Japanese consumers want to celebrate their own culture. International brands should look even more at localising as the country’s prosperity rebounds.
In 2014-15, Japanese consumers returned to optimism, and in the process, started to engage with their cultural heritage in a new and different way.
Of course, Japanese consumers have always been among the most fiercely loyal, driven by a strong and justified belief in the quality of Japanese products. According to McCann’s ‘Truth about Global Brands’ study, only 21 per cent of Japanese trust global brands more than local ones, with a particular trust for local brands in big categories like health and beauty, food and beverage, technology and automobiles.
However, during recent years, many had a more negative frame of mind about the country itself. The end of the 1980s bubble years and the ageing population (along with a decline at many dominant symbolic companies like Sony, Sharp and Hitachi) created a powerful sense that Japan’s success had somehow been an illusion, or was over.
But, in 2014, the emotional tide turned, and in many ways the fastest growing brand was ‘Japan’ itself.
The economy has started to grow; GDP expanded at a galloping 3.9 per cent in 1Q 2015. Alongside newer brands like Uniqlo, Softbank and Rakuten that are powering ahead, traditional companies have started to show results from radical shake-ups. Sony’s seemingly irreversible decline, for example, has turned around – its shares have risen by more than 80 per cent in the last year (now that it has exited the PC business and spun off its TV business). The recent announcement of Nikkei Group’s purchase of the Financial Times is another reminder that Japan is expanding on all fronts to regain its position on the world stage; the deal comes on the back of previous Japanese acquisitions of famous global brands like Jim Beam and Orangina.
Moreover, the Nikkei has doubled in value the past two years. It is no surprise then that the Japan Kanji Aptitude Testing Foundation’s “kanji character of the year” in 2015 is “up”, signifying Japan’s high hopes and expectations for higher raises and bonuses this year.
Perhaps as importantly, the eyes of the world are on Tokyo again in Olympic anticipation. Having lead the world in technological prowess during the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, 2020 is poised to be the symbol of a more advanced way of living, where traditional Japanese values of harmony, respect for nature, and social cohesion prove their worth as the solution to the very post-modern challenges of an ageing population and environmental sustainability. And with Japanese athletes like Kei Nishikori rising quickly in the international sports scene, Japanese optimism and pride continues to surge.
In the same McCann study, 78 per cent of Japanese believe citizens of other countries admire the island nation. Thanks to the decline of the yen, tourist arrivals are rising rapidly (up 30 per cent in 2014), demonstrating to Japanese people the world’s interest in their culture and traditions. And the Japanese themselves are seeking out their own traditions more than ever as they prepare for the Olympics.
Tokyo Metro, for example, has run one of the biggest campaigns of this summer on the theme of ‘Find My Tokyo’. The objective is not only for people to enjoy the city for themselves, it is for them to prepare themselves to welcome visitors who will come to Japan for the Olympics.
And MasterCard’s 2015 Japan campaign is also about travelling, but not to overseas cities; it’s about seeking out the ‘Omotenashi’ moments – the priceless experiences of care and hospitality that are so distinctive to Japanese life. Uniqlo’s global collaboration with Shochiku Kabuki, a classical Japanese dance-theatre group, reinterprets the traditional Japanese art form in pop fashion.
Meanwhile, some recent campaigns have generated a lot buzz in Japan. A Nissin cup noodle campaign featuring a schoolgirl performing a series of cool tricks around the school has grabbed almost 2 million YouTube hits. The spot is no joke – the live action shoot supposedly took over 600 takes to complete. Another classic is their previous campaign, which touches the heart of Japanese who battle with their foreigner boss – in English – in the midst of globalisation. Nissin is there so you don’t fight on an empty stomach. However, the most popular campaign in Japan continues to be the long running, uniquely Japanese Softbank saga. An ordinary family discusses the advantages of their Softbank phone plans. Except that one of the brothers is African American. And the father is a white dog. Oh, and Tommy Lee Jones, reprising his popular canned coffee series as an alien studying earth, has joined the family. As a housekeeper. Obviously.
So the message for brands coming to Japan is clear. It is, once again, a land of opportunity. But, international brands have to define how they can play a role in Japanese society at a time when consumers want to celebrate their own culture.
John Woodward is chief strategy officer, McCann Worldgroup Japan