In Japan, a man can order a bottle of Zima at a bar and no one will make snide comments questioning his sexuality.
Considered a commercial success when it was first released in the United States in the 1990s, Zima soon developed a girly image and its popularity fizzled out. Many men avoided it as if it was bottled estrogen. In 2008, Molson Coors discontinued the drink in the United States and the only country in the world that currently sells it is Japan.
Zima is easy to find and is sold almost anywhere: convenience stores, large nightclubs, bar chains such as Hub — the McDonald’s of British pubs in Japan — and so on.
In fact, the very demographic that shunned the drink in the United States — males in their 20s — are the biggest drinkers of Zima here, according to Kayoko Okochi, a brand manager from the marketing department of Molson Coors Japan. According to a survey done by the company, 9.7 percent of men in their 20s had tried Zima in the last month. For women in the same age group, it was 4.4 percent.
Zima’s success in Japan lies in its “guerilla marketing” strategy, which Okochi likes to refer to it as. Aware of how badly the drink failed in the United States, and the girly image that became associated with it, Molson Coors Japan has carefully cultivated a “cool” image for Zima here.
While American TV audiences were subjected to awful Zima commercials of a guy in a bar who replaced his S’s with Z’s, Molson Coors Japan knew better. It was one of the first alcohol companies in the country to promote the drink using girls in revealing outfits. In the summer, the company released a commercial that featured brooding actor Ryuhei Matsuda sipping on the drink, and it opened a limited-edition bar in Toyosu where customers could sip on frozen Zima and admire the water-filled glass ceiling.
While the bar closed as summer ended, Okochi mentioned that the company was toying with the idea of opening a permanent location in Shibuya or another area of Tokyo. Unfortunately, she added, the obstacle of trying to open a similar bar is difficult due to building standards in the most ideal locations.
While there are only two varieties of the drink available — original, which tastes faintly of Sprite, and pink, which is flavored with cherry blossoms — Okochi suggests adding a bit of cassis or yogurt liquor to the original to switch up the taste.
Angela Erika Kubo is a freelance writer and bar lover based in Tokyo. Follow her on Twitter @aekubo.