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By Dominic Carter

It is already beyond a cliché to use the term ‘new normal’ when it comes to describing our business and personal lives since the Covid crisis began. Nevertheless, its simply a fact that things are very different than they were on January 1st 2020 when we rang in the new year with our usual optimism. 

In the short term, we can all imagine the impact on consumers because we have all been going through the same thing: As we worry about the future of our health and finances, we’ve been working from home, pondering the future of work, while digital life has begun to take over real life. This is no different in Japan compared to anywhere else in the world. 

In addition to those areas it is likely that the crisis is either giving birth to or accelerating some positive social trends that have been largely stuck in ‘neutral’ in Japan such as a more flexible work culture that will benefit both men and women allowing for better domestic relationships and a more balanced lifestyle overall.  

If we move the clock a little further into the future of Japan’s post covid consumer, things become more difficult to predict. Apart from digital-enabled businesses and the essentials of life such as groceries, most consumer categories have taken a hit. In the short term, CarterJMRN surveys show that the most badly affected categories are the obvious ones which involve anything where groups of people congregate (i.e., restaurant dining, theme parks, cinemas and so on). 

Luxury brands, fashion and jewellery are among the next most hard hit categories while daily necessities, skincare and nutritional supplements are looking pretty stable. On the other hand, any commerce that can be transacted digitally such as online shopping, food home delivery, streaming entertainment and education as well as video gaming is going gangbusters.  

As I write this in July 2020, the most important questions facing brands (apart from securing their supply chains) centre on how well consumers have related to them through the crisis, how appropriately have brands responded to their expectations, and what would buyers like to see ‘their’ brands do next? New experiences have created a changed consumer and what they consider important has changed. So, it is critically important to check in with your brands existing users and rebuild strategies that address them first before looking for growth.   

The strategies that need to be employed to stay relevant to users will be different for all brands. However, because we have been continuously interviewing Japanese consumers on behalf of our clients in a broad range of categories without a break during this crisis, we are able to see some general ‘watch out’ themes.  

Exercise and health are at the fore 

It is certainly to be expected that people have a higher focus than normal on cleanliness and hygiene. As foundational needs these come first in all consumption experiences. 

But beyond the obvious responses such as disinfection and hand-washing, the crisis is generating more consciousness around health and lifestyle. For example, many people have started to enjoy cooking at home and to be more mindful of the quality and healthfulness of what they are eating. 

With the reduction in commuting people are also finding they need to think more about moving their bodies and are exercising more at home. People who frequented gyms are cancelling their memberships and starting to create home gyms, investing in equipment such as dumbbells, bench and jump ropes. Some gyms are even offering Zoom classes to keep their members connected to them. 

Bricks and mortar experience is losing attractiveness

When looking at physical retail, as the necessary precautions of social distancing are enforced, we see erosion in the quality of experience. In many cases a mediocre experience online is preferred to the inconvenience and intrusion meted out in many bricks and mortar stores currently as they confirm your bona fides as a non-virus carrier. Indeed, people are using convenience stores less frequently, limiting the time spent in stores of all types and even giving up on window shopping. 

Its hard to see much enjoyment in a retail experience where shop staff keep their distance while customers feel nervous to touch anything. Deep thought about how to re-create physical experiences so they uplift and provide something that digital cannot is urgently needed if many bricks and mortar retailers are to survive.  

Adaptations such as enabling contactless payments and making the overall experience safe but not cumbersome are needed. Further looking at physical retail as an extension of digital and not the other way around is, increasingly, a valid way to reimagine retail. 

Digital experiences are efficient but present opportunities for humanisation

Consumerfacing businesses have focused on facilitating transactions in a way that mitigates health risks and, where practical, shifted the entire shopping and fulfilment process to digital. The super-rapid adaptation that many companies have been able to undertake from facetoface to digital is impressive.  

But is digital providing a better experience, or is it a worse experience? Has anything been lost in the shift? Have we lost the human touch by digitalising? Making the digital more ‘human seems to be the final frontier in digitalisation and will surely be a source of sustainable competitive advantage to those brands that get it right.  

Getting it right is going to involve having a proper understanding of all the ‘knock-on’ effects of the pandemic’s impact on our lives.  Elements of mobile first design, enhanced discoverability across multiple platforms and ultra-friendly customer websites that incorporate proper insights on useability will be critical 

New journeys will be sticky 

Customer experience is typically approached by creating seamless, convenient and engaging customer journeys; however, the needs of customers at the moment have shifted dramatically towards more essential concerns. But once the crisis passes it is not a given that people will want to go back to their old habits, even if that becomes feasible again 

Due to circumstances, customer journeys are being laid down that will change preferences and habits. For example, how many people will find they actually prefer having their food brought to their front door instead of visiting a restaurant? So, it’s essential to track and understand those new journeys and preferences 

Failure to do so will put businesses at risk of being out of alignment with a quite changed new set of needs. For example, those same people who like their steak brought to them by Uber Eats might prefer to eat it off china plates – there’s no rule that says home delivery needs to be provided in plastic containers.  

This is especially so when considering the increasing focus on sustainability that we see in Japan. In the middle of a pandemic, there’s more money than there is capacity to have experiences, so brands that can elevate will find favour with premium buyers. 

Getting it right is going to involve having a proper understanding of all the ‘knock-on’ effects of the pandemic’s impact on our lives.  Elements of mobile first design, enhanced discoverability across multiple platforms and ultra-friendly customer websites that incorporate proper insights on useability will be critical 

The need for amplified experience is becoming urgent

The most suppressed parts of life relate to personal confinement and lack of freedom with regard to where you can be and whom you spend your time with. So safe antidotes are likely to be in hot demand. 

One of the most interesting things we have seen is that the preference for strong sensory experience is building. This means that people want flavours to be stronger, drinks to be fizzier and food to be spicier. Experiences that can be safely delivered but that help us to feel something will be greatly appreciated. 

The great outdoors (or at least the suburbs) are beckoning

Photo by Liger Pham from Pexels 

The great outdoors (or at least the suburbs) are beckoning 

Demand for recreational vehicles and campsites is very strong as people avoid public transportation. The potential for integrated lifestyle experiences from companies such as Dream Drive is creating a whole new sector in leisure and tourism.  

In the bigger picture, people are toying with the ideas of leaving big cities altogether. With much work now being done from home, many people are considering moving out of their apartments into suburban or even rural areas so they can enjoy a larger space at home. 

These are just a few of the themes that are apparent when thinking about the current circumstances. The duration of the crisis will have an effect on how lasting these changes are. Certainly, if you can get to the point your buyer actually believes you when you say, ‘we’re here for you’ you know you will be in good shape. And these needs are quickly developing beyond safety, security and crisis-related convenience into experience that will make them feel more than just safe. 

Regardless, in a world that is managing isolation by being more than ever focused on relationships, staying close to your consumer is more important than ever. And this is most true for people who are already your customers. In a very real sense, marketing in the coming year will be a case of marketing to people who are already your buyers. In short: Secure their loyalty and you will secure the future of your brand. 

Dominic Carter Bio
Dominic Carter

Representative Director & CEO

A double major graduate in marketing and Japanese studies from the University of New South Wales, Dominic came to Japan from Australia in the late 90’s to launch and develop the Japan business of a major global research company. His career highlights include being local managing director for a top ten global research agency, founding his own business in Japan and helping some of the largest brands in the world use research to influence real improvements in their Japanese business performance.