by Dominic Carter
In early 2017 our CarterJMRN team thought it would be useful, given the momentous change in the US administration and the fact that we have a largely American client base, to survey Japanese consumers on the then-new administration and the impact it may be having on US brands here in Japan.
We have since repeated the survey twice, with the latest measurement taken in April this year. Those three years of data collected over all 47 prefectures have confirmed that if Trump himself were a brand, he would be in serious need of a relaunch.
The Japanese aren’t fond of Trump
Of the 1,000 respondents we polled in 2017 aged 16~69, just over half (54%) stated mild or strong unfavourability towards the president and his administration. In 2018 that number held steady. In 2019, a slight defrosting may be underway with his unfavorable rating down to 49%. The modest decline in his unpopularity might be good news for those with a stake in the image of the US, as is a rising percentage of those with a favorable opinion of the POTUS (15% in 2019, up from 8% and 10% in 2017 and 2018, respectively). Still – 15% favorable is less than stellar.
Now the big question for outward-looking marketers and sales teams across the US of course is: How do these negative numbers influence the reputation of US brands and thus our prospects in the land of the rising sun? The short answer is: Trump has not been a positive for the commercial environment, but as the novelty of his presidency seems to have worn off and relations have held up cordially, we have seen the image of US brands recovering amongst the Japanese.
The Trump effect saw US brands take a hit early on among a significant group of Japanese
Twenty-seven percent of respondents in 2017 stated that their level of trust and confidence – or more the lack thereof – in the US president had decreased their likelihood to consider US brands. In 2018, that number had marginally decreased to 25%, but in 2019 the situation appears to have improved, at least directionally, with only 20% dissuaded from buying American. This applies to both buying products and services as a consumer as well as to doing business with American companies.
US brand image is affected, but slightly recovering
On the other hand, while only 23% of Japanese held a positive or somewhat positive image of US brands in 2017, this jumped up to 32% in 2018 and 37% in 2019. This is a positive development but also indicates there is a long way to go in building ‘brand USA’ to its full potential in Japan.
Tourism is a bright spot in the overall picture this year, with a majority of Japanese at 62% expressing a desire to visit the US as a tourist – a sentiment that, arguably, the US tourism industry could be doing more to exploit.
No reason to shy away from the world’s 3rd biggest economy
It seems that the Trump phenomenon, to the extent that it has had a negative impact on US brands in Japan, is fading. The set of associations that make up successful US brands is broadly based, long established and very durable – strong enough, it seems, to withstand the fallout from a controversial president. However, given the potential volatility of the trade relationship between the US and Japan we suggest that close attention be paid to consumer sentiment well ahead of time if your brand is potentially in the firing line.