Burberry Japan: breaking up is hard to do

Burberry Japan pivots from successful partnership to direct business

by Gerhard Fasol, All Rights Reserved.



Burberry's new directly operated flagship store in Tokyo Omotesando
Burberry’s new directly operated flagship store in Tokyo Omotesando

Sanyo Shokai pivots from Burberry to Mackintosh and other brands

Burberry Japan pivots to direct business to solve Burberry’s “Japan Problem”: for the last approx. 50 years Burberry’s business in Japan was not Burberry’s business at all, but run under license by the Japanese company Sanyo Shokai and the giant trading company Mitsui. Sanyo Shokai’s core business was developing its own product lines Blue Label and Black Label and selling them under the Burberry Blue Label and Burberry Black Label brands.

Almost every day a foreign company approaches us to help them find a “Japanese partner” to build their business in Japan…

There are many examples of very successful Japan-market-entries via partnerships. Success stories include: Oracle, Salesforce.com, Starbucks, Fuji-Xerox, Yahoo, SuperCell, and many more, and until a few months ago, Burberry.

Read our analysis here, and background facts here.

Burberry found an excellent Japanese partner in 1965, Sanyo Shokai, backed by giant trading company Mitsui, and Sanyo Shokai built a terrific business for Burberry in Japan! Not only did Sanyo Shokai import Burberry products to Japan, but Sanyo Shokai also developed two enormously successful sub-brands for Burberry in Japan: Burberry Blue Label and Burberry Black Label. And Sanyo Shokai kept transferring substantial royalties/license fees to Burberry’s headquarters.

Actually it turned out that almost all the business value for Burberry in Japan was in the Burberry Blue Label and Burberry Black Label sub-brands, which were developed by Sanyo Shokai in Japan, by Japan and for Japan – and with the required Japanese quality and customer service. Sanyo Shokai also contributed the Japanese Burberry flagship store in one of the world’s prime luxury shopping areas, Ginza, and about 300-500 Burberry stores all over Japan – many in prime locations.

In June 2015, Burberry terminated this very successful licensing relationship.

Now after their divorce, both Burberry and Sanyo Shokai rebuild their businesses in Japan from scratch:

  • Burberry lost 300-500 stores which belong to Sanyo Shokai, and Sanyo Shokai’s flagship store in Ginza, and essentially has to build a Burberry business in Japan from zero, while former partner Sanyo Shokai is busy moving former Burberry customers over to Mackintosh and other Sanyo Shokai brands, with Mackintosh in almost the same segment Burberry is now entering afresh
  • Sanyo Shokai licensed the Mackintosh brand from Osaka based Yagi Tsusho, and is now pivoting 300-500 stores in Japan from the Burberry brand to the Mackintosh brand, and other Sanyo brands
Sanyo Shokai's flagship building  in Tokyo-Ginzs, one of the world's prime luxury shopping areas, much frequented by cash-rich Chinese shoppers. Currently being converted from the Burberry brand to Mackintosh and other Sanyo Shokai brands (second building from the left)
Sanyo Shokai’s flagship building in Tokyo-Ginzs, one of the world’s prime luxury shopping areas, much frequented by cash-rich Chinese shoppers. Currently being converted from the Burberry brand to Mackintosh and other Sanyo Shokai brands (second building from the left)

Some puzzles about this split

  • why has Burberry not decided on a less disruptive transition? For example, acquiring Sanyo Shokai comes to my mind. Acquisitions in Japan are not unheard of, and since Sanyo Shokai is a publicly traded company, well established rules apply.
  • why did Sanyo Shokai over the 50 years since starting the relationship with Burberry not build its 100% owned brand? Much smaller Yagi Tsusho managed to acquire Mackintosh, why did not Sanyo Shokai within the last 50 years acquire or develop a 100% owned and successful brand? With Blue Label and Black Label, Sanyo Shokai has proven its ability to build and develop brands, why not under their own brand?

There are a number of other puzzles here. Has this transition been well thought through?

It will be interesting to see where both Burberry and Sangyo Shokai will stand 10 years from now – 10 years from this divorce. Both certainly are in challenging situations in Japan now after this divorce. Will both survive in Japan? Or only one of the two?

Read more details here.

Foreign companies seeking to build a business in Japan via a partnership, and Japanese companies seeking to build the business of foreign companies in Japan can certainly learn from this case study. Although its fashion and apparel, many of the underlying issues also apply in all other business areas, such as electronics, and technology.

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