Barry Lustig
May 2, 2017

How’s your Japan strategy coming?

If Western agencies are serious about helping Japanese brands go international, they need to treat them with the respect they deserve.

New directions: Japanese brands taking on overseas markets see themselves as their Western counterparts’ equals.
New directions: Japanese brands taking on overseas markets see themselves as their Western counterparts’ equals.

Many, if not most, large Japanese enterprises are looking outside Japan for revenue growth. The reasons most often given for this are now pretty stale: economic stagnation, ageing population, low birth rate and so on. Thankfully, we don’t hear the phrase, ‘Japan is a small island country’ much anymore. But Japan’s geographical limitations do impose limitations on growth as well. 

Both foreign agencies and Japanese majors are more than happy to help Japanese brands strengthen their positions in overseas markets. Yet very few major Japanese accounts are managed by foreign agencies from Japan.

In the agency world, there is an ongoing debate about ‘Japanese exceptionalism’, or whether Japan is different and important enough to treat separately from other Asian countries. It’s straightforward economics: is it worthwhile engaging Japanese companies and consumers on their own terms? When does this mean diminishing returns? 

The converse of the debate is less ambiguous. Senior executives at established or emerging Japanese multinationals do not see themselves as regional players or emerging multinationals. They see themselves as equals to their Western counterparts—and rightly so.

Japanese agencies do not assign global B-teams, regional headquarters or satellite offices to manage their major Japanese clients. They assign their most senior and experienced officers.

For senior corporate decision makers in Japan, there are few reasons to trust non-Japanese agencies—although it is frequently the case that they are hungry for new thinking, especially in overseas markets. If you were in their shoes, would you entrust your most important pieces of business to companies who don’t perceive you as being among their highest priority clients?

A flight from the US West Coast to Tokyo is only two hours more than from Singapore. Distance is no excuse. Most Japanese leaders don’t feel any special kinship towards other national or ethnic cultures in Asia. So ‘Asian specialisation’ isn’t a compelling argument either. If you were the CMO of Mitsubishi Electric or Kao, would you rather have your relationship managed by the senior partner based in Los Angeles or the Asian regional director? Be honest.

Of course, simply changing the reporting structure for Japan in your network is not a complete solution. If they are serious about winning in and with Japan, Western-based agencies in Japan might reconsider their overall engagement strategy and commitment to the market.

It will be time-consuming, resource-intensive and expensive. Nonetheless, in most cases, with a bit more organisational creativity and global resource commitment, we can do better even without massive investments. 

Barry Lustig is managing partner of Cormorant Group, a Tokyo-based business and HR strategy consultancy.

 

Related Articles

Just Published

7 hours ago

Accenture Song’s Nick Law & Johnny Tan on the ...

In a wide-ranging interview, Song's creative leaders talk exclusively to Campaign about the importance of giving design a seat at the table, creating clarity in complexity and AI becoming the co-pilot for creativity.

8 hours ago

Break the bias, 'Correct the Internet' to make ...

DDB New Zealand's new spot seeks to set the record straight by spotlighting online inaccuracies that disadvantage women in sports.

8 hours ago

Fame: Brands wanna live forever

THE AD CONTRARIAN: While most brands are preoccupied with differentiation, positioning and purpose, their real aim ought to become famous in their category.

8 hours ago

PRWeek Asia Awards 2023: Entries now open

Now in their 22nd year, The PRWeek Awards are unique in their efforts to shine the spotlight on the work, communicators and agencies in Asia-Pacific—those that are defining cutting-edge thinking and driving the public relations industry forward.