David Blecken
Sep 2, 2016

Designit MD sees opportunity to simplify Japanese service

Phillip Rubel, who recently entered the design world after a long stint in advertising, compares the two industries and outlines how brands can use design to achieve distinction.

Designit staff at the company’s Service Design Jam in March 2016. The event brings together people from around the world to design services based on a set theme.
Designit staff at the company’s Service Design Jam in March 2016. The event brings together people from around the world to design services based on a set theme.

Phillip Rubel is a long-term resident of Tokyo who spent nearly 13 years running Fallon and subsequently Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon in the market. The agency folded into Publicis One in March, which was Rubel’s cue for a change. In June, he resurfaced as Tokyo managing director of Designit, a Danish design firm now owned by Wipro, a large Indian IT company.

Designit has been around for 28 years but present in Japan for just three-and-a-half. The company sees growing opportunity to work with Japanese companies looking to improve and in many cases simplify their products and services. Clients include ANA, NTT DoCoMo and Olympus, as well as brands in the financial-services, IT and food sectors.

Phillip Rubel

Just as many at traditional advertising agencies love to tell us that brand building is all down to ‘storytelling’, it’s natural for someone in Rubel’s position to extol the virtues of 'design thinking'. Neither is the answer to everything. But the design argument is increasingly the more compelling. With an overload of information and ‘content’, not to mention borderless communication between consumers, ultimately the experience of a product or service is what counts—and what will determine the success or failure of that brand. This is especially true for Japan as service becomes a bigger part of what has traditionally been a manufacturing economy.

Rubel denies that he was tired of the advertising business when he took on the new role. But he says design “feels more complete” as it affords more scope to create products and services that will benefit consumers, rather than simply developing a way to communicate a message about those products and services. “I feel what we’re creating here is more significant than a communication plan,” he says.

Of course, with demand for—or at least curiosity about—design thinking growing, advertising agencies are increasingly trying to become involved in product and service strategy. As one would expect, Rubel says their hand in strategic design is small, limited to a bit of graphic design or “making an app”.

There are exceptions of course: earlier this year, for example, we reported that Dentsu was working on the design of a car. Dentsu is also now leading an initiative to change the way Japanese people communicate with tourists, which can be seen as societal design—a far cry from making a TV commercial.

Rubel says the fundamental underpinnings of both advertising and design are the same—understanding consumer behaviour and determining what people want or need. The difference is that, as Dentsu’s Yasuharu Sasaki has noted, advertising agencies have a harder time being appointed to design projects. Simply put, with the focus—particularly in Japan—still firmly on buying media, their business model is not yet geared around making things. Where an agency’s client point of contact is typically a marketer with a media and communications brief, Rubel says Designit deals with a combination of CMOs, CIOs and increasingly CEOs “as they recognise the value” of the design discipline.

What exactly is that value? Here are some thoughts on how brands—especially those operating in Japan—can use design to stand out and increase market share.

Imagine if banking wasn’t a total drag

Japan is known globally for its high levels of service. Some sectors, such as logistics, are truly world-leading in terms of user experience (UX). Others are far, far behind. “Horrible” and “completely archaic” is how Rubel describes customer service of the majority domestic financial-services companies, which are still paper-centric and offer little in the way of mobile or online transactions. These institutions are only now feeling a degree of pressure to change. Looking at service from a customer point of view and refining it to remove the pain points would do more to differentiate a brand than an advertising campaign ever could.

Make redundancies redundant

The endless form filling demanded by banks extends to other industries such as telecommunications. Part of the reason transactions are so time-consuming is that people are required to repeat information that they have already provided, Rubel says. Why? Again, it’s a failure to think about things from a customer standpoint. “Paperwork is not seen in a negative way by the companies,” he says. “Most believe it’s in the best interests of the customer. The spirit of service is high, but with digitisation, the meaning of that needs to be redefined.”

Packaging: Less can be more

Another area where the spirit is right but the execution is often not is packaging. Visitors to Japan are often initially impressed by the level of detail in the packaging of the products they buy, but also have misgivings about the impact of such waste on the environment. Rubel notes that with an active LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) movement in Japan, a retail brand could set itself apart relatively easily by rethinking what constitutes attractive packaging and streamlining it to be more ecologically sound. All the elaborate boxes and bags are seen as “being polite and customer-centric, but in today’s world people don’t want that any more,” Rubel says. “People don’t appreciate the cost involved in packaging passed onto the customer, and the fact that the environment also pays the price.”

Youth is not everything

Lastly, Rubel expresses surprise that brands still pay so little attention to the senior market from a product, service and UX perspective, despite Japan’s famously top-heavy population. Although there are isolated examples, Rubel points to a “huge gap and opportunity” and says that addressing this demographic directly offers an “easy win” for brands at this point in time. That could range from offering a range of sporting products specifically targeted at older consumers, to making technology and technological services more understandable and usable for that generation.

In changing any established process in Japan, however, Rubel has two important pieces of advice, especially for international companies: an outside perspective is valuable and appreciated, but don’t be arrogant or come in with the attitude that “we’re going to show you how to do it right”; and as much as possible, work with the system rather than fighting it. “Most people want to make things better, so if you approach [an issue] in the right way and are collaborative, good things usually happen,” he says.

Read this article in Japanese on Campaign Japan: 日本のサービスをいかに簡素化するか ― デザインイットからの提言

Campaign Japan

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