Japan drinks to launch success

The drinks market is booming in Japan, and even in mature markets such as beers and soft drinks, new products have made a big impact. David Kilburn samples what’s on offer

It never does to take the Japanese consumer for granted. New products and innovation can change mature or static markets with surprising rapidity. For example, not long ago conventional wisdom was that the Japanese beer market had little room to grow. Pundits said that after years of rapid-fire launches of new brews, there was next to no opportunity for new tastes to carve their niche.

But Japanese beer drinkers proved again last year that their tastes are neither fixed nor predictable. Following the popularity of dark beers imported from the UK, Ireland and Belgium, 1996 saw the unexpected success of domestic dark beers from Japan’s major brewers: Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory.

Asahi Kuronama (Asahi Black), launched in 1995, scored a particularly big hit in 1996. Sales grew 555 per cent on 1995’s figures, and more growth is forecast for this year.

Asahi attributes dark beer’s new popularity to the introduction of brews with a slightly smoother taste than before. It was the foreign brews that conditioned the Japanese palate to take so readily to the new taste.

Other dark beers are Kirin Black, Kirin Half & Half, Suntory Half & Half, and Sapporo Drafty Black, Japan’s first dark sparkling beer. In total, domestic dark beers now hold an estimated two per cent of the market – a small share, but growing. And Asahi is now exporting Asahi Kuronama to the US; Europe may follow.

Soft drinks are another so-called “mature market” and one where new product introductions occur by the score each year. Among these are a number that combine low-alcohol and healthy images. One hit is Multi Vita Vino, introduced last June from Germany by Kinoshita, and which quickly sold out nationwide. Multi Vita Vino is 5.5 per cent alcohol, slightly sparkling, made from various fruit juices, and fortified with vitamins A, C, and E. “It’s no sooner on the shelves than it’s gone,” says a Kinoshita spokesman.

However, it is bottled mineral water, which first entered the Japanese market in 1986, that has had the largest impact. By 1995, mineral waters had achieved a soft drink market share of about 30 per cent. Credit for starting the boom belongs to Evian, introduced to Japan in 1987, with first-year sales of only 30,000 cases. Evian’s sales doubled every year, reaching 1 million cases in 1992, and 4.2 million in 1996. Today, mineral waters are imported from about 25 countries, with Europe accounting for the majority share.

A Suntory survey of 5,000 men and women living in the Tokyo area showed that the most common criterion consumers use to select a mineral water is price (75.4 per cent) followed by the water’s natural environment (55.2 per cent) and the brand name (54.4 per cent).

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