Marketers bask in the glow of the year’s successes

by Mark Schreiber

If you can generate profits during a 不景気 (fukeiki, a business recession), you must be doing something right. If you can generate a ヒット (hitto, hit) and sustain it in the face of deflation, imitators and low-cost imports, then you’re to be heartily congratulated for your business acumen.

Year-end compilations of the preceding year’s ヒット商品 (hitto shōhin, hit products) have been around since 1971, when the 日経流通新聞 (Nikkei Ryūtsū Shimbun, Nikkei Marketing Journal, NMJ), a retailing and distribution newspaper, came up with the idea of issuing a sumo-style listing it called the ヒット商品番付 (hitto shōhin banzuke), in which popular products and services were ranked in the same manner as sumo wrestlers, with 横綱 (yokozuna, grand champion), 大関 (ōzeki, champion), 関脇 (sekiwake, junior champion) and so on, in descending order.

The concept of a “hit” product, a Nikkei editor once told me in an interview, came about at a time when households’ 普及率 (fukyūritsu, ownership ratio) for items like refrigerators, rice cookers, washing machines, TVs, etc. was close to 100 percent. In order for manufacturers to expand their 市場占有率 (shijō senyūritsu, market share), they had to develop products that could be differentiated from competitors in terms of design, performance, price and so on.

So while sales success is important, according to the Nikkei’s criteria, hits are expected to fulfill several other conditions, such as carving out a new market segment or causing consumption to change direction.

Being credited with a product hit is great PR for the company and, of course, usually benefits the company’s bottom line. But most manufacturers know it’s even better when the product becomes a fixture in the mainstream market and becomes a 定番 (teiban, a standby item).

In its banzuke for 2010, released Dec. 8, the NMJ announced this year’s yokozuna were スマートフォン (sumātofon, smart-phones) and the recently expanded 羽田空港 (Haneda kūkō, Haneda Airport). The ozeki were エコポイント (eko pointo, eco-points, a rebate system to encourage switching to energy-thrifty products) and 3-D home entertainment; and the sekiwake were 猛暑特需 (mōsho tokuju, the boom in goods to fight last summer’s fierce heat) and LED 電球 (LED denkyu, LED light bulbs).

While the NMJ’s sumo-style banzuke is the oldest and best-known of the annual hit lists, there are quite a few others.

Each year in its December issue, Nikkei Trendy magazine runs a cover story titled ヒット商品ベスト30 (hitto shōhin besuto 30, the 30 best hit products). Trendy also predicts hits for the following year, in a story titled ヒット予測ランキング (hitto yosoku rankingu, hit ranking forecast).

For 2010, Trendy’s top two hits were 食べるラー油 (taberu rāyu, edible hot pepper oil, a spicy food condiment from Momoya) and 3-D movies such as James Cameron’s “Avatar.”

The Sumitomo Mitsui Bank issued its own list of hits on Nov.25, with many top-ranked items overlapping those in NMJ and Trendy. Meanwhile, in its issue of Dec. 7, trend magazine DIME announced its トレンド大賞 (torendo taishō, trend grand prix), which this year went to Panasonic’s 3-D Viera TV.

On Dec. 1, Oricon announced the year’s bestselling books. Leading the pack, with 1,211,835 copies sold since December 2009, was Natsumi Iwasaki’s novel「もし高校野球の女子マネージャーがドラッカーの『マネジメント』を読んだら」 (“Moshi kōkōyakyū no joshi manējā ga Dorakkā no ‘Manejimento’ wo yondara“; “If the female manager of a high school baseball team had read [Peter] Drucker’s ‘Management’ “).

Popularity, of course, can be fleeting. When people buy fad products on impulse, use them a few times, tire of them and then put them away in their closets or storerooms, a hitto may turn into a 眠れる商品 (nemureru shōhin, sleeping product).

In its Nov. 11 issue, Shukan Bunshun ran an article titled 「もうない!」(Mō nai! They’re gone!), saying sayonara to famous products and places that vanished over the year. Entries included the Sony Walkman (1979-2010); the Kabukiza in Ginza (1951-2010); Nissan’s President (1965-2010) and Cima (1988-2010) sedans; the Technics analog record turntable from Panasonic (1972-2010); discount retailer Sakuraya in Shinjuku (1946-2010); and the HMV record shop in Shibuya (1990-2010).

In bidding them farewell, Shukan Bunshun waxed philosophical: モノの世界も全ては盛者必衰.惜しまれつつもなくなったあの場所、あの店、あの商品をふり返る. (Mono no sekai mo subete wa shōja hissui. Oshimare-tsutsu mo nakunatta ano basho, ano mise, ano shōhin wo furikaeru. In the material world, all prosperous things must also fall into decay. We look back on the places, shops and products from which we are reluctant to part.)