In the 1960s, a Japanese comedian walked onstage and said “Okyaku-sama wa Kami-sama desu” お客様は神様です (customers are God). The comment stuck and has since been used as a signature phrase in many businesses.
The idea exemplifies the Japanese relationship between a brand and its customers. The country’s consumers are incredibly discerning. They experience polite, diligent customer service on a daily basis, without ever having to ask or tip for it. It’s not a demand; it’s simply the norm. Even department store staff will insist to carry your purchase out to the entrance of their establishment and bid you farewell.
Chuo University’s professor, Toshihiko Miura explains “Japanese consumers have the highest standards in the world. If there is the slightest scratch on a newly purchased product, a complaint will be made; and the freshness of produce is subjected to a microscope. However Japanese are also easily influenced by trends. If bananas become popular for a particular diet, the fruit will disappear from shelves. If a new shop opens in Ginza, people are willing to wait two hours in a queue…”
In Campaign Asia-Pacific and Nielsen’s Top 1000 Brands survey, Japanese consumers selected Panasonic, Sony, Meiji, Apple and Toshiba as their top-five favourite brands.
Meiji, an F&B company, is well known for its chocolate bars but has been leading the market lately with fortified yoghurts. One blogger recently posted, “You can eat Meiji’s R-1 yoghurt every day and help improve your immune system.” This is a brand that has demonstrated the cultural affinity for food trends. Since its first launch of a probiotic yoghurt, Meiji has introduced two more products in the series, capitalising on a current fixation with purine compounds.
It’s also not surprising to find home grown names like Panasonic, Sony and Toshiba in the top of the brand ranking. Many Japanese consumers have specific preferences for household products and these companies specialise in giving consumers a variety of options, not just one line of product, which is also popular worldwide. Globally, Toshiba had 18,636,846 mentions online in the last six months: “...bought a Toshiba LT last night...this one works well ;)” In Japan, the number of mentions was 9,417: “GoogleMap, TOSHIBA laptops, print screen. Nice”. They cater to every household need from rice cooker to air conditioning. And most consumers have a preference for specific products, which you can see in social posts: “…bought the face roller from Panasonic today, so happy because I really wanted it!” - “The Panasonic smartphone’s camera lens is Leica. Wow.”
What stands out in Japan’s country ranking is the high presence of Apple. For years, Japan was a leader in the mobile phone industry. But in many parts of the world, Apple’s iPhone changed that. As of 2015, 58.7 per cent of Japan’s mobile phone users are iPhone users.
Apple is unique is a country where many foreign companies have tried to launch brands, only to have to leave after a few years. eBay, for example, launched, left and relaunched again in the market. From produce to customer service, Japan’s consumers typically prefer “Made in Japan” to any other option, because there is a standard of quality that consumers expect and local brands may simply be more prepared to deliver it.
That said, fast-fashion brands such as ‘Forever 21’ and ‘H&M’ have still been successful since launching in Japan, surfing the global trend. Though both names still trail local giant Uniqlo in Asia’s Top 1000 for Japan.
Peach Aviation, Japan’s first low-cost carrier (LCC) brand is an example of a name that has changed Japanese impressions of LCCs (a reputation other foreign brands originally created). Through attentiveness to consumer needs, and keeping a careful eye on its competitors, the carrier has gone to great lengths to ensure that Japan’s consumers see that not all LCC’s live by the standard of “you get what you pay for”. While the brand slipped off Asia’s Top 1000 ranking this year, is still placed much higher in Japan than any other market.
At its core, Japan is a homogenous country. Despite the number of foreigners you may see walking down the streets of Shibuya and Roppongi, Japanese nationals dominate 98.3 per cent of the country’s population. When uniformity is so high, it is easy to maintain and sustain a certain level of brand standard and manage consumer expectations. Local brands understand inherently what that standard is.
The culture of hospitality, “Omotenashi” is one of the key factors of Tokyo’s winning 2020 Olympics bid. The energy of businesses and consumers are already propelling towards hosting the Olympics. Many organisations have geared initiatives towards 2020 (regardless if there is Olympics relevance to the or not) and the Japanese government is trying to pass an integrated resort (aka Casino) bill with 2020 as a benchmark as well. Surely, foreign brands are on stand-by, ready as well to leverage business opportunities related this special occasion. Understanding Japan’s Omotenashi conversations and the god-like position of consumers in the country will be key to their success.
Sayako Suetsugu is marketing manager, Japan at Meltwater