by Michael O'Neill
October 23rd, 2013

First impressions last. We usually consider that as good advice to guide us in our interpersonal relationships – job interviews, joining new schools, first dates. But first impressions have serious implications for corporate, brand and global communications too.

In his book, Emotional Intelligence, science writer Daniel Goleman explains that within milliseconds of perceiving something, we subconsciously decide whether or not we like it. As human beings, we are all able to process a great deal of sensory and emotional input quicker than you can say ‘sub-conscious’. This is incredibly important information for companies. It means they have only a tiny fraction of a second to make the right impression with their audience, and they must use this wisely.

When Weber Shandwick releases news on behalf of foreign clients in Japan, we review the client’s website ahead of the release with Japanese media and customers in mind. After all, it’s the first place journalists and consumers will go for information. They’ll then process this information to make a judgement.

If there is no information available in Japanese, the unintended message is “we’re not at all serious about Japan”. If information is too limited, or translated poorly (or unacceptably – machine translated), the unintended message could be “we don’t care enough about Japanese audiences to invest adequately in communication.”

Within the milliseconds it takes for someone to infer those messages subconsciously, a precious opportunity to engage with a human being is wasted.

But the issue is not limited to the websites of global companies in Japan. For Japanese companies too, there are other, less obvious pitfalls that affect brand likeability. These are the subtle non-verbal cues contained in communication, interpreted subconsciously by audiences. And because Japan is one of the world’s most homogeneous nations, where 99% of the population is Japanese, its companies could be excused for not having a natural sense of the foreign cultural cues important for their brands in the global business environment.

Audiences around the world may make subconscious inferences about a company by comparing what they see on its website, and what they would expect of companies in their own country. For example,  does the website show a company with a balanced, multicultural workforce and management team? Is the level of representation by women on the company’s board appropriate relative to global business norms? Does the company’s leadership team appear innovative? Or conservative?

Boardroom photos dominated by grey-haired Japanese men in conservative dark suits may inspire great business confidence and trust in Japan. But at the same time, that very same picture may create subconscious doubts among global audiences about the board’s ability to understand and deal with a diverse and complex international business environment.

These types of non-verbal cues all important considerations, because it takes just milliseconds for audiences to be switched on or off. But with an adequate understanding of global audiences, and with communications to match, companies and brands have a much greater chance of cutting through and connecting. The content and appearance of a company’s website is an excellent place to start.

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

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