Kimito Uemura’s first overseas posting for the company came late in the day. “In 2008, my previous boss asked me to go to Hong Kong to be GM of international marketing,” he explains. “I had always wanted to work abroad but at the age of 46, I gave up and I thought this dream had passed. I was very surprised,” he says.
Up until that point Uemura had lived in Tokyo and Osaka, and spoke not a word of English. Two and a half years on in the role and he can confidently converse in English — a feat in itself.
Uemura is what you might call a ‘Nikon lifer’ having worked for the Japanese imaging and optic giant for over 22 years. He originally chose Nikon because he says he wanted to work for a “very serious and trusted” company. “My father worked for Mitsubishi Group,” he adds. “That group has a trusted reputation and is very serious. On the other hand I also wanted to join a company that was cool.”
And in his early twenties, for Uemura, Nikon represented all these qualities.
Fast-forward twenty or so years and Uemura’s remit as international marketing manager, based in Hong Kong, now covers the region from New Zealand to the Middle East, excluding Korea and Japan.
Uemura has clearly loved every moment of his time in Asia’s World City. “I love Hong Kong. It is a very exciting city,” he says. “It makes me very happy that Hong Kong people are like Japanese and it is fascinating to live in a small city where people come from all over the world.”
But Uemura’s time in Hong Kong has also coincided with a number of major challenges for the camera giant. Most recently, of course, was the devastating earthquake in March in Japan. Nikon cancelled the production of the Coolpix S4100 point and shoot that it announced back in February. The camera was slated to be shipped in May, but due to supply shortages imposed by the disaster, Nikon issued an apology to consumers and retailers awaiting its release.
While natural disasters and the magnitude of the earthquake are impossible to account for, Nikon has also been facing a number of slow-burning changes in the market. The company has spent recent years building on its reputation for technical superiority and innovation and it has had success with its high-end digital single lens reflex (SLR) cameras, but rapid advances in electronics means camera-makes are continually leapfrogging each other in sales. Instead of fighting to gain permanent market-share, they fight every day in functionality.
And despite exciting developments in the sector, it seems innovation is unmatched by brand advertising. Uemura concedes that technology is far ahead of the connection with consumers who
can sometimes end up feeling like they are being force-fed technology.
Indeed, in the past concentrating on technological innovation has led Nikon to be criticised for being too inwardly focused, unlike rivals such as Canon, which have tended to lead with much more consumer-focused messaging. But this is something that is changing. Uemura says Nikon “needs to understand” its customers’ needs.
Uemura’s objective is for Nikon to build a strong emotional brand, rather than fighting a new battle each day on a different technological feature.
“We are studying our customers. We have to create products customers want. We want our advertising to now show this — that we are very customer-orientated,” he says. “But, customers also think Nikon is a leader in technology. We produce high performance cameras, which are good quality.
We are dedicated to photography and image quality but focusing on a branding strategy that encompasses both these points has presented us with
This dilemma has clearly been troubling for Nikon. “Customers sometimes think we are trying to say something we are not. This is one of the difficulties we have faced when we are doing our advertising. We are trying very hard to show people that Nikon is very easy to use as well as offering innovative technology. We are trying very hard to achieve this balance.”
Knowing that consumers still want great shots, is the easy part, Uemura says, but they also want an interactive experience with custom menus and downloadable apps. “And they want built-in web-browsers to upload content directly online. They want to share.”
The ubiquitousness of consumers using smartphones to take photos consequently presents challenges to Nikon, like all the other camera brands.
“A decade ago we didn’t face this challenge,” says Uemura. “We are very aware of this now though. We have conducted research into whether market-share is taken by smartphones. And what we believe is mobiles and digital cameras can co-exist in the market. Users know when to use which device, which moment suits which device. Nowadays, the main reason to take photos is to share them with friends. But the photo quality of mobile phones is not good. On the other hand the connectivity of cameras online is not good.”
He reinforces the point by adding that Nikon was the first manufacturer to produce a camera that can connect to wifi. “We will always try and provide what customers want and we understand that today this is connectivity. If this is what they want we will look into it.”
Uemura’s prediction that camera phones and digital cameras can live side-by-side may well be true. According to GfK Asia’s digital camera retail audit findings in the nine markets of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines strong double digit growth in the range of 13 to 39 per cent in value was achieved, while unit growth saw nine to 39 per cent growth. Overall, US$3 billion worth of cameras was sold across these markets last year.
Meanwhile, Nikon has also balanced its advertising spend between online and offline, not losing sight of the fact that television still works in terms of presenting the quality of Nikon’s photos. “We don’t focus on TV in the same way as our competitors. Equally, we don’t need too much of a shift to digital. We need to be integrated,” says Uemura.
However, he also stresses that Nikon is now making better use of its online presence to boost brand. Until recently its websites were extremely corporate-looking and not very exciting from a consumer point of view. This, he hopes, is set to change.
“We have launched an online album called ‘My Picture Town’ which has already been accessed by one million users worldwide. We plan more focus in this area and will give consumers another Nikon-branded platform to share in the near-future.”
Nikon is now working with JWT Hong Kong on a campaign, which in itself is a step away from the domestic agency partnership it would have relied on in the past.
“In Asia–Pacific, and especially in Southeast Asia, we have launched a brand campaign for the Coolpix Spring series of digital cameras, which encourages the sharing of images. It runs with the tagline ‘Let images speak’ and is all about representing the moment. How to find, how to share. Let the images be the storytellers and catching emotions.”
Despite the brand’s consumer-facing ambition, though, in the final analysis Uemura still finds it difficult to drift too far from his two decades of Nikon conditioning and the brand’s technological DNA, stating that it is the quality of the camera that should always be the marketing starting point: “The images need to be good enough in the first place.”
This article was originally published in the June issue of Campaign Asia-Pacific.