David Blecken
Jun 25, 2018

Japan's top mobile-friendly brands

Key to a successful mobile-strategy is making a brand part of consumers' lives, comment Japan market experts on the country's favourite phone-friendly companies.

Amazon is seen as Japan's most mobile-friendly brand (Photo: Jaap Ariens/Nur Photo via AFP)
Amazon is seen as Japan's most mobile-friendly brand (Photo: Jaap Ariens/Nur Photo via AFP)

As part of our look at Japan's top brands of 2018, part of the Asia's Top 1000 Brands report, we found that Japanese consumers see Amazon, Google and Rakuten as the country’s most mobile-friendly brands. What are they doing right that others can learn from?

We asked four in-market observers for their insights into these brands and others that are benefiting from their use of mobile, and for an opinion on which social media platform can make or break a brand in the Japanese market.

Omri Reis, strategic planner, AKQA Tokyo:
I agree with the ranking but believe that each of these brands is in the list for different reasons.

Google naturally benefited from the growth of mobile search that increased along with smartphone penetration in Japan and the strong retail environment, especially in Tokyo.

For Amazon, the reason is better mobile experience overall: payment options (including the mandatory pre-paid cards and convenience store option), the Amazon staple customer service that works well on mobile and the strengthening and diversification of Amazon Prime services and products (including Prime Video). However, with Amazon there is also the anticipation: events like the Amazon Bar or the launch of the Dash button make users curious to see what the company comes up with next. People said that food delivery has limited potential in a city like Tokyo and Uber is starting to prove them wrong. Amazon will do the same with a combination of ecommerce, delivery and brick-and-mortar retail in the next few years.

For Rakuten, I would say the company is not winning because of the pure mobile user experience or service but because of an economy of scale and network effects. Rakuten has one of the most powerful point systems in Japan (Super Points), a mobile carrier and a mobile payment service. All of these connect categories that are separate or nonexistent for Amazon and not a high priority for Google in Japan. If you look at their acquisitions history over the past few years you can see how their ambition in fields like fintech or sharing-economy services translates to the differentiating point from the other two.

Another brand doing well on mobile is Muji. The Muji Passport app has been smart to introduce shop mileage that consumers can gain when checking into brick-and-mortar shops. Muji thinks about retail spaces just like a tech company would think about session times and bounce rates and this is very smart. When people are incentivised to spend time in shops it means that they are more immersed in the brand world, more receptive to messaging coming from the brand, and, of course, more likely to shop. This is true for any environment, but even more true for physical retail.

Muji's Passport app "enriches each product's story" (Image: Muji)

When we think about social platforms that can determine a brand’s fortunes, the obvious answer is Line, but the real answer is more complicated than this.

First, very few brands can afford to have an official Line business account. This means there are only a few players in the market that have a direct, push channel into millions of consumers’ screens. However, there are quite a few interesting ways to bypass this problem. The Line@ account that’s used for an event and linked to other branded channels is, I think, an under-explored option. Samsung used it cleverly in its recent Galaxy S9 launch. At the event, you could get a free drink if you registered to the smaller account—but for Samsung this means establishing a channel with influential consumers.

The second is also quite obvious—Instagram, which continues to grow fast. Here there are specifically two strong opportunities: the new Nametags function and the growing sophistication of Instagram Stories.

Nametags are basically an answer to Line. With QR codes consumers can cultivate a different relationship with stores than the one offered by a Line@ account. More visual and less transactional (Line@ accounts are heavy on promotions and coupons).

Instagram Stories is increasingly offering tremendous creative storytelling opportunities, starting from rich video (with added GIFs, texts etc.) and ending with a very interesting genre development dubbed ‘short movie’ in Japan. Influencers are increasingly becoming protagonists in deeper narratives that touch on more diverse issues. This trend is not special to Instagram but can certainly be leveraged by thoughtful use of this platform.

Lastly is the hot potato—Twitter. I would say brands need to be extra careful with Twitter. Twitter is the anonymous conversation generator; you want to be on it, read passively or use proxies, but the dynamic on Twitter is different. Brands need to realise the power-low distribution governing Twitter content production in Japan, and more importantly, understand the culture in this small community. Brands like Nissin and McDonalds typically get it; others, like Suntory, have recently exemplified the risks and pitfalls embedded in the platform.

Rui Nago, senior planning director, Grey Group Japan:
I agree with these being the most mobile-friendly brands. This result reminds me that mobile-friendliness is neither about creating stylish UX, funny content, nor innovative apps. It is all about making brands a part of the consumers’ life. All these three brands are ‘life infrastructures of today’ even in Japan. We shop to live. We want to know things in order to live. These brands keep evolving such that they are always embedded in peoples’ lives. Their mobile apps or mobile sites are just following and embodying the evolution.

To be clear, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a brand should provide universal services appealing to people all over Japan. It depends on what kind of people or tribe the brand exists for or is targeting. Nike Running Club is a part of life for those who love running. Boss’s guitar tuning app is essential for my dad who plays the acoustic guitar. The key is to be a part of someone’s life and behaviour whom the brand thinks is their most important customer and to keep connected to them, 365 days a year.

Another brand offering an exceptional mobile experience is Line. This is another example of the ‘infrastructure of today’ in Japan. We cannot communicate and be connected to each other without it. When it first launched, it just looked like a messenger app, but actually it is super well-designed for Japanese culture in communication—high-contextual info, full of nuances, and a good individual versus group balance. 

Line also offers an experience tailored to the Japanese market, but has struggled to expand internationally

If I had to choose a brand that utilises mobile to help build business and brand, Muji’s 'Muji Passport' comes to mind. The app not only enriches each product’s story, which makes them look and seem essential in our lives, but also naturally drives the brand’s omni-channel strategy, which makes our whole shopping experience better.

Instagram is probably the best platform used by brands. What’s great about Instagram is its positivity—the vibe of its posts are filled with happiness and optimism, rather than the hatred, criticism, or cynicism which are often seen on other social networking sites. Very rarely can a brand be built without displaying people’s happiness of using it or optimism towards the future with the brand. The majority of the time, people don’t tap Instagram’s rainbow-colored icon when they want to display anger or negativity though sometimes people do get jealous seeing other people’s Instagram posts. Even then, jealousy can often be an important fuel for making a brand aspirational and people then wanting to join that brand’s experience.

Togo Kida, creative technologist, Dentsu Lab Tokyo:
I would agree with consumers on these brands. Let’s look at each of them.

The Amazon app has a feature to search for a product you’re looking for without typing. Instead, you use the camera and take a picture of the product itself. When this feature is activated, it shows a video which demonstrates how to use the feature. The instruction is non-verbal and intuitive.

Among the plethora of services Google offers, it successfully provides a mobile-friendly user experience by separating all of the products. Products such as Drive, Analytics, Maps, Documents and Earth are all easy to use.

I think Rakuten is successful in creating a unique mobile experience different from that of Amazon. Unlike the personalised experience on Amazon, Rakuten creates one where the trend as a whole is represented. You can see what the hottest products are among various categories and demographics.

These brands aside, I’d say Moneytree is doing a great job in providing exceptional user experience. Despite the fact that financial information is not something the Japanese banks are good at visualising (the UI design on banking websites is horrible), this app beautifully organises and displays necessary financial information.

I would say Twitter is the social platform that can make or break a brand in Japan. Nowadays, there are so many examples where a specific company has been “roasted” on Twitter. On the other hand, there is also number of good examples which brands built a reputation on it. Nissin’s “10min Donbei” is a good example. This initiative was specifically tailored to be circulated on social media such as SNS. It has built Nissin’s brand greatly.

Steven Bleistein, CEO and founder, Relansa:
There is no reason to disagree that these brands are mobile-friendly. However, they are all online-only services. It’s interesting to note that no brick-and-mortar business made it into the top three.

There are other brands that also offer an exceptional mobile experience. Yodobashi Camera has a superb ecommerce site that integrates its online services with its brick-and-mortar better than just about any other brand I know. For example, many items are made available for pick-up in a physical store in less than an hour if a customer chooses that option for delivery.

Social media platforms neither make nor break brands. The businesses that own them do. No social media platform will help make a brand unless the content improves people’s lives in some way. Messaging without value is insufficient. Any social media platform can break a brand if the brand damages people’s lives in some way. No amount of social media or CSR can compensate to fix that. Only a real change in the business’s practices can.

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