The days of ‘if you build it, they will come’ are long gone in Japan.
There was a time when Japanese brands were cool. There were a handful of iconic brands that everyone in Japan talked about and dreamed of owning their products. Those were the days when ‘if you build it, they will come’ concept worked. Brands simply needed to pump out good products, and create ads to drive the image of those products to connect with the audience. However, no one seems to be talking about these brands today. What happened? How did they lose their mojo?
Social networking and accessibility of technology is what happened. Similar to other markets, these services have had tremendous impact on the way people engage with brands. Days of just selling products as a means to an end are over. We can’t treat our customers as just buyers – we have to start treating them as a part of the brand.
More people are relying on social media when purchasing a product. Google and Yahoo are the mainstream providers of searches for general information. But what’s unique about Japanese consumers, especially the younger generation, is how they use Instagram as their search engine.
Tabelog, a service similar to Yelp, is the dominant search engine in recommending dining establishments, but the younger audience prefers to use Instagram because of its intuitiveness (pictures) and relevancy (posted by people they can relate to). And with the accessibility of intuitive technologies, anyone can become the voice of the brand; sharing their experiences about a particular new product or event they attended using their creativity.
With an overflow of apps that allow people to create beautiful content, user generated content is gradually substituting conventional content created by media. As one Instagram user commented, “It’s more fun browsing through Instagram than magazines. More authentic and less commercialized.” So today, in Japan, the line between brands and consumers are blurred more than ever. Customers are no longer just buyers and users, they are part of the brand.
So what does this mean? What are the implications for the Japanese brands and the agencies?
If the customers are no longer just buyers and users, shouldn’t the brands and agencies stop communicating at them, and start communicating them?
Yes, some brands are taking a crack at this by allowing the customers to voice their opinion for the new product by voting which option they prefer. But what if we can actually work together with key opinion leaders? If there was a way that a product can evolve and be updated overtime with customer’s input?
To a degree, I think the iPhone is a great example. As a piece of hardware it’s just a phone or small computer, but with the apps, it can become anything – constantly being updated and uniquely customized. Maybe the lesson we can learn from Apple is creating a platform with enough room for customers to customize on their own.
The same theory could apply to communications as well. The traditional advertising approach is to inform and provide input of a product or service. It’s essentially a one-way communication. To communicate with them, and not at them, we need to figure out how to engage in people’s conversations.
People talk about their experiences, but not many talk about what’s been communicated to them unless it's gossip. As one of my creative team members puts it, “The difference is similar to Disney movies vs Disneyland. It’s not about feeding beautiful stories, but allowing people to experience the story themselves.”
Given these implications, there’s more reason why the brands and agencies need to work together to create experiences that customers will feel worth sharing and talking about, and more importantly, at a speed of culture. It’s similar to friendship. A relationship based on experience, conversation, fun, honesty and trust. Maybe that’s how we build a brand in the future…and how to become their friend.
Masa Okazaki is senior planning director, TBWA\HAKUHODO Japan