Building Global success through Incubation l icebreaker’s Japanese Journey
Shelley Guerard, Head of Asia and leadership team member for icebreaker, has been on a career journey creating a 360 degree appreciation of global strategy and executing through a diversity of business models, business partnerships, innovative product lifecycles and with a deep sense of pride, taking a slice of Aotearoa to global consumers.
icebreaker was founded, in 1995 by Jeremy Moon, as a purpose led company driven by the belief that nature has the answers and that providing natural alternatives to plastic apparel can help create a healthier and more sustainable future. Today icebreaker is sold across 50 countries across the globe.
Japan is a market where the journey of recalibrating the brand to resonate to Japanese consumers, has in turn become one of icebreaker’s strongest success stories. The Japan success is about the cycle of incubation, to pilot, to graduation of handover to business as usual, and back again. Irrespective of the size of a business, this cycle acts as a driving force and commitment to constant elevation.
Let’s take a journey through the Japanese story sharing 5 pillars that helped build success, not only relevant to Japan but across markets and categories.
It all started with solving a problem. Despite working with the best of partners in Japan, who simply outperformed locally with their own brands, icebreaker was 6 years in, and the Japanese business had stalled. So, the first outcome was working out WHY?
PILLAR 1 l Consumers – from the start & keep at the heart
Due to the cultural nuances getting to the root of the WHY this was not working was not simple with straight answers. Ultimately what was uncovered, was we would remain stalled unless we spoke to our consumer more closely and with local relevance in a recalibration of our brand and product system. The brand was not resonating strongly enough in Japan.
The metrics showed there was resistance to our product. We enabled some product experiments to test this and the results gave us some small wins and the confidence that we could selvage this market. We began to understand through market insights and consumer feedback that the traditional outdoor consumer was changing, retail in Japan was evolving and our messages were not resonating to this Japanese consumer.
PILLAR 2 l The business model…the right business model.
Every market has unique nuances as to selecting the business model. Consideration to the phase of the brand, investment appetite is critical. Followed by building a longer-term strategy to step change through phases, balanced with the risk & investment appetite, with regular reflectives on how the foundation strategy is holding up. Now in the time of covid and digital transformation, check ins on the foundational strategy and keeping tactics agile have become even more so important.
For Japan part of the ‘why’ was that icebreaker needed the right people with right strategy on Icebreaker in Japan. We needed our partners to build a dedicated team, but they needed faith to invest. So, we proposed to shift from our traditional distribution business modeI to a new model. This included a rebalance to focus on an urban consumer, a shift in channel focus away from traditional wholesale to DTC and digital and a contractual shift to enable local Japanese design expertise within a tightly controlled framework.
This shift in model succeeded in the commitment of a dedicated and passionate Japanese team and set up the spirit of the partnership to succeed.
PILLAR 3 l The Brand – balancing global brand with local relevance
A balanced risk approach is needed in adapting brand and product for local markets if you are truly committed. What needs to stay true to the brand? What needs to mould to resonate to the local consumer?
In Japan a critical success factor was a clear framework, that was transparent and collaborative with clear approval gates. This built mutual trust and understanding and was the beginnings of what was to become a truly special strategic partnership.
Welcome to Journeys by Icebreaker. A collection breathing the aesthetic of the Japanese consumer. A new consumer with new product, told in a new way through our empowered partners creating real stories with real people with a craftmanship aesthetic and telling it through the lens of their Japanese creatives.
PILLAR 4 l Building the stakeholder Bridge…and maintaining it
The bridge needs to be built finding the balance between the brand and partners in order to reach the consumer in the best way. It’s balancing both businesses to unlock the potential for a truly reciprocal relationship for the mutual bettering of both businesses.
Recalibration our brand and product system for Japan relied on successful internal alignment. We had founder advocacy however it was critical to get this through the wider business. There came the challenge. We were incubating well outside of the standard ways of working and naturally the why was being challenged.
Internally it was about reframing a failure as an opportunity and unlocking the vision. We were privileged to be incubating with these world class partners. It was about educating and visibility internally about their prowess and what they could bring to the table.
PILLAR 5 l Evolution – continue the journey of ambition and aspiration
Continuing the journey of ambition and aspiration has been a continual methodology with Japan.
This constant evolution in Japan has seen new products launched, pop up tests, branding shifts, working with local influencers driving leadership through craftmanship, food, wellness, all in a natural way, evolving the ways of working.
A true industry first has been the launch 7 seasons ago of Japan Nature Dye. Working with traditional dye techniques with Japanese dye houses using locally foraged Japanese waste. Sakura blossoms from Tokyo, Hokkaido onion, bamboo from Oita, gingko, persimmon and many more natural sources have created beautiful and unique product and storytelling.
We now had proof of success with this new aesthetic to resonate to a more urban consumer. This vision we had seen for a wider global opportunity was now real and ultimately our global commercial leaders could sense the opportunity.
2 years after launching in Japan, we piloted firstly in NZ and then North America and Europe. Globally the collection has been known as Journeys by icebreaker, but a reverse translation back to Japanese as 旅TABI by icebreaker.
Today 旅TABI is formally part of the global business and has been a key evolution in icebreaker with a more urban consumer. In Japan the spirit of a partnership re-calibrated and ultimately elevated our brand. We turned a failure into one of our biggest successes to date. May the Journey and new journeys continue.
*Pic nature Dye