The temperature is just above freezing in south central Berlin and I am meeting Lisa Hogg, head of brand management for Onitsuka Tiger, at Tempelhof airport. It’s no ordinary terminal, the last flight left in 2008, and this week it’s home to Bread & Butter, the ‘trade show for selected brands,’ where the Japanese sports lifestyle label is exhibiting its Autumn Winter collection to European fashion buyers.
South African-born Lisa greets me at the busy stand, merchandised like a concept store, a beacon that contrasts with the vast airport hanger packed with household clothing brand names competing for attention.
“Can you tell me how it all started?” As I begin to ask Lisa about the brand’s history, her eyes widen and the passion flows: “Onitsuka Tiger is the sister of sports performance brand ASICS. It was founded by former soldier Kihachiro Onitsuka in 1949 in Kobe, Japan. His dream was to raise post war youth self-esteem through sport, he started with basketball shoes and went on to pioneer technical sneakers for athletes.”
Lisa goes on to explain that in 1977 the name was changed to ASICS: “ASICS is based on the acronym ‘Anima Sana In Corpore Sano’ which means “A Sound Mind In A Sound Body. The philosophy lives on at Onitsuka Tiger today, where we borrow the designs, styles and technology from sport to craft lifestyle shoes for the street.
“I’m amazed to hear that Mr Onitsuka was hands on with the business until he passed away in 2007.” Lisa recounts: “He was a pioneer, very accessible and actually quite playful. His passion, characteristics and the Japanese heritage make the brand very special.”
Lisa first came into contact with Tiger about 12 years ago when she worked at its advertising agency in Amsterdam. She remembers: “In the early 2000s it was a niche brand, quite cerebral. There wasn’t a big marketing strategy or commercial push, it got attention in 1993 because Uma Thurman wore the iconic yellow and black Tai Chi shoes in the movie Kill Bill. From this moment Onitsuka Tiger exploded and while the brand didn’t have major investment power, it had the courage to be creative and do the unexpected.”
Prior to Onitsuka Tiger, Lisa worked at Nike and Converse, so I asked her what attracted her to the role. “What drew me to the brand is its heritage, pioneering spirit and sense of doing things differently to the competitors. Sometime it’s perceived that to do brand marketing you need to disassociate from being commercial. But I disagree; you can be intelligent, retain integrity and still be commercially successful.”
I ask Lisa “where do you think the brand is at” and she explains: “I joined to oversee a brand re-set in 2013. Today we are at a real break-out moment and we have an amazing opportunity to make something new out of the brand that references our strong history and take it to a new place. I’m seeing progression – going from something that’s relatively niche, to something more accessible that still retains integrity and authenticity.”
She continues: “The concept of Japanese simplicity and pioneering, imaginative design with amazing dedication to detail is core to the brand and affects everything about it, right down to the style of photography for collections and campaign shoots.”
What have you changed, or brought to the company from your corporate experience? “A more assertive approach to managing the brand in Europe, that creativity and commercialism can work together. I’ve created an infrastructure that has brought together the teams across Europe and helped them understand that a consistent message is crucial. With fewer resources than the mainstream brands we have made a bigger impact in the past year, than in the previous five.”
While Lisa is building a global brand, she believes that its integrity will be maintained. “The next two years will solidify the work we’ve done and underpin growth, but still retain its values. When you’ve been a brand with low market numbers there’s a temptation to explode and milk it. But we have a long-term strategy and don’t intend to be a fad or fleeting fashion trend.
She also believes that Tiger is a turnaround story and says: “We’re seeing heat and buzz with opinion formers and are on the cusp of a massive resurgence. In two years’ Tiger will still be an interesting, cool brand that retains its enigmatic edge. I hope there will always be a level of discovery and I am both optimistic and quite dreamy about it.”
If the buzz from buyers on the stand checking out next season’s iconic Tiger stripes is anything to go by, Lisa may see the results of her team’s work on the streets far sooner.
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