David Blecken
Aug 26, 2016

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries takes soft approach for global growth

Little-known beyond Japan, the corporate giant aims to inject some personality into its brand with the launch of a media property.

SPECTRA is MHI's first venture into the world of content
SPECTRA is MHI's first venture into the world of content

Being big and being known are two very different things. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) is a US$40 billion company that few outside Japan have heard of. With major growth ambitions in the US, MHI is moving to change that with the help of a large-scale branding campaign and the launch of its own online media platform, SPECTRA.

The name may bring to mind, at least for a second, imagery of Bond villains and world domination efforts. Thankfully, SPECTRA’s aims are more benign. It’s an initiative to raise awareness of the MHI brand in a subtle but ongoing way, by providing a source of information and commentary on the field of heavy industry.

As the name suggests, it promises to cover a wide range of topics, some ‘heavy’, others less so. Far from being a straightforward PR channel for MHI, SPECTRA bears minimal branding and its content is compiled by journalists who are not part of the company and are ostensibly free to write about anything they deem of interest, including competitors. In that respect, the platform differs from the ‘media centres’ operated by forerunners such as GE and Nissan, which remain firmly focused on the brands’ own activities. It’s a big step for an 82-year-old company that has never even had an international communications function before.

The launch of SPECTRA follows the announcement of a new group mission statement, ‘Move the world forward’, in May. A global branding campaign bearing the slogan and announcing the company’s ambitions is underway.

An image from MHI's new global branding campaign

Brand key to breaking the $50 billion mark

“This is the first time for us to make a deliberate effort to communicate internationally,” says Keisuke Saito, senior GM of MHI’s corporate communication department. The company recently made several international hires in PR and branding in Tokyo and the US. Saito points to business goals of $50 billion in annual revenue with a profit of $6.5 billion. “If you try to get beyond $50 billion, you have to think very carefully about your brand value. Until recently, MHI never considered investing in brand value at all because we have close to 100 percent awareness in Japan. But outside, awareness is very low.”

Bob Pickard, a PR consultant with extensive experience in Japan and Asia and is now principal of Toronto-based PR firm Signal Leadership Communication, confirms that. In North America, “mostly MHI is not known, certainly as a conglomerate,” he says. “When people hear the Mitsubishi name, the automobile company is what comes immediately to mind.”

But Pickard says the “elite stakeholders” who do know MHI see it positively. “They probably regard it as one of the few big corporate groups in Japan that seems to have some ambition driving it forward. It is also a reminder of the industrial might of Japan Inc at its most impressive. Maybe some would label it as a ‘Japanese GE’.”

That’s not a bad platform to build upon. But Saito says to really become known, MHI needs a face. Pickard says the leaders as presented on its website “come across as monochromatic and stiff”. To help change that, MHI’s president, Shunichi Miyanaga, has four trips planned to the US this year specifically for PR purposes. “Japanese CEOs are famous for being invisible,” says Saito. “Our CEO does understand the value of PR and is able to communicate globally.”

“Thought leadership is not corporate policy”

At the heart of MHI’s new approach is thought leadership, which Hiroyuki Suematsu, head of brand strategy, says is also rare as a concept among Japanese companies—but critical in order to advance internationally.

“For us [Japanese companies] to continue to grow in today’s world, all of us have to have some sort of philosophy,” he says. “Thought leadership is not corporate policy. In our case, it’s what we—a company and society—should do for the earth together. Japanese companies tend to think of PR as just telling their story as opposed to engaging with people properly. We can use SPECTRA to come to conclusions together; it’s a completely different approach to branding the company.”

In some ways, MHI is starting to behave more like a consumer brand than a corporate one. SPECTRA aims to reach further than MHI’s obvious B2B stakeholders, and those behind it acknowledge it needs to be more than just another content marketing site.

“The biggest reason we’re asking third parties to write is that if people receiving the articles don’t find them interesting, there’s no point,” says Saito. “We can send a one-way message out to the world through advertising. This is meant to be useful and objective content.”

Saito says Japanese companies need to be aware of the implications of global diversity and “borderless information” when they try to get their message across.

“By using the consumer model of marketing, we’re trying to make it appeal to more people around the world,” he explains. “If we were to build a nuclear power station in Turkey, it’s not only a case of selling nuclear power to the Turkish government. We have to gain the support of the local community as well. In a way it’s about building trust. As a company that deals in these huge projects, we need to be able to communicate far more broadly than we have been.”

Of course, the average person may not be interested in the finer details of gas turbine assembly. But by identifying what’s interesting, simplifying it and presenting it in a more engaging manner, MHI hopes to make the industrial world more relatable. In the end, “it’s not peoples’ job to try and understand our message,” says Daniel Lochmann, MHI’s PR director. “It’s our job to make our message understandable by them. If they don’t, we’re not doing it right.”

Social strategy overdue

Pickard is optimistic about SPECTRA’s potential. He calls the platform “richly visual, completely different” to the usual text-based, rather dry Japanese online aesthetic. At the same time, he notes that it stands in sharp contrast to MHI’s corporate website, which he says lacks personality and social media features.

He cautions SPECTRA against “going overboard with splashy pictures” but says the stories so far have been interesting. Still, ensuring they are shareable on social channels will be key, he says, and this is likely to require some trial and error. Lochmann says the team is currently “thinking about how to get our feet wet in social media”.

MHI has a number of things standing in its favour: not least, it’s information-rich, and is showing itself to be proactive, Pickard notes. “Now all they need to do is use social media platforms to build their brand globally, because that’s where they eyeballs and brains are of the people who are most important to them,” he says.

Again, those at the top will have an important role to play. “Cultural collectivism and modesty are understandable, but their leadership could be packaged as more dynamic communicators and made more interesting to follow online,” advises Pickard. “By the standards of a decade ago, MHI are communicating like a star. By the standards of today, they are definitely behind the curve. They appear to have no coherent social media strategy, which signals that they have a lot of work to do in the digital domain.”

Read this article in Japanese on Campaign Japan: グローバルな成長を目指す-三菱重工のソフトアプローチ

Campaign Japan

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