Nicola Davison
May 7, 2013

Consumer values evolve in Japan

Shared challenges have forged closer links between diverse areas of society and prompted new thinking by brands.

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At 2.46pm on March 11, 2013, the Japanese nation observed a moment of silence to mark the moment the earth began to shake two years earlier, causing the tsunami and nuclear disaster that almost devastated the country. But as a hush descended over Japanese streets, homes and offices, on Twitter, thousands of Japanese users tweeted “mokutou”, or “silent prayer”, as a way to pay their respects in the digital realm. 

The 2011 disaster and social media will be forever linked in Japan. It was the medium’s watershed moment, the time when more traditional media—land lines, mobile phones and television—failed to provide people with the support or information they sought. Today, with a new prime minister in place, Japan is beginning to recover politically and economically. But the aftershocks of 3/11 continue to reverberate throughout the nation’s social fabric. As values shift and the country feels a renewed sense of community, consumer behaviour and the media landscape are changing too.

An immediate upshot of the natural disaster was the public’s flight to Twitter. The network saw a 500 per cent increase in tweets from Japan, with the volume of tweets per second spiking five times to more than 5,000 in the aftermath. “Social media like Twitter and Facebook were the only way to connect with others as people weren’t able to make phone calls,” says Kaz Maezawa, founder of Naked Communications, Tokyo. “I think that was the moment when people started seeing more importance in social media.” 

While television has long dominated the media landscape in Japan, its hold is slipping, with viewing falling even before 3/11. The disaster exacerbated its decline—as did the rapid rise of the smartphone in the territory—with viewers logging in to social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Mixi where they could receive news updates and connect with friends and family simultaneously. 

A subsequent effect of 3/11 on media has been a modification of conduct within the networks themselves. As a society that has historically been uncomfortable sharing personal information, such as real names, online, the Japanese became more open and accountable post-disaster. At the beginning of 2011, under two per cent of the country’s online population used Facebook, which, among other reasons, was deemed too personal. (To compare, Mixi, which allows for user anonymity, held an 80 per cent share of the country’s social media market.) While it is still not as popular as it is in many other countries in the region, the number of Facebook accounts increased by six times since the earthquake and is currently more than 15 million, according to the company’s estimated reach indicator. 

Similarly, Line, an instant messaging application that is connected to users’ Facebook accounts or mobile phone number, has seen explosive growth. Launched in June 2011, Line users surpassed the 100 million mark in January.

To accommodate such changes, brands operating in Japan have had to adjust their strategies. Moony, a major diaper brand, chose Facebook as a way to connect with mothers and encourage participation in its ‘To the zero-year-old moms’ campaign. By creating a concept video, which encouraged and supported new mothers, the brand revamped its online presence, attracting 20,000 fans in six months with a 10 per cent engagement rate (the average rate being two per cent).


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“The beauty of social media is that it’s proactive, as opposed to websites, which are becoming more like catalogues or brand communication tools,” says Maezawa, whose company Naked Communications worked on the Moony campaign. “Rather than sending product information, we encouraged them to post information about the consumers themselves. What brands are trying to do is engage. The pushier they become, the more consumers try to escape from too much information. They have to have the balance between what they want to say and listening to the customers.”

Another brand closely observing consumer behaviour is zozotown.com, an e-commerce platform focused on Asian fashion. Noting that most Japanese people watch television between 8 and 10pm, zozotown.com adjusted its marketing strategy accordingly. “Though zozotown.com is a relatively young fashion site, they’re very smart and only do discounting or the launch of new ranges at 10pm in the evening during the week,” says Antony Cundy, executive business and strategy director at Beacon Leo Burnett in Tokyo. By paying attention to consumer trends, the site has used the advantages of digital to slot seamlessly into people’s daily lives. 

Cundy adds that the spike in smartphone sales post-disaster is another reason brands must focus on digital. “You’ve got to understand that 3/11 accelerated things in Japan that were taking on the same kind of growth in other markets, specifically social media and mobile,” says Cundy. “It’s not true the introduction of smartphones completely changed the mobile landscape, because up until [the disaster] the phone wasn’t used for web browsing, it was used to make payments or watch TV. The smartphone penetration through 2012 has been astonishing. Now you can’t have a campaign without a mobile element to it in Japan.”

It is not only brands that have had to restrategise. Agencies and consultancies, too, have needed to respond to the county’s new diversity. In June 2011, five of Japan’s top creatives founded Party, an ideas hub with offices in Tokyo and New York. “[The disaster] wasn’t why we formed Party,” says Masashi Kawamura, the company’s cofounder and creative director. “But at the same time, the way people work in Japan in the marketing and design community should change. It [the disaster] brought a lot of realisations that there needs to be a different infrastructure; there needs to be a different way for communities to interact with each other. In terms of the communications, brands are trying to tap into a form of social goodness,” Kawamura adds. 

A new outlook

The 2011 disaster has had a lasting impact on the outlook of Japanese consumers. Following the quake, the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, a market research firm, pinpointed a “growing sense of personal responsibility” and a “desire to contribute to society”, particularly in younger generations. Attendance at religious centres also increased post-disaster. Other individuals, meanwhile, sought to make more meaningful relationships. Matchmaking agency Marry Me reported inquiries rose 30 per cent after the quake.

Phil Rubel, CEO and representative director at Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon, Tokyo, witnessed this renewed sense of community. “Short-term changes were, to me, reminiscent of behavioural changes in the US in the aftermath of 9/11 or in Thailand in 2004 after the tsunami”, Rubel says. “People were nicer to each other and more concerned about each other’s wellbeing. There was an increased sense of unity and of social responsibility”.

Japan is famous for its subcultures and they will always exist, but groups that were once marginalised are becoming more accepted. This opening up is as much out of a desire for unity—a move to re-establish the identity of Japanese people, than the need for security. One symptom of this “togetherness” has been the celebration of subcultures such as otaku (nerds) or pocchari (chubby girls) in mainstream media. Nonconformist celebrities such as Naomi Watanabe, a pocchari, is increasingly appearing in fashion magazines—something which would have been unthinkable until quite recently (see Snapshot). Cundy observes that ‘plus-size’ changing rooms have also become a feature at some retailers.

As part of a renewed appreciation of life, health has become a concern for Japanese consumers. “There’s been a renewed focus on health and well-being through and of what people are eating,” says Simon Sproule, corporate vice-president of global marketing communications at Nissan. The Lohas (lifestyles of health and sustainability) movement has seen a resurgence of popularity since the disaster, he says. “When you go to a supermarket, people want to know where their vegetables were grown.”

Sproule thinks that the nuclear fears following the Fukushima meltdown also heightened people’s awareness of energy conservation. “The nuclear fallout is still having an influence, in terms of how people view energy dependence in this country and the impact that has on the economy,” he says. “The electric car became interesting to consumers, but not for reasons we originally anticipated.” 

Following 3/11, the government was forced to close nuclear power plants, which, in turn, made energy scarce. “Power was such an issue the government requested certain industries to work different working weeks”, Sproule says. “For about three months the auto industry worked a Saturday-Wednesday work week, with Thursday and Friday off. People got very interested in energy management and this coincided with the launch of our electric car [the Nissan Leaf].”

Noting people’s concerns, Nissan launched its ‘Leaf to home’ power system and campaign throughout Japan in June 2012. The Leaf backup power supply, stored in the vehicle’s battery, hooks up to residential homes and acts as a source of electricity. “Suddenly everyone said ‘wow’,” says Sproule. “Power was being rationed in many parts, so people could charge up their cars when off-peak and then during periods when the grid was turned off they could power their homes”.

Like elsewhere in the world, branding in Japan is moving beyond communications to play a more meaningful role, with purposeful brands particularly resonating with people post-3/11. 

“Astute brands are trying to become more integral, more of a facilitator in people’s lives,” says Phil Rubel of Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon. “For example, running shoe companies are providing shower and change room facilities adjacent to the palace grounds in central Tokyo, a favourite place for runners. That’s a much better way to integrate themselves into people’s lives than simply showcasing footwear at a one-off event.”

Recently, Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon worked with Godiva on a campaign targeting women for Valentine’s Day. They created a mannequin wired with sensing technology that measured the ‘quality’ of the women’s hugs. Their ratings were posted on a Godiva Facebook site and shared via people’s individual sites. 

“Participation and sharing with live and virtual activities created a powerful combination that could not be replicated with one-way communication,” says Rubel. “It was a lot of fun and women lined up by the thousands to give it a try. The media also picked up on it and covered this unusual series of events.” Rubel adds: “People do not normally hug one another in public in Japan.”

ANALYSIS Subculture becomes mass culture

by Kaoru Kato, chief research director, Institute of media environment, Hakuhodo

Subcultures are becoming increasingly mainstream in Japan, both on the part of consumers and content producers.

The use of subcultures such as anime/SFX/manga/light novels, and games has grown particularly fast among teens. More than any other age group, teens consider themselves to be otaku (obsessive fans or nerds) when it comes to content.

Although the majority of offerings In the content industry have conventionally been mainstream movies, music and art, in the past several years, titles heavily influenced by subcultures have increased sharply.

For instance, a growing number of singers who originally gained fame on nicovideo.jp, a video sharing site, and with Vocaloid (synthesized) songs, have sold well for the past three years or so.
Last year, many art shows around anime, manga and SFX attracted more attendees than their conventional counterparts.

Overall, the broad current of subcultures becoming mainstream has made people more accepting. This trend will likely continue over the long term.

At Hakuhodo, we are certain that in response to this, more and more subculture elements will be used in branding programmes.

 

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