This week, Japan Airlines (JAL) launched a global marketing department, with offices in Singapore, Shanghai, London and Los Angeles. It might seem surprising that such a prominent brand has never had one before, but it’s fairly typical for large Japanese corporations to conduct their marketing through an assortment of departments that often have little contact with one another.
JAL’s new department is an effort to bring these uncommunicative entities together. It has a clear business reason to do so: by 2027, it wants to double its sales revenue (compared with 2017 results) from outside Japan.
“That’s quite a daunting target to have,” admits Akira Mitsumasu, who is in charge of the department. “If you could easily double your revenue you’d have done it already. We also want to retain our profitability, not just go for numbers. So we need to rethink the way we’re doing marketing. It’s all in different siloes that aren’t always aligned.”
He is unable to disclose the budget, explaining that “we still need to go through a phase of trial and error”, which means the amount is still undetermined. It will involve pulling together advertising, social media and social ‘listening’, and PR. “We’re missing out on a lot of PR opportunities,” he says. “We have a lot of great things we want to shout about but it never quite reaches outside Japan.
The marketing function will co-locate with sales departments “so as to understand the pain points, problems and issues that we can use marketing to help solve”.
“I always think of marketing not just as something to do for the sake of it,” Mitsumasu says. “It should not be an end in itself but a means to an end… The essential part is really looking into how different individual markets behave differently, what problems there are there and how we can use marketing more effectively to solve those problems.”
“Problems” is a word Mitsumasu uses frequently. In management consulting-speak, true problems rarely exist inside companies, only areas for “improvement”. Mitsumasu disagrees with this thesis. “Loads of problems exist in any organisation,” he says. One is a disconnect between the way a company sees itself and its market and the reality. Inside a company, people tend to “report good news and hide the bad news under the carpet”, he reflects.
Mitsumasu promises to “start asking hard questions”. Two are whether JAL is “moving fast enough”, and where the gaps in its capabilities are, which “requires a humble mindset”.
While now in a marketing role, he has deep experience of the company. Over 30 years, he has worked in reservations, business planning, auditing and customer experience among numerous other areas. Having partly grown up in Hong Kong, his time at JAL has also seen stints in Beijing and Singapore. This varied background, typical of big Japanese companies, helps him to see his current role objectively—something that lifelong marketers sometimes struggle to do.
Commoditised as the airline business is, Mitsumasu wants to emphasise JAL’s humanity. That involves looking at the reasons people travel and deciding how to improve products and services. Some prototype initiatives include specialised ski trips for the physically handicapped, tours catering to people with dementia, and “pet charters” that enable people to travel with their four-legged companions. “It’s more than marketing,” he says. “We are zooming out to look at the full journey and how we can be relevant.”
‘Customer experience’ is a vague term that has many definitions. For Mitsumasu, it means “eliminating stress and at the same time producing delight”. It requires attention to small details. “A lot of travelers don’t like the idea of someone queueing behind them at a self-check-in,” he says as an example. “There are lots of subtle things. We need to try to understand how we can eliminate those things and empower staff to be more proactive.”
To do that, JAL is attempting to combine its wealth of data from disparate systems in order to feed frontline staff real-time information about their customers. But Mitsumasu admits using that information well is a further challenge. “It’s easy to say, let’s push it to them, but the question is do they really have time to digest that information,” he says.
That means tacit understanding of how to behave is just as important. The “personalised” service that many companies claim to aspire to can go a long way, but it’s not appropriate for every occasion or customer. “I want a good balance between applying technology and maintaining our human side,” he says. “That is so important in service-related work.”
Humanity was not a major feature of last year’s global branding work, ‘On the dot’. The campaign talked up JAL’s punctuality, but little else. Mitsumasu defends the work by saying its message was about attention to detail rather than just punctuality. He says this is a key brand asset, akin to Singapore Airlines’ first-class beds and Cathay Pacific’s luxury lounges. Still, as for the campaign itself, he concedes: “We might change it this year.”
As a brand, JAL is already relatively well established internationally, which is indicative of the comeback it has made since filing for bankruptcy in 2010. “JAL has it easier than ANA in terms of recognition,” says a New York-based observer familiar with the sector. “What foreigner knows what ANA stands for?” But JAL’s awareness level is probably not the result of a concerted branding effort. The source notes that “not many Japanese companies are used to doing global campaigns”, JAL among them.
Asked which brands outside aviation he admires, Mitsumasu points to Patek Philippe, McDonald’s and Tiffany: the watch brand for its ability to evoke emotion, and the other two for being instantly recognisable. JAL’s crane logo is too, he says, but thinks the brand as a while would benefit from greater consistency, which the global marketing department presumably aims to deliver.
Along with ANA, JAL is an official partner of Tokyo 2020 and is bidding to carry the torch as it did in the 1964 games. Mitsumasu is concerned with leaving behind a legacy, “something that will last for decades to come”. He is not yet sure what it will be, but he is keen to improve travel for people with physical and mental disabilities. He also sees an opportunity to showcase the “many unknown gems of Japan” in rural areas.
Looking further ahead, like other well-established companies including Toyota and Panasonic, he sees value in behaving more as a “retailer”, or ideally a “platform” that facilitates the whole travel experience. “It’s time for airlines to wake up and be more active in providing options and choices,” he says.