Where there' a will

Photos by Marish Mackowiak

One brand is challenging Japan's notion of labels with cool designs and an emphasis on diversity. Marish Mackowiak asks, "What WiLL they think of next?"

Anyone living in Japan during the last year or two will have noticed an enigmatic new phenomenon called "WiLL." The now familiar orange field logo surfaces on products as diverse as cars, bicycles, computers, deodorizers, beer and even confectionery. A radical departure from traditional brand-based marketing, WiLL is an attempt to capture new markets in new ways.

WiLL was launched in August 1999 as "a 21st century-minded joint marketing project that transcends traditional industrial boundaries." The original partner companies included Asahi Breweries, Kao Corporation, Kinki Nippon Tourist Co., Matsushita Electric Industrial (National Panasonic) and Toyota Motor Corporation. Although their radical Vi is one of many WiLL products, Toyota was the company that initiated the idea and now coordinates member companies' participation through their Virtual Venture Company (VVC).

WiLL bike by Panasonic

WiLL Bike by Panasonic
Courtesy of National/Panasonic

The same group is also responsible for Toyota's amazing Mega Web ( project and other new-style marketing concepts. Representatives from VVC and other WiLL member companies meet to discuss projects, though none has veto power or overall authority, according to Paul Nolasco of Toyota's International Communications Department. While companies are responsible for their own products, the overall promotional efforts are handled by the advertising agency Hakuhodo, who also designed the WiLL logo.

WiLL is aimed at "new generation" consumers, born in the '60s and '70s, more generally known as Generation X. Toyota sees this hitherto elusive group as possessing "clearly different values from those of previous generations" and recognizes that they "have begun to take a different course in consumer activities." More specifically, many of the WiLL products, with their soft pastel hues and an emphasis on the "cute," are aimed at women, though this is ostensibly a short-term measure. A Coordinator at VVC, Hideaki Homma, says that "many of the early products (including the WiLL Vi) are meant to appeal to women as a way of helping us first focus our efforts as we approach new generation consumers."

The WiLL PC by Panasonic
Courtesy of National/Panasonic

According to Toyota, the name came from "creating a new consumer style by asserting and expressing a clear will through products and opportunities in order to sympathize with consumers." The products are designed to embody "a spirit of fun" and "a sense of true quality." Nolasco defines "true quality" as "realness." He says that "even if Toyota, for example, had the ability to produce beer, such beer would likely carry a sense of fakeness about it, which is why Asahi is in charge of making the beer, or why Toyota is in charge of contributing the car, rather than Kokuyo." Instead of creating a "super brand," Nolasco says the key objective has always been to learn more about consumer trends, especially among the younger generation. The initial plan was to review the project after three years.

Ready and willing
The WiLL V's Square Aoyama in Tokyo (03-5772-6870) is one place to get a taste of the whole concept. Glass doors fold up to allow the whole front of this airy contemporary space to open up to fashionable Omotesando Dori. Cool electronic sounds emanate from high quality speakers. Tables and chairs overlooking the sidewalk accentuate the "street cafEquot; ambiance. A modernistic lounge area at one end features the WiLL fridge and microwave and other WiLL products. Since it is primarily a WiLL Vi showroom, there are a number of these bulbous creations on display. You can also use WiLL computer terminals to check out WiLL information on the Net ( In the same way that much of the advertising copy produced for WiLL products is poetically inane, much of V's Square also accentuates the quirky and the playful. Free postcards include whimsical images such as one that shows the Vi's brown dashboard looking like a hot dog sandwich. Another has a young woman taking her miniature Vi "for a walk" on a leash.

Inside the V's Square Aoyama showroom
Inside the V's Square Aoyama showroom

Toyota's Vi is one of the most prominent WiLL products, the latest being the two-tone pink and white "Web Version." Matsushita Electric also has a significant WiLL presence, contributing products from its National and Panasonic divisions. The National fridge and "range" (microwave oven) are both retro designs evoking the image of white goods from the '50s and '60s. At the other end of the time warp, Panasonic's personal computer is right in line with the latest "slimline" trend. There's also a folding bicycle and a personal MD player that has a transparent cover for customers' own photos or designs. The latest from Panasonic is a DVD stereo system. Asahi Breweries sells WiLL Smooth Beer, offering "fun, relaxation and smoothness," and WiLL Sweet Brown Beer. Kao Corporation are marketing WiLL Clear Mist, a deodorizing spray for clothes, and One Week deodorant scent. Kinki Nippon is also one of the original group, offering "the freedom of individual travel and the security and convenience of organized tours."

WiLL is aimed at "new generation" consumers, born in the '60s and '70s, more generally known as Generation X.

More recent members include Kokuyo, who have gone all out to present an ever-expanding range of "COSMiCFIZZ" stationery and furniture products, showcased in a brand new showroom in Otemachi called M's Square (0120-201594). Another recent member has been Glico, whose attempt to fit into the youthful WiLL mold has produced WiLL Relax tablets, and On Time Chocolate, presented in an MD-shaped case.

Que serEserE
While intrigued by the cheeky novelty of it all, people have wondered what the point is. Nolasco claims that, apart from "fun" and "true quality," there is no other unifying theme as far as product design is concerned. This lack of clear design identity is both a part of WiLL's uniqueness as well as a potential problem for the future. Nolasco admits that "some people are starting to point fingers at how the WiLL project is losing its coherency because its products seem to be too diverse and seem not to follow any specific design theme." However, he explains that "diversity has always been one of WiLL's key themes" and it is an attempt to attract a variety of consumers.

WiLL Theater: DVD stereo system Panasonic
WiLL Theater: DVD stereo system Panasonic
Courtesy of National/Panasonic

It is a concept some people have a hard time understanding. Says one twenty something personal assistant, Yoshie: "I can't see any connection between all those products." She compares WiLL to more established brands and "can't see the point of it." "With other brands: Chanel, Gucci, etc., you can see the concept easily - it's easy to see what you can get from that brand, but from WiLL I can't see anything." Another young professional, Yukie, also cites a "lack of concept" as the reason she hasn't bought any of the more expensive WiLL products. She considers the WiLL image "childish" and says that while this is "fine for chocolate, the same image in a car is not so impressive." She also thinks that the concept is "vague."

Perhaps having received similar messages themselves, WiLL is now focusing on giving their products more specific themes, such as "cool," "creative," "emotion," and "relax." Hideaki Homma says "in our first year, we concentrated on providing products under the theme of a sense of fun and authenticity. Now we are moving on to more specific themes as another step forward." Even these remain vague, however, and, according to Nolasco, are "a gradual work in progress."

The more expensive products are the most vulnerable. Customers won't think twice about trying out WiLL beer or chocolate, but buying a car or computer is a more daunting decision. Even young people tend to be conservative when it comes to spending large amounts of their hard-earned cash. People may even confuse the WiLL brand with the manufacturer's own good name. Another woman in her early twenties claims the Vi is very pretty but expensive, and that if she had the money, she would choose a more famous brand.

Portable MD player (SJ-MW3) by Panasonic
Portable MD player (SJ-MW3) by Panasonic
Courtesy of National/Panasonic

Love it or hate it, everyone knows about WiLL. VVC's Homma claims that "during the first year, the project earned a recognition rate of more than 83 percent among the targeted consumer group." Toyota estimates between 200-600 people a day visit their V's Square showroom. Last March, Toyota issued a release claiming first month sales of their "four-door personal capsule" was "three times greater than the targeted 1500 units." Panasonic also reported similar results, saying that the sales of the WiLL Panasonic PC have been double the level of sales recorded by other Matsushita PCs. WiLL Smooth Beer has also performed well, a million cases having been sold in the first year.

As for the future, there are no plans to build more WiLL showrooms beyond the one in Omotesando, according to VCC's Homma. Nor are there ideas of expanding overseas. Overall, it looks like slow and steady expansion is on the cards, with the number of companies expressing interest in joining WiLL being "in the tens," according to Homma.

WiLL's success hinges on how well it can mature to meet the expectations of today's Internet-age consumers, whose fickle tastes major companies are still wrestling with. Ultimately though, the future of the project will be determined by the answer to a question posed in WiLL's own advertising pamphlet: "What WiLL be next?"

349: Where there's a will
What will WiLL think of next?
348: Let it snow
Get the inside scoop on three of Japan's best ski resorts
347: Change of Scenery
Commune with nature this fall in Tokyo
346: The Filth and the Fury
Director Julien Temple and his film No Future
345: Retro fit
Tokyo brings retro to the runway
344: Future fortunes
Fotune telling and superstition
343: Women in the lead
Sharp-minded businesswomen climbing to the top
342: Market Value
Expert advice on finding buried treasure
Pottering around
Ceramics trade secrets
341: Screen Test
13th Tokyo Internatioanl Film Festival
340: A walk in the woods
Escape to the mountains in Kanto
339: A good sport
Olympic sports you can try in Tokyo
338: The red mile
Cruise Hakone's strip of car museums
337: Art in the city
Take a tour through Tokyo's artscape
336: Pulp Fiction
Architecture genius Shigeru Ban
335: Pick a fight
Karate, the most popular martial art
334: Summer Haunts
Tokyo's haunted houses
333: Man of the rising sun
Graphic design guru Tadanori Yokoo
332: Taking it to the streets
The inside story on Tokyo's street performers and vendors
331: Monk for a day
Shadowing Sojiji's monks
330: Changing Tides
Spotlight on Okinawa and the G-8 Summit
329: I want my MP3
Downloadable music to everyone's ears
328: Getting Gatten
Welcome to NHK, Japan
327: Mountain High
The significance of Mt. fuji to Japanese culture
326: The Sounds of the Summer
Outdoor music extravaganzas in Japan
325: The Parent Trap
How to survive (and even enjoy) your parents visit
324: On the mark
Get the lowdown on the famous "no brand brand" Muji
323: In the hot seat
The Japanese love affair with the loo
322: Working it out
Find a gym that will fit you to a T
321: Behind the Scene
Detour off of Harajuku's beaten paths
320: Searching in vein
What your blood type does and doesn't say about you
319: Get a move on
Useful advice to get you moving along
318: Can't buy me love
A modern approach to arranged marriage
317: Diary of a Repatriate
Stepping back into your old life
316: Jazzin' Tokyo
Explore the high notes of the Tokyo jazz scene
315: In and Out of Fashion
Tokyo's latest spring and summer fashion collection
314: Tee time
Take a swing at golfing in Japan
313: Lights... computer... action!
The future of film could be film-less
312: The Winner Takes It All
Searching for a purpose behind beauty contests
311: The hunt is on
Hunting for a home in Tokyo
310: The Ale Trail
The perfect pint for St. Patrick's Day
309: Head Up!
Headhunters help navigate your way
308: I have a theme...
Theme bars and cafes in Tokyo
307: Love unclassifed
Finding your mate through the  classified ads
307: Get Educated
Educational opportunities for foreigners in Tokyo
School Daze
International education for kids
305: True Dub
How Princess Mononoke learnt to speak English
304: New heights in architecture
Contemporary architecture in Tokyo
303: Get Festive!
Japanese festivals for everyone
302: First Trains
Expand your late night experiences in Tokyo
300: Edward Seidenstickers
Tokyo's finest historian