brands, create immersive experiences, don’t just feature individual products. Partner with like-minded brands to showcase best-of-local experiences, such as thematically taking over hotel minibars or creating interactive pop-up events. In an experience economy, create immersive experiences spanning taste, sight, history, design, etc. 

Community improvement has always been Japan’s priority. The aligned values among locals continue to fuel the growing businesses creating a sustainable business model in the country. This is a great opportunity for companies to take learnings from Japan’s provenance-branding and apply them to other markets.  Doing so will help build strong communities that support local businesses so that they can scale up.


About Soichi Yamaguchi
Soichi is a highly-skilled talent with a sharp creative eye. Soichi has insights and experience that span both Japanese and Western cultures - from designing sporting team identities, branding, and apparel to creating packaging, footwear, logos, and album covers. Soichi supports SGK global clients such as Unilever, Coke, P&G, SC Johnson, Johnson and Johnson, and 3M. Japanese clients Kao, JT, Meiji, Yukijirushi, and Bridgestone.

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