What brands can learn from Skoda and Japanese rugby

The Rugby World Cup in Japan has so far been a pristine example of how to stage the perfect sporting spectacle. A fascinating country with a vibrant and ancient culture totally distinguished from the rest of the world, with an enthusiastic population wholeheartedly getting into the spirit of things.

Even in the worrying prelude to and tragic aftermath of typhoon Hagibis, the magical, dynamic and exuberant joie de vivre of the host nation has shone through, never more so than in the performances of its national rugby squad, who have, almost unbelievably, topped their pool group, beating nominal world number one team Ireland and an improving Scotland en route.

It’s worth reiterating that Japan, now ranked seventh in the world, were in the doldrums at 20th as recently as 2006 – this in a sport where any country outside the top 10 is counted as a tier 2 nation, and as such woefully out of contention. Or so we thought.

The Brave Blossoms’ hard-but-fair tackling, quickfire offloading and valiant-to-the-point-of-naïve attacking rugby has not only won them a place in the quarter finals against South Africa this weekend, but also a legion of new and passionate fans – both in the Land of the Rising Sun and in all corners of the world.

For challenger brands trying to break into the top tier, the answer might lie in less ego and self, more bravery and heart.

As well as new supporters, the upside of Japan’s astonishing performances is a renewed confidence to consolidate their faith, skill and endeavour with which they entered their home tournament. Success breeds success, and so Japan’s knockout game against South Africa (a team they beat against huge odds in the ‘Miracle of Brighton’ four years ago) now looks less like David vs. Goliath and more like a fair go.

This degree of steep ascent from obscurity to greatness is unusual, but not unheard of. It is, however, rare enough to be highly notable when an entity goes from zero to hero in such a short space of time.

Readers of a certain vintage will remember Skoda’s ‘Phoenix from the flames’ repositioning back in 2001. Playing off the hypocrisy of car buyers who recognised the Eastern European car manufacturer’s superior value over its counterparts (and then went and bought a Ford Focus anyway), Skoda’s strategy was simple. Face its negative perceptions head on, discount them pragmatically through humour and hold a mirror up to the blinkered car buying public who, recognising the cold hard facts, would tacitly admit there was no good reason not to buy a Skoda.

Of any marketing meeting in history, I’d choose to be a fly on the wall at the one in Wolfsburg in the year 2000, when this campaign was sold to Skoda-owner Volkswagen’s (VW) top brass by marketing director Chris Hawken and his new creative agency, Fallon. Scenes, one suspects.

Skoda in the early 2000s and this year’s Japanese rugby team might not, on the face of things, look like comfortable bedfellows – but they’re both courageous, grafting challengers in their own right and share a number of traits that other challenger brands could learn from:


In a World Cup dominated by the interpretation (or lack thereof) of the new tackling laws, the 2019 tournament has already passed the record for the most red cards issued in a world Cup (seven so far). Japan, however, have been notable in their use of more traditional thigh-high and ‘chop’ tackles, with two or more support players ready and waiting to effect the turnover.

Add to that the startling array of in-tackle offloads they’ve obviously practiced to perfection and you have a team that has read the rule book and adjusted their game accordingly.

Skoda’s innovations were less of the technical variety and more in brand personality and positioning. Could you imagine a Mercedes, Audi or BMW ad showing a potential customer running away from a dealership in abject horror at the thought of buying one of their cars?

No, they’d sooner add a Union Jack wrap and hanging dice to their rear-view mirrors.

Triumph against adversity

On this point, our two protagonists differ a little. Japan’s fantastic team spirit and almost spiritual understanding of each other’s capabilities has been nurtured by coach Jamie Joseph and, prior to that, Eddie Jones. The end result is a tight-knit team playing for each other and their country with a set of skills that only comes from a total commitment to a shared methodology.

While all but the coldest-hearted have been overjoyed to witness Japan’s progress (especially with the typhoon events unfurling around them) nobody was going in to bat for Skoda in the late 90s. Their ‘us against the world’ bunker mentality and a certain ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ mindset allowed them to create the strategy they did and have the stones to follow through with it.

Nothing to lose

One of the things about being top of your game is that you’re afraid to try the unorthodox and take ‘hail Mary’ risks. If it doesn’t work, everyone will publicly pan you, call you arrogant and laugh at your obvious hubris.

Both Skoda and Japan, being underdogs, are able to look at their options, choose high risk, high reward and ask themselves: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’


For Skoda, diversity meant a collaborative combination of an eastern European heritage brand owned by Germany’s VW with a British marketing director and London based ad agency.

For Japan’s rugby team, of the 23 players who recently beat Scotland, only 11 were born to Japanese parents with the balance of the team made up from naturalised Tongans, Samoans, New Zealanders, Australians and South Africans. Disparate skills brought together under the mantle of one collective team and strategy is, when correctly managed, a thing of irredeemable beauty.

Expect the unexpected

Nobody, and I mean nobody, predicted Skoda’s revival from Cold War obscurity to established automotive contender. By the same measure, very few (if any) punters had money on Japan topping their group over established veterans Ireland and Scotland.

The element of surprise is an oft heralded but, sadly, rarely deployed tactic in marketing departments. Yet that’s exactly how Skoda and Japan blindsided their opponents.

Sun Tzu worded it better: “Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”


Skoda and VW took a giant leap of faith with the ‘It’s a Skoda. Honest’ campaign. They admitted, very openly, that everyone thought their product was rubbish, no more than 10 years after Gerald Ratner had notoriously kyboshed his multimillion-pound jewellery empire when he declared his own products “total crap”.

Japan’s courage was manifested everywhere in the pool games, from never-say-die tackles to Kotaro Matsushima’s two stunning tries against Scotland. This unwillingness to give an inch and total commitment to the collective cause not only made for a stunning exhibition but ultimately ground tier 1 Scotland out of contention.

It’s all too easy to accept the status quo. Vanilla marketing strategy, beige campaigns and middle-of-the-road results, leading to a moderate appraisal and adequate bonus, are not to be dismissed. And yet this approach suggests an oversensitive, cautious and mediocre brand, and a leadership style that’s ultimately scared of change. Nothing truly great will ever come of it.

For challenger brands trying to break into the top tier, the answer might lie in less ego and self, more bravery and heart – acting less like special snowflakes and more like Brave Blossoms.