National / Media | Japan Pulse

Lawson finds itself lampooned for rebranding design effort

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing writer

Social media appears to be wrestling with a wide variety of meaningful issues on a daily basis these days, and Japan certainly hasn’t been excluded from the conservation, as evidenced by the criticism directed at NHK for the broadcaster’s flawed video on the anti-racism movement.

Despite such tumultuous times, there’s always going to be a segment of internet users that gravitates toward issues that may appear insignificant in the grand scheme of things but come with a high degree of entertainment in the short term. We’re talking about such things as bad brand redesigns.

Convenience store chain Lawson recently unveiled a new look to its in-house items, or “PB” (“private brand”) as they are typically referenced in Japanese conversation. The items bearing the Lawson Select label now come in packaging that arguably falls somewhere between Muji’s relatively minimalist designs and the sort of appearance that’s reserved for dystopian films in which people live in tubes. Really.

Many companies appear to enjoy rebranding their own products on a regular basis and, most of the time, consumers barely even take time to notice the difference.

Not this time. Japanese netizens initially reacted by weighing the pros and cons of the rebranding effort, with many expressing support for the new design. Some praised the unified aesthetics that now accompany the convenience stores’ products, while others highlighted its cuteness.

Soon enough, though, the general consensus took a turn for the worse — to a point where criticism of the new design remains as strong right now as it was two months ago (if not more).

Most complaints centered around the minimal information that was included on the packaging. A Twitter user highlighted the store’s bread as a prime example of this issue — it isn’t immediately clear why one loaf is any more expensive than another, and the differences are so subtle that consumers frequently buy the option they don’t want.

This issue is compounded in the case of consumers with impaired vision, as one person found when they went shopping without their glasses.

Twitter user @ink_virtue even photographed a store’s drinks selection, and asked which item followers would choose if they wanted milk, displaying a few cartons of regular Meiji milk on the bottom shelf of a section that, for the most part, didn’t look like milk at all.

It didn’t take long for social media users to create their own parodies of the design, imagining how models of certain trains could look if they applied the same design principles. Such criticism appears to follow a familiar cycle when consumers dislike a commercial product a company launches (a recent leak of the forthcoming PlayStation 5 model witnessed similar mockery, with consumers comparing the console to trains and air conditioners, among other things).

What’s surprising about the Lawson kerfuffle is just how concentrated the response was. Parodies delivered in a tweet are one thing — long posts on Note examining how Lawson’s ruling follows other poor design decisions or comparing them to what you might find at a Nordic supermarket are another. The best essays on the topic explored how the packaging tried to tap into the concept of universal design. Some of these contributions morphed into something that was surprisingly deep, considering the essential topic was what people see on certain containers of curry.

At this point, several months later, consumers have largely expressed a negative view of the new packaging, although there is still one subsection of the market that appears to be more positive — Instagram users. People in this demographic appear to love displaying the packaging in their feeds, with the visual style working well within the grid-centric world of that environment. It’s possible the convenience store chain had been eyeing these consumers all along, and it’s possible they were willing to put up with a little criticism from others they weren’t targeting.

Except this now doesn’t appear to be the case. Huffington Post Japan has reported that Lawson is aware of the criticism and has promised to make changes to counter the avalanche of negativity online. While it remains to be seen what exactly these alterations will be, it suggests the company has been listening and has acknowledged that its design choices might not have been perfect.

Don’t read too much into this online saga, though. While netizens love a chance to treat a brand like a punching bag, the slow-burning nature of this incident might also stem from a general desire to discuss anything except COVID-19, which still continues to dominate headlines. Such topics are naturally important, but some days consumers just want to poke fun at a loaf of white bread wrapped in minimalist packaging.

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