David Blecken
Jun 9, 2016

Mastering Snapchat will be a real sign of progress for brands in Japan

Snapchat is a small player in a country dominated by Line, Twitter and Facebook, but marketers would be foolish to ignore it.

Mastering Snapchat will be a real sign of progress for brands in Japan

Snapchat was recently valued at US$18 billion after its latest round of funding, which came to $1.8 billion. In spite of Japan’s top-heavy population, the youthful app offers brands good potential—if they can loosen up.

In an interview with Campaign Asia-Pacific last year, Yasuhito Nakae, president and CEO of AOI Pro, a major production company in Tokyo, expressed enthusiasm for Snapchat because it was one of the few mobile-based platforms designed with vertical content in mind. It was a good point, but there are other reasons that brands should be taking notice.

Kazuaki Kuribayashi, a planner at TBWA Hakuhodo, called Snapchat “without doubt the hottest [social platform] out there”. That might sound like an exaggeration in Japan, where it only recently localised and holds just 3.5 percent share of mobile media app usage in the 15- to 19-year-old age bracket and 6 percent among 20- to 29-year-olds. It also faces local competition from Winker, a similar service that launched in 2014.

But there’s no reason that it shouldn’t grow, said Mike Sunda, lead social content strategist at Mullen Lowe in Tokyo. “Facebook and Twitter have both shown how Japan can adopt global platforms on its own terms, ultimately being taken up in ways that reflected specific local needs,” he noted.

Sunda said Snapchat’s interface should help dispel privacy concerns by making all actions public and accountable. The ‘My Story’ feed is also an attractive proposition for celebrity bloggers and internet idols to connect with a generation tied to their smartphones, Sunda added.

“We are now seeing the rise of Instagram in Japan among younger smartphone users, and I can imagine Snapchat will also gain traction,” said Marco Koeder, digital strategy director at J. Walter Thompson Japan. “Both of them allow young users to ‘funnel in’ and ‘funnel out’, a growing behavioural trend we have seen for the past five years.”

By "funnelling in", Koeder is referring to the move away from collecting thousands of acquaintances to socialising in more intimate groups; "funnelling out" refers to users opening up to new people in order to build their network. 

Koeder pointed out that to really grow, however, requires “much more local content and a better communication strategy”. Assuming users do expand, where do brands fit in? Kuribayashi said brands in Japan generally lag the US by two years when it comes to involvement in social platforms. “With this logic in mind, 2016 is the exact year that Japanese companies should start taking part,” he said.

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But how? Koeder said that from the outset, it’s important that brands create a “meaningful experience for users and not hijack it as another advertising platform”.

Snapchat follows Line to some extent by enabling branded content, but keeping it in a separate ‘closed circuit’ ecosystem from peer-to-peer exchanges, Sunda said. He noted Red Bull, still widely seen as a leader in content marketing, recently posted its first ‘snaps’ in Japan—from its Air Race in Chiba prefecture.

“Presumably it won’t be long before more influential domestic brands start playing around with the platform,” he said. But challenges do exist. Kuribayashi said “the obstacles to be overcome by Japanese brands are high”.

“For brands to enter into the Snapchat realm, they have to understand the story fully, and let loose and enjoy like the users,” Kuribayashi said. “This is essential. Translating content for other media and pouring it into Snapchat won’t work.”

Considering many brands are still reluctant to enable YouTube comments, there is clearly some way to go. Overcoming this barrier will mean a “huge change” in terms of the approach to marketing in Japan, Kuribayashi said.

At the same time Snapchat itself is likely to morph to fit Japanese norms. As with Japan’s adoption of other social networks, “it will likely inspire all sorts of new and unique modes of usage that even long-term proponents of the platform could barely imagine,” Sunda concluded.

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