As Tiger sinks its claws into Japan, it fights hard to stay authentic and purposeful

Purpose and authenticity have always been two important factors for Singapore-born Tiger Beer’s ‘Uncage’ global strategy, and five years on, it seems to be paying off for the brand as it seeks to break into new markets in Asia Pacific.

One of these markets is Japan, which has a long history of producing its own beer, stretching back to the 17th century, and is now dominated by four major beer producers in Asahi, Suntory, Kirin, and Sapporo.

Keen to tap into the popular drinking culture in Japan, Tiger officially launched into the East Asia country in May 2018, despite knowing it had the tough task of breaking the quadropoly’s hold on the beer market.

Johnny Tan, the regional manager for commercial at Heineken Asia Pacific Export which distributes the Tiger brand, says the key challenge Tiger initially faced when breaking into Japan was being a foreign brand and a challenger brand, which meant the odds were stacked against it.

“That consumers and distributors in Japan adopted an unspoken nationalistic mindset, like how Japanese bars only served local beer while a Japanese only drank a Japanese beer, made it even harder,” he tells The Drum.

With the landscape of beer in Japan evolving due to the rise of digital, leading to the increased popularity of craft beer and an increase in foreign imports, it meant that the Japanese beer producers' tried and tested method way of communicating through direct messaging, the usage of celebrity and influencer endorsements, was struggling to play catch up.

Even though it eyed an opening, the brand worked to ensure that its tone of voice was not a facade or patronizing when trying to reach the Japanese, keeping in mind that they thrive on authenticity and purpose, two things Tiger resonates with, because the Japanese are proud of their unique culture and heritage, which is why they are such big supporters of their local products, but not as receptive to change.

For its official launch in Japan in May 2018, the brand tapped The Lab, the sister agency of Singapore-based creative agency Govt, to open a pop-up bar called Tiger Yüki in Roppongi, Tokyo’s entertainment district, featuring creative initiatives in the fields of art, music, and food from Singapore and Japan. The pop-up bar was designed to empower artists, musicians, and chefs to 'uncage' their courage, and collaborate with other like-minded individuals or groups to showcase the best of their creativity.

Tiger’s brief to its agency? Don’t bastardize the brand, be authentic, stay true to the brand and create something that will make potential distributors and customers think twice before picking up their usual staple.

It was also keen to ensure The Lab integrated a Singapore element into the campaign, Tan says, as it is the brand’s identity and purpose. He points to how Singapore and Tiger are a melting pot as they both embrace diversity and global culture, which makes collaboration crucial as this is not a Singapore campaign but a Singaporean beer trying to be a part of everyday Japanese lives.

Tiger Beer Japan Presents Tiger Yūki from THE LAB on Vimeo.

“Diversity and variety were starting to rear their heads, and that’s how we felt we could have a part to play in accelerating our entry and seizing this opportunity,” explains Tan. “The beer category has always been quite conservative when it comes to marketing, and we felt that we could bring forth our brand voice and essence without coming across as being a ‘faker’.”

“If you want to enter the market, sure, you can have your own personality and beliefs, just don’t impose your belief onto others and demand a 180 change. Japan has taught us about understanding the culture, and how to marry the best of both worlds together to produce familiarity yet introducing something new. I wouldn’t say that we have overcome every single challenge, but I’m confident enough to say that we have had a good start, that we can see the receptivity of the market towards our endeavors."

“At the end of the day, we are a proudly Singaporean brand. Yes, Tiger Beer has grown internationally but we have never forgotten our roots. In addition, Japan has a very positive image of Singapore, and the two countries share a lot of affinity with each other.”

Happy with the reception Yuki received, Tiger created Yuki Habitat in Fukuoka in December 2018 as a strategy to draw consumers and modern food and entertainment outlets to its brand. The purpose was to show that regardless of a restaurant, a dive bar, an izakaya, or a nightclub, Tiger Beer can exist in any environment.

The Lab was chosen again to design Habitat in a way that would infuse elements of Singapore and to link unique themes that are city-specific, like what Fukuoka is famous for, which are Yatai (open-air food stands) and ramen. Tiger took over an American sports bar called Two Dogs and fully transformed the place for a full Tiger Beer experience, and worked with Singaporean chef Jeremy Cheok to curate a menu that is a fusion of Japanese and local flavors while serving at the Yatai, which the Japanese are accustomed to.

Tiger also worked with two Japanese artists, Mizpam and KOJO, allowing the artists to form their own interpretation of ‘East meets West’, to encourage them to ‘uncage’ their courage. Within the mural, both artists collaborated and infused elements that are specific to Fukuoka, for instance, waves that represent the ramen noodles.

“Credit to the agency for making us sweat instead when they came back with the idea of Yuki,” says Tan. “They convinced us to hand over the reins to the artistes instead and assist in curating the project instead of micro-managing it. It was a huge risk, but the payoff was equally big as well. Till date, we have over 30% incremental in distribution points in Tokyo alone.”

Looking ahead, Tan says his dream is to see Tiger Beer widely available instead of a consumer having to hunt for it and that the brand will be stocked in izakayas, restaurants, convenience stores, bars, and clubs. The other important marker he hopes to achieve is that people understand what the brand stands for.

“That is the greater purpose. We believe ourselves to be an enabler and a springboard platform. Because everybody deserves an equal opportunity to succeed and pursue their passions,” he says. “Japan has taught us about understanding the culture, and how to marry the best of both worlds together to produce familiarity yet introducing something new. the lessons we learned aren’t necessarily Japan exclusive.”

“It is universal, and as a marketer, cultural tolerance, understanding, testing should always be a norm. Perhaps in a market like Japan, it is more than just skin deep, but it should remind us that the success or failure of a brand always hinges on the above context.”

As the general manager of Heineken APAC Export, Royston Loh tells The Drum, he always encourages his team to be bold because if they walk the road that has always walked, they cannot expect to arrive at a different destination. That starts by staying true to Tiger’s DNA of being bold, authentic and purposeful.

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