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Famous brands in Japan go offbeat to boost name recognition

And now for something completely different: Gucci uchiwa and Nikon yokan

Gucci's luxury uchiwa fan has the brand's name written in big Japanese katakana characters.

TOKYO -- Gucci offers a panoply of stylish, high-end fashion products.

If there is one thing fashionistas wear or carry that this Italian luxury brand would never sell, it is uchiwa, a common Japanese fan traditionally made of paper and bamboo. Right?

Wrong. Gucci does offer its own uchiwa, with its name splashed on one side. 

Actually, Gucci is not the only famous brand veering off the staid road to offer offbeat products. 

Camera maker Nikon sells yokan, a traditional Japanese jellied desert made from adzuki beans. And Caterpillar, a Japanese unit of the U.S. maker of construction machinery, has an iPhone case. 

These unusual and unexpected products, often priced quite high, have special features that are being warmly welcomed by Japanese consumers. 

Far from free

Yasuhiko Susaki, director of Susaki Animal Hospital in the city of Hachioji in western Tokyo, bought the Gucci uchiwa immediately after he learned about it from a tweet because, "It was such a surprise," he said.

The front of the fan has a picture of an owl staring out at the world, while the back bears the brand name "Gucci" written in huge Japanese katakana script and says it is "made in Japan."

The Gucci website describes the product as "made by specialized artisans in Japan based on ancient Japanese designs."

Susaki was especially impressed by an enclosed letter that struck him as "stylishly funny." The letter reads, "You've done well! Use this to ride out the hot summer. From Gucci."

Uchiwa is actually not something that many Japanese bother to buy. Cheap uchiwa fans made of paper and plastic are often adorned with advertisements and handed out for free throughout the summer. 

But Gucci has apparently taken it very seriously. Its uchiwa is delivered in "special edition packaging" involving a luxurious box and a cloth bag and is unexpectedly heavy, according to Susaki.

It carries a price tag of 28,080 yen ($257) including tax in Japan and is offered for $250 on the company's U.S. online shopping site.

"It is too expensive to be used as uchiwa," said Susaki. He placed it in the waiting room of his animal hospital to "make the owners of pets feel relaxed."

Photo-worthy bean paste 

Nikon's yokan are sold in the Nikon Museum and on the company's online shopping site.

As for Nikon's yokan, Naoyuki Okumura, a 34-year-old corporate employee in the city of Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture, said all camera buffs know about it.

In fact, the camera maker has been selling its own version of yokan since 1973, mainly for its employees who need a good gift for their important clients.

In 2000, the company started selling this yokan to general consumers via its online shopping site. Nikon's yokan, sold in packages bearing the corporate logo, comes in five varieties including the traditional ogura that highlights the taste and flavor of the adzuki red bean paste and one containing yuzu citrus fruit as a key ingredient.

At the company's Nikon Museum, which opened in October 2015 in Tokyo, Nikon's yokan is sold in individually packaged bite-size slices. Boxes containing five or 10 packs are available.

Okumura bought a box containing 15 packs, priced at 1,728 yen, via Nikon's online shopping site about six months ago. It arrived in a "showy package as if it contained a camera," he said. But it "tastes just like ordinary yokan."

Nikon, which marks its centennial in 2017, is struggling to keep its core camera business profitable.

"As a camera buff, I feel sad about Nikon's plight," Okumura said. "I just wanted to make a small contribution to the company's bottom line."

Hard hat for your phone

Caterpillar Japan's iPhone sturdily built to endure a rough working environment and has a unique design that reinforces the company's image.

Nippon Caterpillar, the Japanese sales arm of the U.S. construction machinery giant, offers a wide variety of products bearing the company logo on its online shopping site, which was launched in March 2016.

One of the most popular is an iPhone case. Erika Abe, a 26-year-old woman living in Tokyo, said it is "very sturdily built, true to the company's image. I've dropped my iPhone several times, but the phone was never damaged."

The case is made of high-strength plastic making it fit for tough working environments, such as a construction site.

The design of the case, which features a pattern that resembles a caterpillar track, has also been received well.

Other popular products found at Caterpillar Japan's shopping site include a calendar featuring photos of construction machines as well as caps and T-shirts with the company's logo.

"We've gotten a much better response from Japanese consumers than we expected," said Hideo Hamano, a marketing manager at Nippon Caterpillar.

These products have helped increase the page views of the company's official website, to which consumers do not have a close connection because it does not sell consumer products. 

"I think the products have helped raise our name recognition," said Hamano.

By venturing into unexplored avenues with these products, companies are learning that niche items can serve as powerful tools for brand development and marketing. 

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