David Blecken
Mar 31, 2017

The man shaping Domino’s offbeat character in Japan

Best practice, consumer profiling and general caution are all out the window.

Tomonobu Tominaga
Tomonobu Tominaga

Premium Friday is one month old today. While the government-led campaign to encourage workers in Japan to knock off early on the last Friday of the month has encountered broad scepticism, it has at least inspired some amusing responses from brands.

A delightfully simple and opportunistic highlight was ‘Ennui Monday’. Recognizing that very few people will actually be able to take Friday afternoons off, Domino’s Pizza introduced a tongue-in-cheek promotion to help beat the blues of not just being back at work on Monday, but having missed out on Premium Friday as well.

Domino’s cheeky personality in Japan has a lot to do with Tomonobu Tominaga, who has led the brand’s marketing efforts since June 2016. He is supported by Momentum, which he appointed after apparently struggling to work with the incumbent, ADK.

Other recent harebrained schemes he has led include the Christmastime ‘reindeer delivery’. It could be seen as a failure: the reindeer were predictably useless at delivering pizza, and the system was woefully under-equipped to meet extremely high customer demand. Sales on 24 December 2016 rose 40 percent on the previous record—but the system crashed. This resulted in some angry customers and negative publicity, but the whole initiative got people to sit up and take an interest in the brand, which is a lot more than can be said for your average pizza chain.

This sort of thing is not unique to Japan. Domino’s has also spoken directly to individuals via billboards in the US, delivered by self-driving robot in New Zealand and in the UK delivered by canoe and given out pizza-themed engagement rings. All examples are stunts, but collectively they are helping to shape a personality in a space where personality is in surprisingly short supply. The approach also shows quick thinking and a willingness to experiment, which brands in a range of sectors—especially in Japan—could learn a lot from.

Tominaga, who joined after eight years at Walmart and has also worked at BAT, Coca-Cola and Microsoft, is clear about the challenges facing the brand. Pizza in Japan is still an “occasion”, he says, with the average consumer ordering one just two or three times a year. His aim is to expand the market to compete with “non-pizza players”—to make pizza as everyday as the hamburger or KFC chicken sandwich.

His philosophy to achieving this is also quite clear. Firstly, he believes surprise is essential to any memorable communications—but it has to connect with reality. Then he says it’s important to resist being “too handsome”. Employees are brainwashed into thinking their companies are at least 20 percent more appealing than they really are, he says. Instead, they should step back and see their brand from the less flattering consumer perspective.

In Domino’s case, the consumer is undefined. Tominaga says the focus is on tracking and understanding people’s intent and motivations, rather than actual groups of people. To compete with the likes of KFC, flexibility is key, he says. (Research is underway to identify Domino’s top competitor, which he says may well not be a pizza brand.) Essentially, everything is open to marketing experimentation except for the quality of the product. Ennui Monday itself was tactical rather than strategic. But going against what everyone else is doing (i.e. launching promotions for Premium Friday) with a sense of humour is very much part of Domino’s brand strategy.

Like many of the best creative thinkers, Tominaga sees having limited funds not as a hindrance but an advantage. “I can say that what we are doing is the result of constraint in terms of budget,” he says. “Being limited in the media we can purchase—that makes us creative.”

Logically speaking, Tominaga says, TV is still important, not just for awareness but also to make people act. Around half Domino’s budget still goes in that direction. But he puts a lot of value on spontaneous action, which requires a very different mindset. As TV’s role continues to diminish, testing, learning and adapting will become standard, he says. In a statement rarely heard in Japan, he claims to hate the notion of ‘best practice’, although he acknowledges that some framework can help junior marketers.

His advice is to disregard what others are doing and take a unique approach. “Thinking from scratch is the only way to solve your own problems,” he says. Unsurprisingly, people who in meetings look at last year’s activities as a reference point irritate him. 

“You may take part in some seminar that tells you that an online video should be less than five seconds, or that you need to show your logo no later than two seconds in,” he says. “This is fucking useless. The only reason they teach it like that is because someone has enjoyed success in that way. Once others follow, they won’t enjoy the same success.”

Campaign Japan

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