David Blecken
Jun 24, 2015

Japanese brands need to market culture and innovation to win in emerging Asia

ASIA-PACIFIC - Japanese companies looking to grow in emerging Asian markets would benefit from putting more emphasis on cultural assets and innovative qualities, according to an in-depth study by J. Walter Thompson.

Ratan Malli: Japan has not fully capitalised on its equity
Ratan Malli: Japan has not fully capitalised on its equity

The report, which surveyed 3,200 consumers aged 20 to 49 across China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, found a widespread affinity for Japan and by extension, Japanese companies. At the same time, while people still tend to perceive Japan and things Japanese as innovative and reliable, they are not seen as particularly “evocative” or “sexy”, J. Walter Thompson notes.

Consumers also fail to perceive Japanese products as design-driven. The findings suggest the government’s long-running ‘Cool Japan’ soft power branding initiative has failed to make much of an impact on its target audience.

Japanese brands have much to gain if they are able to build a sharper identity on top of an existing friendly predisposition among consumers. According to J. Walter Thompson, while China represents a somewhat separate challenge to other emerging regional markets, “consumers in ASEAN and India deeply admire all things Japanese”.

Japan is the country emerging Asian consumers most want to visit, along with France (41 per cent), followed by the US. Words used to describe Japan include “mentor” (19 per cent), “loved one” (17 per cent) and “best friend” (16 per cent), which can be attributed to Japan’s (for the most part) even-handed stance in the region and proactive role in helping to build the infrastructure of many developing markets.

Survey findings:

  • 64% of consumers surveyed are "very likely" to buy products made in Japan
  • 19% think of Japan as a "mentor"
  • 17% see it as "a loved one"
  • 7% liken it to "a person I'm not very fond of" 
  • 82% see the products they use as an expression of their personality
  • 54% say they like to buy brands they haven't used before

In terms of Japan’s personality, people still see the country as technologically advanced, and indeed Sony, Toyota and Honda stood out as the brands people most associate with the country. India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines all listed being “tech-savvy” as Japan’s top trait. Vietnamese respondents perceive the Japanese as predominantly hardworking, but Thais were alone in ranking the country highest for its creativity. Rather predictably, in China, apart from seeing the Japanese as polite, sentiment was negative: other top traits in descending order included “stubborn”, “cold”, “pretentious” and “passive”.

Positive overall perception carries across to purchase intent: 64 per cent of those surveyed said they were “very likely” to buy products made in Japan. This was followed by the US (52 per cent) and Germany (47 per cent). 67 per cent also said they were “very impressed” with Japanese products. Japanese brands have an advantage in ASEAN given that affinity for Western brands there is less strong than in other parts of the world: less than half of consumers in Southeast Asia see Western brands as more stylish than Asian ones.

Style, however, is not a key purchase driver among these consumers: 83 per cent of respondents said they prioritse function. With the notable exception of China, cost is still an important consideration, but less so than the desire to buy quality, which puts Japanese brands in a strong position: 88 per cent said they “prefer buying a product that will last, even if it’s more expensive”; 87 per cent said they “buy based on quality, not price”.

At the same time, there is still a desire for self-expression: 82 per cent see the products they use as an expression of personality; the same proportion buy brands that reflect their style; and 69 per cent believe brands communicate a person’s social status. They welcome engagement with brands online (66 per cent) and pay attention to brands discussed by peers on social media (62 per cent).

The road ahead

There are a number of ways Japanese brands can change their approach in order to build on the largely positive sentiment in emerging Asian markets, according to Ratan Malli, J. Walter Thompson’s regional strategic planning director. While it might initially be surprising that the consumers surveyed did not associate Japan—a country famed for its sense of aesthetics—with good design, Malli noted that people in emerging markets are typically exposed to older, “boxy” car models or electronics products that are “not necessarily sexy”.

In introducing new products, Malli said Japanese companies could benefit from thinking in terms of a tiered offering, given that the average emerging-market consumer is unlikely to be able to pay the same prices as a consumer in a developed market. “Japanese companies never compromise on quality,” he notes—a trait that stands in their favour, but also restricts their product offering. “I’m not saying the quality should be bad, but there need to be different tiers of quality.”

He also pointed to an “undercapitalisation on Japanese equity” given that Japan and Japanese culture have many qualities that appeal internationally, that Japanese companies fail to recognise. On the other hand, “people who have never been to France or Italy associate those countries with style”, he said.

Malli noted that in terms of Japanese products, “almost everything has a functional differentiator”, yet companies struggle to think beyond mass advertising and often fail to build compelling stories that can amplify those product benefits and build the brand. Brands should be more willing to draw on their national heritage, he suggested.

“They tend to underplay the ‘Japaneseness’ of the brand,” he said. That might seem understandable in a market like China, where politics create ongoing tension between the two countries. But he pointed to a study by Millward Brown at the height of anti-Japanese sentiment in China in 2012 that found preference for Japanese brands there did not diminish. “There was a lot of stoning of cars, but from a consumer point of view the equity of the brands did not go down,” he said.

Combining existing perceptions of quality with cultural assets has the potential to give Japanese brands a strong advantage; but by taking a neutral approach, most Japanese companies have missed out on the opportunities to create the equivalent of a Singapore Airlines, said Malli.

He also encouraged Japanese companies to be more aware of their own innovative qualities and use those to lead the market, rather than taking the “rear-view mirror approach” of conducting extensive research in a new market and trying to follow the model of Western multinationals. He said Japanese brands would do well to overcome their typical aversion to risk and experiment more internationally, given that they are typically free of the quarterly earnings pressures that affect Western competitors. In light of the significant rise in inbound travel to Japan, a good place to start for certain categories would be putting more focus on travel retail, as well as ecommerce, Malli said, since these channels offer the chance to build critical mass without the need to invest in distribution.

At the same time, where brands like Sony, Toyota and Honda succeeded by "hunting in packs" in an era when people were buying their first TVs or cars, Malli said, brands like Toto, Daikin and DoCoMo have a major chance to establish themselves as the leaders in their sectors and capitalise on the widespread construction of homes or initial purchases of mobile phones in emerging markets.

“[They should] look at ‘next practices’ rather than ‘best practices’” he said. “How a brand that’s successful in Japan can be adapted globally. Most Western companies don’t lead trends. Japan is often at the edge of global trends. Japanese companies, because of their innovative capabilities, should be trendsetters.”

Japanese foreign direct investment in ASEAN reached $26.6 billion in 2013 but fell by 32.5 per cent in China, J. Walter Thompson's study states.

This article is part of the Campaign Innovate series, a collection of articles that examine the way innovation, startups and technology are affecting the advertising and marketing industry.

Campaign Asia-Pacific has also launched the Campaign Innovate competition, an event that aims to provide a platform for Asia-Pacific's startups to pitch to some of the world's biggest brands. 


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