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
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
Courtesy of National/Panasonic
The same group is also
responsible for Toyota's amazing Mega Web (www.megaweb.gr.jp)
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
cafEquot; 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 (www.willshop.com).
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
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
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.
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
WiLL Theater: DVD stereo
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
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?"