Traditionally, Western business academics have hailed Japanese companies for their socially oriented raison d’être. Shouldering the economic growth of the nation post-war, they sought to provide support for education, healthcare—even facilities for their employees’ family holidays. As far back as the 1950s, the Japan Association of Corporate Executives recognised companies as “organs of society”.
Scroll forward 60 years, and today’s reflection of Japanese corporate purpose comes principally in the form of mission statements at the end of sponsored TV shows and TVCs. Chanted into Japanese homes day after day, Panasonic talks of 'Wonders!'. Hitachi seeks to 'Inspire the Next'. And while Suntory believes in 'Living with Water', Mitsubishi espouses 'Changes for the Better', and Honda 'The Power of Dreams'. They allude to a corporate desire to build a better world, champion societal progress, and empower and protect subsequent generations.
If these came across with great authority in the post-war years, it’s now more of a challenge to talk credibly of inspiration and dreams. Today’s context is a declining economy and the steady erosion of lifetime employment. They’re no longer quite the organs they were. And so the noble higher purposes these companies hint at, and their visionary societal statements, risk becoming empty slogans.
It might be argued that the CSR activities of these companies risk taking on the hue of tokenism. Much of the focus in the big annual reports is on worthy initiatives—replanting forests and cleaning up rivers. Essential and admirable initiatives for sure, but they hardly speak of passionately held beliefs or purposes at the heart of the corporate mission. If anything, these approaches suggest organisations gazing in their rear-view mirrors.
Beyond developing succinct slogans, Japanese businesses could be working to develop and demonstrate fully integrated, category-legitimate social purposes that speak of their core motivating beliefs. Some have already begun: overseas, Kirin / Volvic’s 'Drink 1, Give 10' campaign and Saraya’s 'Wash a Million Hands' project are noteworthy examples. Closer to home, Facebook and Twitter found favour in Japan in the wake of the Tohoku disaster by enabling people to indicate to loved ones that they were safe. Honda utilised its own intellectual capital in navigation systems to offer much-needed guidance to citizens at the time of the disaster.
Some of the best examples from around the world show an approach to social purpose which is forward-facing and proactive—shining a positive, progressive light on the business leading it, and rallying employees, shareholders and consumers alike. Ultimately, when a synergy is found between the initiative, the category and the product, it can help to strengthen the positioning and reinforce the brand in the consumer consciousness. And when it brings alive the sense of what the corporation really believes in, what gets it, collectively, out of bed in the morning, that’s where the magic begins to happen.
Millennials are more likely than other generations to question the social-purpose credentials of potential employers. Which Japanese businesses will seek to champion the most top-of-mind societal issues? Which beauty or femcare brands will rally for, and bring greater attention to the unquestionable value of women in the workplace? Or seek to battle male depression? In a current global context where technological prowess is less of a differentiator for Japanese businesses, baking in forward-facing social purpose might be one of the keys to creating new value for tomorrow’s consumers, and keeping the country’s iconic brands on the road.
Kieran Holland is associate director at Flamingo London