by Michael O'Neill
August 23rd, 2013

In the post-war era, global consumers actively sought out the Made in Japan label – known for advanced technologies, innovation and a commitment to quality and precision – to the extent that Japanese companies enjoyed the luxury of a “build it and they will come” approach to marketing, with little need for proactive global branding or corporate communications.

Since then, competition has grown in number and stature. Neighbouring countries now also export quality products, often more cheaply, while Japan’s tech and auto leaders have been slow to ramp up global marketing, focusing on domestic demand in a greying, shrinking market; unsustainable for the long term.

Many Japanese organisations recognise the need to “go global”. But there remains a strong cultural tendency to prioritise stability over risk, to check and re-check plans and analysis instead of moving on intuition and timely action. Meanwhile, more agile, less risk-averse brands from elsewhere in the world have dominated the global marketplace.

But this does not mean that Japan’s time is over. As Japanese brands face mounting pressure to look beyond the domestic market, there is cause to remain optimistic about their future, particularly within the Asian region. In fact the biggest barrier to success is often of their own making. Only when Japanese brands have the confidence to leverage the communications tools available to them in a way that is commensurate with their Western counterparts, will they start to win the hearts and minds of consumers and stakeholders in some of Asia’s hottest markets.

Home ground advantage
Although the streets of Shanghai, Seoul and Bangkok share some visual cues with Western cities (logos, storefronts, fashion), it would be wrong to assume that these cities are being westernised. Globalising, yes. Modernising, certainly. But at their core, they remain Asian cities, inhabited by Asian people and underpinned by Asian culture and values.

Asia is immeasurably diverse, but as its people have exchanged and traded cultures and traditions for millennia, it remains true that our similarities outweigh our differences. There exist important cultural parallels between Japan and its neighbours that won’t be erased by just a few years of globalised business, the internet and digital media.

From a communications perspective, Japanese companies have the innate advantage of being able to draw on these cultural similarities – group orientation, appreciation of humility over confidence, harmony with the environment and preference for long-term cooperative relationships, to name a few. They can also use these commonalities to foster advocacy among the region’s key influencers, especially critical to build reputation in places where group orientation strongly impacts personal views and preferences.

This also means Japanese companies can avoid some pitfalls common for Western companies new to the region, which may misread Asian audiences or be perceived as inauthentic, if an attempt to “localise”’ strays too far from a brand’s foreign origins.

Right place, right time
In the engagement era, audiences expect companies to understand their needs and to demonstrate this through creativity across formats and platforms. It’s a 24/7 communications land grab, and brands are in a race for the hearts and minds of consumers globally.

Communicators must create more news, more regularly, tailored to various audiences, with the most innovative creating their own news content. Working with PR agencies and dedicated in-house teams, they deploy content that engages journalists and consumers through a widening range of formats. But format is a vehicle only; if content is not story-worthy, reflecting audience needs and expectations, genuine engagement is unlikely.

This is where Japan may have an edge. Its cultural history could mean success in Asia’s future. Consider Japan’s ukiyoe, kabuki and anime; all point to an innate aptitude for storytelling. But these forms are more than storytelling alone. They are storytelling built on Japanese values, and similar to values found around Asia. For centuries, this storytelling continued in these and other forms, much like storytelling occurs today, using diverse vehicles.

Japanese companies can and should draw on a rich storytelling heritage, applying this to newer technologies and media to catch the content wave more quickly in Asia than Western rivals. It is after all, still storytelling.

With age comes wisdom
On the surface, Japan’s ageing population represents a huge challenge today for companies marketing goods and services domestically. But this also creates an unprecedented opportunity for brands to become experts in communicating with greying generations around the world.

Japan will be the first of its neighbours to face rapidly-ageing populations, causing dramatic economic impact. By 2050, Asian countries with significant populations over the age of 60 will include China (34%), Korea (39%), Thailand (32%) and Vietnam (31%). Japanese now investing in solutions for this growing market will be years ahead of competitors, particularly in the areas of healthcare equipment, medicines, foodstuffs and
aged-care facilities.

This does not simply allow Japan to export a range of silver products and services. It also provides opportunities to accrue valuable communications expertise and to build reputation across Asia’s ageing populations before competitors catch up.

Japan’s window is now
The advantages that Japanese brands have maybe very real, but they are certainly no fait accompli. Though new competitors crop up daily from new markets, today many Japanese companies have a head start, with resources and scale to act and engage immediately.

The challenge is to develop a sound strategy and make sufficient investments in the region now, while this unique combination of commercial advantage and cultural relevance remains distinct to Japan and the many and varied brands that live within its borders.

Hitoshi Shioya is executive vice-president, Japan at Weber Shandwick

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