I recently had the opportunity to spend a week in Tokyo as a keynote speaker at the 2023 CLSA Japan Forum and had countless meetings with key investors of luxury brands as well as with CEOs of Japanese and Chinese luxury brands and retailers. During my stay, I was invited to be on live TV with Bloomberg Asia on a panel discussing the future of luxury with an Asian focus and did interviews with Le Figaro, Business Insider, and other publications about the latest developments of luxury and critical learnings.
These discussions inspired me to do a deep reflection on “France versus Japan” and unmask the cross-cultural dilemma in luxury markets. It is a cautionary tale for luxury brands all around the world independent of their origin.
While France is the undisputed leader in luxury with LVMH, Kering, Chanel and Hermès dominating many luxury categories and continuously growing and diversifying, Japanese luxury brands, at least at scale, have hardly emerged beyond a global niche positioning, despite their incredible craftsmanship, dedication to detail, and — in many cases — incredible creativity.
When assessing global luxury brands, the landscapes of France and Japan emerge as fascinating, albeit contrasting, realities that are relevant for every luxury brand manager. The French have long mastered the art of weaving their cultural heritage into their luxury brands and translating it across borders.
Louis Vuitton in Japan, China, Korea, the US, or elsewhere taps into local culture and therefore feels extremely relevant independent on where in the world consumers are. Japan, on the other hand, tends to focus inward, preserving a distinct, local feel, a strategy that may seem alienating to the global consumer. The Toyota Century, one of the most luxurious cars in Japan, is practically unknown outside of the country.
This French-Japanese paradox forms a cautionary tale that underscores critical lessons for luxury brands aspiring to maintain relevance and appeal.
Creating cultural capital: brand globalization vs localization
The French have flawlessly globalized their luxury brands. They have managed to successfully convey the charm of the French “Savoir Vivre” — a blend of refinement, pleasure, and elegance — across diverse cultures. Think Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, and Dior; these brands have become synonymous with French sophistication and global desirability.
Japan’s luxury landscape, on the other hand, leans toward localization. Brands like Shiseido, Grand Seiko or Mitsukoshi, while iconic within Japan, often lack the same level of international recognition. This inward-looking approach may limit their global footprint, emphasizing the necessity for luxury brands to strike a balance between retaining cultural identity and pursuing global relevance. And it underscores that in today’s world the creation of cultural capital through brand storytelling and cultural and social relevance is the real moment of truth.
Storytelling: heritage and identity
French brands are masters of storytelling, with many brands wrapping their products in narratives steeped not only in French history and culture, but importantly with a client-centric narrative when it comes to the best brands. Each brand represents an encapsulated chapter of France’s grand historical tapestry, making their consumers an essential and relevant part of the story.
Japanese brands, while also rich in cultural history and craftsmanship, are often more subdued in their narrative expression. They tend to overly rely on design, quality, and craftsmanship, as well as mastery. And while they also often express their Japanese origin, many struggle to connect it relevantly to other cultures. Clearly communicating their storied heritage and telling a more client-centric story could significantly enhance their international appeal. There is often too much product and not enough emotional desirability.
Customer experience and engagement
Both French and Japanese brands deliver exceptional customer experiences. Yet, the French have excelled in creating engaging, immersive, and often personalized experiences for their consumers across the globe, a critical aspect of luxury brand equity.
Japanese brands, conversely, often emphasize ceremony, which, while exquisite, may lack the interactive element that foreign consumers seek. Brands need to deliver on creating memorable, sharable, and relevant experiences.
Digital presence is a non-negotiable for luxury brands today. Équité research indicates that 95% of luxury purchase decisions originate digitally and, in an algorithm-driven world, digital competitive advantage is the only way for brands to be relevant. French brands have adapted swiftly, using digital platforms to interact with customers, present their heritage, and sell their products.
Japanese brands, while technologically advanced, have sometimes struggled to embrace digital as a luxury space. In an increasingly digital-first world, a robust and interactive digital presence becomes crucial for luxury brands to create desirability.
Collaboration and influence
French luxury brands often leverage cross-cultural collaborations, particularly with celebrities and influencers, to appeal to diverse markets. Japanese brands, with their more insular approach, have been slower to exploit this strategy, which may not always resonate with clients in Dubai, New York, Austin, or Paris. But as we’ve seen with the popularity of K-pop, hip hop, and anime in the global youth culture, collaborations that tap into the cultural zeitgeist can offer valuable opportunities for brand growth.
The French-Japanese paradox reveals essential considerations for luxury brands. It emphasizes the importance of striking a balance between retaining cultural identity and global appeal, storytelling, enhancing customer engagement, digital savviness, and strategic collaborations.
In a world where luxury is increasingly about communities, cultural capital, experiences and relationships rather than just products, it’s no longer enough to rely on heritage and craftsmanship. Brands must become agile cultural translators, weaving their rich histories and unique identities into globally appealing narratives. After all, the essence of luxury lies in its ability to connect — across borders, cultures, and hearts.
Named one of the “Global Top Five Luxury Key Opinion Leaders to Watch,” Daniel Langer is the CEO of the luxury, lifestyle and consumer brand strategy firm Équité, and the executive professor of luxury strategy and pricing at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. He consults many of the leading luxury brands in the world, is the author of several best-selling luxury management books, a global keynote speaker, and holds luxury masterclasses on the future of luxury, disruption, and the luxury metaverse in Europe, the USA, and Asia.
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