by Michael O'Neill
October 2nd, 2013

Japan’s population is shrinking and greying fast, and many companies here now seeking growth overseas. So at Weber Shandwick, we’re increasingly asked for guidance on “how to do global communications”.

Let me first emphasise that it’s overall a positive when Japanese companies ask this. It demonstrates the company cares about communicating with global customers, and that mindset is important for Japan’s future. However, when phrased that way, the question might not be an ideal starting point. It may even signal that a company is overly focused on how to distribute information — communications from a tactical, one-to-many perspective.

That’s dangerous, because in the global era, engagement is king. One-way communication is losing relevance, and companies that fail to adapt to the new environment will also lose relevance with customers globally. So the more valuable question is “How do we create global engagement?”

Communication vs Engagement
The first step is to realise that audiences around the world aren’t sitting around waiting to receive information. Instead, they proactively seek emotional connections through stimulating content. And they simply reject or ignore what doesn’t appeal. So people increasingly expect global companies to understand their needs and to demonstrate this through creative storytelling across formats and platforms. They don’t just want to read your story; they demand to be in your story. And they demand that the story be interesting enough to interact with and share around. That is engagement.

Many Japanese companies will need to get bolder, more creative, and more interesting for global audiences. Visual elements, creative design and video content are now all central pillars of global communication, and doing things the way they’ve always been done won’t inspire much passion globally.

Simply translating and distributing text-heavy product announcements, technological specifications and financial results via traditional means won’t be enough. The key is to identify the most likeable and unique aspects of your brand, then tell your story in ways the global audience — not you — prefers.

While information remains important, you must also give people reasons to connect emotionally; or risk being a mere commodity. Engagement is generated by personality, charisma, and something genuinely likeable about your company. This is fundamentally important, and should not be overlooked.

Utilising ‘Brand Japan’
For many Japanese companies, moving out of a mono-cultural business environment to engage audiences in the diverse the melting pot of global business will not be easy. And in some ways, there is more work to do than for companies with origins in multi-cultural countries. Such companies are made up of a more diverse mix of people, and have internal cultures that more closely resemble ‘global culture’ than that found inside most Japanese companies. So they begin with an innate advantage — an intuitive understanding of how to engage globally.

However, that doesn’t mean Japanese companies are not ready to engage audiences around the world. Japan stands above many other countries in terms of awareness and reputation. Globally, people genuinely admire ‘Brand Japan’; they perceive it to be a ‘cool’ country and are attracted to its unique and quirky pop-culture. They also value Japan for its advanced technologies, innovation, precision, quality and safety. 

Indeed, Brand Japan ranked 3rd overall in the most recent FutureBrand Country Brand Index  study, so there are already some great assets Japanese companies can employ, and they begin with great potential for global engagement. However, many Japanese companies still need help leveraging this in their global storytelling.

The good news is that more Japanese brands could and should be winning out on the global stage, especially if they are willing to communicate creatively and show passion to incite engagement. They should consider the much-needed spice of diversity by collaborating with communication firms or individuals with strong global networks and experience.

For many companies, this could mean a step out of the comfort zone to communicate in fresh and new ways. It may also require a communication investment that sufficiently reflects the size of the task. But above all, it will mean progressing from the simple distribution of information and switching to a people (not company) focused approach to storytelling that includes the emotional and aspirational triggers needed to make people actually care about Japanese brands.

This is “how to create global engagement”.

Gary Conway is vice-president, Japan, at Weber Shandwick

This article first appeared on the Weber Shandwick Japan website

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