How Mini made it big in Japan.
Everyone knows that MINI is one of the most famous British brands of the 20th century, loved in its homeland and iconic all over the world. It is probably a challenge in itself to find a British movie set in modern times where the car doesn’t pop up at some point. But would you believe that the British Isles were not the biggest market for MINI in the 1990s? No, it was a different island, on the other side of the world, where MINI was (and still is) so popular that – according to some – it managed to save the brand from discontinuation.
The story of MINI in Japan has a dramatic beginning. After many years of economic expansion, a period of stagnation hit the country at the beginning of the 1990s. The so-called “Lost Decade” began, and lots of industries and brands felt its effects. But there was one foreign little car that still defied the economic environment. Even in years like 1998, when new car sales fell drastically by the month (-14% for domestic and -26% for import vehicles from January to September), MINI still managed to increase its sales (by 17%!) in that same period. But how and why?
It began a couple of years earlier. Mini cars were deemed cool as early as the seventies in Japan, and individual dealers started importing them into the island nation. The interest did not go unnoticed, and Rover – the owners of Mini at the time, who were acquired by BMW in 1994 – officially started exporting them in 1985. At the end of the 1980s, the coming recession probably seemed to be a fanciful idea, and Japanese consumers had the appetite for a car that fitted in well with the so-called “Retro Boom” of the time. To capitalise on the evident popularity of MINI, Rover began to export Minis that featured more chrome, more leather, as well as safety features such as airbags and side-impact door beams. But otherwise, the basic design remained the same.
And that design lent the MINI an air of authenticity, a cult classic personality, and a true vintage feel, which was very appealing in a country that was otherwise often in love with the newest technology. Its British character had also not faded; indeed it is something that MINI relied upon very heavily, even well into the car’s relaunch at the turn of the millennium years later. Its youthfulness and appeal to the good old days might have contributed to the car’s popularity in spite of – or especially because – an economic downturn.
There is another tool that MINI used to garner popularity after arriving on Japanese shores, and something we use to this day: the different limited edition models that we produce. The Japanese market seemed to respond especially positively to such cars, which made a unique automobile even more novel, and always managed keep the interest in MINIs high.
Beyond the brand, the car also became beloved for its size and usability. In the busy and narrow streets of Japan’s big cities, a small and agile car always has the upper hand. And Japan loves small cars. They have a special type of automobile, the Japanese Microcars, called “kei” cars. Although those cars are usually even smaller than a classic Mini, with powertrains ranging from 360 to 660 cc, a Japanese consumer who would want a small city car with a bit more playfulness, heritage and style could likely go for a MINI.
Whichever factor might have been the strongest, classic Mini’s Japanese sales were so impressive that to many they were one of the main reasons that Rover never ceased production of the car, even when it toyed with the idea at the end of the 1980s. The brand seemingly had everything that would make it appealing to the Japanese market, from its heritage and novelty factor, to being perfectly built for the urban areas of the island nation. In short, MINI saw its chance, and took it.
The values that made MINI a hit in the 90s persist to this day. After its relaunch, the car sold 10,000 units in 2002, with sales remaining strong to this day. A large portion of its consumer base are apparently older Japanese citizens, who buy the car for the same reason the British did in the 1960s and 1970s: to celebrate joie de vivre – and own a car that is as young at heart as they are.
And who are we to argue with such a positive attitude?