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Give the underdog a bone – what challenger brands can learn from Japan’s rugby team and Skoda

Originally written for Marketing Week

The Rugby World Cup in Japan has so far been a pristine example of how to stage the perfect sporting spectacle. A fascinating country with a vibrant and ancient culture totally distinguished from the rest of the world with an enthusiastic population wholeheartedly getting into the spirit of the event.

Even in the worrying prelude and tragic aftermath of Typhoon Hagibis, the magical, dynamic and exuberant joie de vivre of the host nation has shone through, never more so than in the performances of their national rugby squad who have, almost unbelievably, topped their pool group, beating nominal world #1 team Ireland and an improving Scotland en route.

It’s worth reiterating that Japan, now ranked #7 in the world, were in the doldrums at #20 as recently as 2006 – this in a sport where any country outside the top ten is counted as a Tier 2 nation, and as such woefully out of contention.

Or so we thought.

The Brave Blossom’s breed of fearless, free flowing, rapid supporting, hard but fair tackling, quickfire offloading and ‘valiant to the point of naïve’ rugby has not only won them a place in the quarter finals against South Africa this weekend but also a legion of new and passionate fans, both in the Land of the Rising Sun and well beyond in all corners of the world.

As well as new supporters, the upside of Japan’s astonishing performances is a renewed confidence to consolidate the faith, skill and endeavour with which they entered their home tournament. Success breeds success, and so Japan’s knockout game against South Africa (a team they beat against huge odds in the Miracle of Brighton’ four years ago) now looks less like David vs. Goliath and more like a fair go.

This degree of steep ascent from obscurity to greatness is unusual, but not unheard of. It is, however, rare enough to be highly notable when an entity goes from zero to hero in such a short space of time.

Readers of a certain vintage will remember Skoda’s ‘Phoenix from the flames’ repositioning back in 2001. Playing off the hypocrisy of car buyers who recognised the Eastern European car manufacturer’s superior value over its counterparts (and then went and bought a Ford Focus anyway), Skoda’s strategy was simple – face its negative perceptions head on, discount them pragmatically through humour and hold a mirror up to the blinkered car buying public who would, recognising the cold hard facts, tacitly admit that there really wasn’t any good reason not to buy a Skoda.

Of any marketing meeting in history, I’d choose to be a fly on the wall at the one in Wolfsburg in the year 2000 when this campaign was sold to the VW brass by Marketing Director Chris Hawken and his new creative agency, Fallon.

Scenes, one suspects.

Skoda followed up its initial success with numerous executions along a similar disruptive vein, opposed to anything else seen in car advertising before or since. It’s telling that their ‘Favourite Things’ ad for the Skoda Fabia in 2008 remains only one of two car ads I ever thought were anything other than utterly shite – and the other one, Honda’s ‘Cog’, distinctly looked like it offered the sincerest form of flattery to 1987 German arthouse short, Der Lauf der Dinge

Skoda in the early 2000’s and this year’s Japanese rugby team might not, on the face of things, look like comfortable bedfellows - but they are both courageous, grafting challengers in their own right and share a number of traits that other challenger brands could learn from: -

Innovation – In a World Cup dominated by the interpretation (or lack thereof) of the new tackling laws, the 2019 tournament has officially passed the record for the most red cards issued (seven so far). Japan, however, have been notable in their use of more traditional thigh-high and ‘chop’ tackles with two or more support players ready to affect the turnover. Add to that the startling array of in-tackle offloads they’ve obviously practiced to perfection and you have a team that has read the rule book and adjusted their game accordingly.

Skoda’s innovations were less of the technical variety and more in brand personality and positioning. Could you imagine a Mercedes, Audi or BMW ad showing a potential customer running away from a dealership in abject horror as the thought of buying one of their cars?

No, they’d sooner add a Union Jack wrap and hanging dice to their rear-view mirrors

Triumph against adversity – On this point, our two protagonists differ a little. Japan’s fantastic team spirit and almost spiritual understanding of each other’s capabilities has been nurtured by coach Jamie Joseph and prior to that, Eddie Jones. The end result is a tight knit team playing for each other and their country with a set of skills that only comes from total commitment.

Whilst all but the coldest hearted have been overjoyed to witness Japan’s progress (especially with the

Typhoon events unfurling their country around them) nobody was going in to bat for Skoda in the late 90’s. Their ‘us against the world’ bunker mentality and a certain necessity/ mother of invention mindset allowed them to create the strategy they did and have the stones to follow through with actually running with it.

Diversity – for Skoda, a collaborative combination of an eastern European heritage brand owned by Germany’s Volkswagen with a British Marketing Director and London based ad agency. For Japan’s rugby team, of the twenty-three players who recently beat Scotland only eleven were born to Japanese parents with the balance of the team made up from naturalised Tongans, Samoans, New Zealanders, Australians and South Africans. Disparate skills brought together under the mantle of one collective team and strategy is, when correctly managed, a thing of irredeemable beauty.

Expect the Unexpected - Nobody, and I mean nobody predicted Skoda’s revival from Cold War obscurity to established automotive contender and by the same measure very few (if any) punters had money on Japan topping their group over established veterans Ireland and Scotland. The element of surprise is an oft heralded and yet, sadly, rarely deployed tactic in marketing departments and yet that’s exactly how Skoda and Japan blindsided their opponents. Sun Tzu worded it better: -

“Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected”.

Bravery – Skoda and VW took a giant leap of faith with their ‘It’s a Skoda. Honest’ campaign. They admitted, very openly, that everyone thought their product was rubbish no more than ten years after Gerald Ratner kyboshed his multi-million Pound jewellery empire when he declared his own products ‘…total crap’.

Japan’s courage was manifested everywhere in the pool games, from ‘never say die’ tackles to Kotaro Matsushima’s stunning double against Scotland. This inability to give an inch and total commitment to the collective cause not only made for a stunning exhibition but ultimately ground Tier 1 Scotland out of contention.

It’s all too easy to accept the status quo – a reliable marketing strategy, middle of the road campaigns, vanilla results leading to a moderate appraisal and adequate bonus are not to be dismissed and yet this beige approach suggests an oversensitive, cautious and mediocre brand and leadership style that’s ultimately scared of change.

Nothing truly great will ever come of it.

For challenger brands trying to break into the top tier, the answer might lie in less ego and self, more bravery and heart - acting less like special snowflakes and more like Brave Blossoms.

Harry Lang is a strategic brand and marketing consultant and founder of Brand Architects.

You can get in touch with him at or via Linked In

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