Bringing quality overseas brands to Japan
Could you please start by introducing Feiler?
Feiler is a life-style brand of chenille fabric that started in Hohenberg, a small town with a population of 1,400 in eastern Germany, near the Czech Republic. Feiler was established 75 years ago, and it has been 51 years since we came to Japan. We mostly sell handkerchiefs and pouches. Feiler is popular with women, and people in their 30’s to 50’s account for 70% of our customer base.
“Chenille” means “hornworm” in French. It is said chenille fabric was named because the texture of the braided thread used resembles the hornworm’s soft and fluffy feel. Feiler’s chenille fabric has a soft and thick texture and possesses outstanding water absorption and drying properties. It also excels in expressiveness of design and is characterized by its long-lasting texture that feels better on the skin the more it’s used.
Feiler in Japan joined Sumitomo Corporation Group approximately 20 years ago. At the time, the Lifestyle Division was looking to expand high quality overseas brands in Japan, and Feiler was a perfect candidate. After succeeding the business from Kazuko Yamakawa, the founder of Feiler’s Japanese business who made Feiler popular, we are trying to expand the business further.
In FY2022, Feiler Japan’s net sales exceeded 10 billion yen for the first time. We have 109 stores nationwide (as of May 2023). Online sales account for over 20% of our total sales, and it is fair to say that the brand is growing continuously. Additionally, we are gaining attention not only for our business’s performance but also in the market as a successful example of a rebranding that rejuvenated our customer base.
Steady efforts in fan-based marketing
How have you promoted your rebranding?
Yagi We started our rebranding efforts nine years ago. The main age group of our customer base at the time maxed at around 65. It was vital that we continuously treated our long-time customers as important, but it was also critically important for us to acquire younger customers in order for our business to survive. This gave rise to the question of whether we could maintain our existing customer base as we worked to attract a new, younger generation of customers.
Imamura Sumitomo Corporation and Feiler Japan shared their goals, and frontend members took the lead in thinking of a concrete plan. Regarding products, we have done general revisions, launching new designs every year in addition to the traditional flower design on a black fabric, as well as updating sales channels. On top of that, we employed new fan-based marketing measures. Specifically, we are making use of our digital touch points, starting with marketing to Instagram users.
We promoted fan-based marketing in three stages: posting, empathy, and co-creation. However, implementing the measures was the hardest part.
We now have approximately 210,000 Instagram followers (as of September 2023) , but for the first year and a half after starting to post in April 2015, we had only 3,000. Posts from Feiler weren’t receiving many likes. Internally, we were receiving harsh criticism from those who were unsure the posts would contribute to revenue and who thought we should focus more on selling directly to customers. Despite these comments, we noticed customers were making their own posts daily, so our members commented on each post, which raised customers’ enthusiasm. We devoted ourselves to engaging in these kinds of reliable activities.
Imamura We held events for customers to connect the brand and our fans after we grew our fan base through continued interactions with our customers. The natural connections formed between our customers at these events brought momentum to these marketing activities in the early and middle stages.
The momentum of these activities can be seen in social media hashtags. Customers are helping to accelerate the permeation of our brand by posting photos of our products on their accounts with the hashtag “#Feiler.” This brought us from the posting to the empathy stage. We now see over 150 #Feiler posts a day.
One product example that shows customers’ empathy is HEIDI, a representative product line that features designs based on ladybugs, butterflies, songbirds, and small flowers found in the fields of Germany. There was talk amongst our customers to make August 12 HEIDI (in Japanese, "HEIDI" sounds similar to "August 12")
Day to celebrate the brand. This provided us with an opportunity, and our customers brought about a movement to create excitement around the brand.
Promote functional and emotional values
What about Feiler’s products appeals to the customers?
I think we were able to promote the products’ emotional value in addition to their functional values, such as water absorbency and texture. For example, mothers exhausted from childcare feel re-energized after seeing their babies’ HEIDI bibs. Or on the day of an important presentation, someone could take out their favorite handkerchief from their closet and feel encouraged. I believe our customers, who live their sensible lives and cherish Feiler’s products, recognize our commitment to meeting their lifestyles.
We are now entering the co-creation stage. Three years earlier we started recognizing devoted customers as ambassadors. As part of our plan, we accepted ideas from our ambassadors and coordinated with our planners on product development. Now we are selling the newly designed bags and pouches born from these ideas, and they make appearances and are advertised on social media.
Even looking from a shareholder’s perspective, I can feel the brand has completely changed. I returned to Japan last year after living overseas for five years, and I was really surprised at the differences before and after my transfer.
Feiler’s changes don’t stop at rebranding the front end. Behind the scenes, the business model is also changing. We have changed the way we deal with customers by shifting from wholesale to retail, in which we sell directly to customers.
Yagi A notable merit of this change is that we are now gathering first party data through directly selling to and interacting with customers, which grants us an understanding of our customers’ consumption behaviors. I think the improved degree of customer understanding and the implementation of a strategy tailored to that understanding will drive our future growth.
What kind of feedback did you receive, from both inside and outside the company, about the rebranding?
Imamura We are receiving many inquiries from both inside and outside the company. Specifically, the other day, when members from the management team of one of Sumitomo Corporation Group’s overseas companies came to Japan, they came to ask us about Feiler. They seemed to have an interest in our successful fan-based marketing examples in their aim to expand direct sales to customers as they make use of DX, etc. In addition, we had the opportunity to meet with a corporation working on rural revitalization, and we felt there was a keen interest in Feiler’s successes, from both inside and outside the company.
Yagi When I see families visit our stores, I realize that our brand is being passed down from generation to generation, from our original customers to their daughters and grandchildren. Going forward, I want to look at the possibility of coordination with new companies so that we can reach customers who don’t yet know Feiler.
To deal with changes in consumer behaviors
What is your future vision for the business?
One thing I have realized looking at Feiler’s success is that we should not stick to the same traditional approach because the values of our customers change. I want the entire Retail Business Dept. No. 2 to take initiative in making changes, creating new consumer behaviors, and spreading them.
Changes of the current Feiler business are still in progress, and we must catch up with new consumer behaviors. We still have many things to do. For example, we need to think about how we are going to respond to the Chinese livestreamers who share the appeal of Feiler to Chinese customers.
Additionally, we are looking at the possibility of using the fan-based marketing strategies we have cultivated at Feiler with different brands. We are also considering types of business operations not limited to retail, like Metaverse, that will lead to new consumer behaviors and sharing services from the perspective of SDGs.
Regarding expansion outside of Japan, I want to coordinate and have deeper discussions with Feiler in Germany. Before the pandemic, overseas demand for Feiler products remained weak. However, after the start of the pandemic, the number of Chinese residents in Japan distributing videos to advertise products to customers in mainland China and taking and shipping orders grew. I feel this shows that, in addition to brand transformation, spending behavior and trend information gathering are becoming borderless as digital tools become more sophisticated.
That said, retail is a community-based business. It is necessary to develop appropriate products and sales methods tailored to the culture and lifestyle of each community.
Changing and seeing it through to the end is the key
What kind of brand do you want Feiler to become?
Imamura I think our successful rebranding was due to the strong trust built between the shareholder and the frontend members. It is important to delegate things to others completely once trust is established, and I will continue to value this.
You’re right. There is a healthy amount of tension between the shareholders and the frontend members, but we respect each other. I think it is precisely because of the determination of the past management that we were able to become the Feiler we are today, and I want to continue to be like them.
Our goal is to develop a brand that will transcend generations and last 100 years. We will evolve as we discern which functional and emotional values we need to change and which ones we must not. The slogan “Update Feiler in preparation for the next 50 years” is in our medium-term management plan. With the customers’ empathy as our foundation, we want to pursue our ideal future from our respective positions, such as marketing or sales.
Imamura I want the brand to become significant, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in the Lifestyle Business Division. I hope Feiler grows significantly not only through the extension of our existing businesses but also through the creation of new value.
What does “Enriching lives and the world” mean to you?
Getting close to consumers and bringing happiness to their lives
Realizing a next-generation retail business I can proudly show the children’s generation