Japan 101: the basics of marketing in the Land of the Rising Sun

Four years ago, a David and Goliath story in the world of international rugby wowed crowds at the World Cup with underdog performances that shook some of the biggest names in the sport.

On a sunny afternoon in Southeast England, plucky little Japan took on the mighty South African Springboks and blew them off the park with some audacious running rugby.

And for a few golden weeks in the UK in the summer of 2015, everything Japanese was super cool. Stocks of replica Japan rugby shirts sold out and the world (or at least the rugby following world) fell in love with the country and its on-field exploits. In Japan, too, rugby was suddenly popular across generations.

Such is the power of sport.

In a few months, the Rugby World Cup takes place once more – this time in Japan itself. For global brands, the 2019 RWC offers an enticing shortcut to make rapid inroads into the third-largest economy in the world.

I will be providing some specific pointers for Western brands involved in the RWC in the next column, but let’s cover some fundamentals first.

For many years, Japan has been dubbed the ‘Galapagos’ of markets due to its isolated nature and unique infrastructure. The media market is dominated by a few huge aggregated players and from a Western brand perspective, the normal rules of play simply do not apply.

There are many examples of both spectacular and drawn-out failures, like the Xbox, Wendy’s fast food as well as Ikea’s first foray into Japan. On the other hand, there are also some extraordinary successes – think Kit-Kat, Disney and Cath Kidston. The key to their successes tends to be their ability to not only form the right partnerships but more importantly to learn how to ‘read the atmosphere’ in Japan.

Although I work on behalf of clients across a wide range of industries, my experience of dealing with Hollywood perhaps best illustrates this point.

The closer film marketers are to the market, the more likely they are to actually understand and identify with their audiences. And if they can understand this mood, they will be able to connect with movie-goers. In Japan, efforts to localise media product’s appeal is vital.

This is one of the main reasons why Disney’s Frozen was such a success, scoring nearly a fifth of its global box office, which reached a staggering total of $1.2 billion, in Japan. The film utilised well-known pop singers and localised itself as ‘Anne and the Snow Queen’ rather than calling itself just ‘Frozen’, as well as sticking to images that focused on the softness and emotional nature of the film. All of these elements resonate with a Japanese audience. And these little things stemmed not from lucky guesses but a big-picture understanding of what Japanese audiences want.

The question of how to understand what your Japanese audience wants is not an easy one. We approach it with a mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis, but especially with the ability to ask the right questions. The Japanese are notoriously reserved with their feelings – and simply asking something directly won’t always net you the right answer. There are typically many layers to be delved into, which is why it is important to exercise a heavy dose of open-mindedness, as well as the ability to be accepting and curious about different attitudes.

Of course, the same may be true of any culture, but it is especially true in Japan, where most Western brands coming into the market often work with completely different assumptions about what is accepted and commonplace in society. If you don’t even know what all the differences are, how will you be able to make the decisions for your brand? The answer is to ask as many questions as possible and constantly validate your assumptions.

To illustrate, I like to come back to the example of communication differences in Japan. To many Japanese customers, the ideal website looks something like this. Yet to many Western customers, minimalism is king. One is full of information – text everywhere – whereas the other is almost a blank white page.

Why is this? It is because of different attitudes towards communication. A Western brand acts hospitable by rendering information easy-to-understand and simple. On the other hand, Japanese brands are hospitable by providing as much information as possible for their end-user. It is two different ways to accomplish the same goal of communicating to their viewers.

This is just one example of how Japanese consumer needs can be different where you might not expect them to be. There are many more, and they vary by industry and product type.

At the same time, however, I encourage brands to remember their core message and find the aspects of their identities that will resonate with Japan. Not everything needs to be localised. A Western brand can often be seen as ‘exotic’ – take Paul Smith, for example, which has established itself as a non-Japanese brand, even coming out with fashion shows entitled ‘I Love Japan’ (2011).

It is about the balance of simultaneously understanding what will resonate in the Japanese market whilst ensuring that message matches your brand. Start by asking as many questions as you can, and the rest will follow.

Natalie Meyer is the founder and chief executive officer at Tokyoesque.