How Did KIT KAT Become a Japanese Brand?

Nestlé Japan’s regional marketing strategy

by Fukiko Mitamura

Last year, for the first time in history, the number of foreign tourists visiting Japan topped the ten million mark. Judging from 2015’s figures, the increase seems poised to keep growing, with current projections estimated to reach 150% of last year’s total, or fifteen million foreign tourists.From Ginza to Asakusa to Akihabara, from Kyoto to Osaka to Sapporo, international travelers are appearing all over the country, flooding the local markets with fresh cash. One of the souvenirs most likely to catch their discerning eyes is Japanese candy.

Interestingly, one of the most popular souvenir candies is matcha-flavored KIT KAT. Today, these dark green candy bars line display windows in souvenir shops around Tokyo’s train stations and airports, and there seems to be no end to the international tourists clamoring to snatch them up. Of course, plenty of other name-brand candies are popular with tourists — White Lover (Shiroi Koibito) and Pocky, for example, are durable sellers — but for the triple threat of affordable price, flavor, and “Japaneseness,” everything ranks a distant second to KIT KAT “Otona-no-Amasa Matcha” (lit. “Sweetness for Adult Matcha,”) a subtle blend of chocolate and green tea flavors.

The unusual thing about this trend, though, is that KIT KAT isn’t a Japanese candy. It’s an international brand, invented in England and now sold by Nestlé , the Swiss mega-conglomerate currently recognized as the largest food company in the world. KIT KAT first appeared in Japan in 1973, when it was distributed by Fujiya Ltd. in cooperation with the English food producer Rowntree Mackintosh. Today, it is distributed by Nestlé Japan.

The “Otona-no-Amasa Matcha” flavor is developed and distributed in Japan, but you have to look to the other side of the ocean to find the brand’s roots. Nonetheless, today matcha flavored KIT KAT is gaining worldwide fame as the king of Japanese candies. Even Japanese people have started viewing that way — although there are probably many who, when told that, will scratch their heads and try to remember a time when “Nestlé wasn’t Japanese.”

But what does all of this mean?

As industries continue expanding their international reach, their success is becoming increasingly dependent on their ability to localize big-name products. KIT KAT, it seems, has been so successful at this that it’s taken root in the local markets as a “Japanese” candy, to the point that even foreign tourists want to buy it as a souvenir that represents Japan. In achieving this success, Nestlé has become a case study for Japanese candy companies looking to expand overseas.

Japanese KIT KAT series come in many flavors, including limited-time seasonal flavors and “regional” flavors sold only in specific parts of the country. Limited-time products are hardly a rarity nowadays, but the first Japanese candy to employ seasonal and regional marketing strategies was, in fact, KIT KAT.

Since 2000, Nestlé Japan has put out all kinds of experimental KIT KAT flavors. The first was KIT KAT Strawberry, a product developed to blend chocolate candy with Japanese food culture.Since everyone is sensitive to changes in the seasons, Nestlé Japan figured its customers would respond to candies that gave a strong feeling of each season. With an eye towards bringing that kind of Japanese seasonal sensibility into the world of chocolate candy, the company released KIT KAT Strawberry as a limited-time item.

And that limited-time product became a huge hit, one perfectly in sync with convenience store marketing policies of swapping out display items to keep their lineups fresh. From there, KIT KAT launched down a path of continuous hitmaking with a line of innovative regional flavors.The follow-up to KIT KAT Strawberry was a Yubari melon-flavored KIT KAT, introduced in 2003 and named for an area in Hokkaido where the melons are grown. The inspiration for the flavor came from the high demand for local candies Nestlé representatives observed while test marketing orange-flavored KIT KAT (another follow-up to KIT KAT Strawberry) in Hokkaido. Although there were already a lot of localized candies in Hokkaido, there weren’t many that gave a deep sense of Hokkaido itself. Taking notice of this, Nestlé Japan decided to turn Hokkaido’s signature product, the Yubari melon, into a KIT KAT. The resulting product became a trendsetter that sparked the current boom in regional candies.

Today, Nestlé also develops flavors in collaboration with famous local companies and retailers. One example of this is the popular “KIT KAT Itoh-Kyuemon Uji-Matcha” flavor, named for a famous Uji tea seller founded in Kyoto in 1832. Recently, candies flavored with Uji matcha have gained a lot of traction in the market, and Itoh-Kyuemon is seen as a definitive example of the best-known tea sellers in Uji. When they hear the name “Itoh-Kyuemon,” customers can instantly visualize the legendary tea growers and the famous shops that to this day exist as the “face” of Uji. Here, too, we may see a hint of how new candy flavors are born.

KIT KAT Yubari Melon Flavor and KIT KAT Itoh-Kyuemon Uji-Matcha Flavor, courtesy of Nestlé Japan

Another major force behind the spread of regional KIT KAT was the Kyushu “entrance exam support campaign.” In Kyushu dialect, “KIT KAT” sounds like “kitto katsu to” (“you can do it!”) and as a result the candy gradually caught on as a good luck charm for students studying for college entrance exams. The marketing campaign evolved from sales data the company had already gathered on the region. KIT KAT slogan is “Have a break,” so, company marketers figured, why shouldn’t students unwind with a KIT KAT when they get tired from studying? The idea caught on with exam students themselves, who are menaced around the clock by one of the most infamously stressful life events in Japanese culture, as well as with their families and other people who had been through the entrance exam experience. By the end, the campaign had made a huge impact.

Today, KIT KAT is involved in all kinds of popular campaigns and experimental flavors, in addition to the examples given above. Naturally, not all of the experiments succeed, and there have been many cases where the company has backed a losing product. But by casting a watchful eye and a careful ear over Japan’s climate and local character — over the rhythms and patterns of its distribution channels, and over the aspirations, sensibilities, and (we might even say) the spirituality of Japanese people — KIT KAT has revolutionized candy product development and promotion, and has risen to the position it enjoys today because of that thoughtfuless. Today’s wildly successful KIT KAT flavors, like the passionate support the brand now receives from foreign tourists, is the result of this creative regional marketing.

(translation: Michael Craig)

Originally published at

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