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By Dominic Carter

The modus operandi of Japanese consumer product companies, with their use of “disposable” branding strategies, holds valuable lessons for western marketers in their home markets searching for growth in increasingly fragmented, experience-seeking markets.

Viral marketing carries with it the necessary premise that the buzz is temporary- a concept that Japanese marketers have never had a problem embracing. Products are routinely launched in Japan with a view to short term or seasonal time frames. Once interest in the new product dies down, the manufacturer simply withdraws it from the shelves in favour of the next “big thing”. The most similar model in western marketing is actually not to be found in product marketing, but in Hollywood. Even where established brands are concerned, there is almost constant tinkering with advertising ideas and packaging design. The idea that an essentially unaltered brand platform may become more valuable over time is something quite alien to many Japanese marketers whose market is heavily conditioned to expect continuous change.

An increasing proportion of advertising around the world is being done outside of traditional channels and employs a degree of iconoclasm to gain attention and co-creation with consumers. The promise of new experiences will tend to be more important than the re-enforcement of predictable experience. For marketers whose view of the world and even their success has been based on the promotion of predictable experience, this is potentially a difficult concept to accept.

Indeed one of the main reasons that brands work is because they set up expectations of consistent and reliable delivery. Among brand users this is an expectation based largely on prior experience which is reminded and celebrated through advertising. For those who have never used the brand, advertising, PR or word of mouth create the appropriate expectation. Under this paradigm, consistency is usually a strong suit (if not a pre-requisite) for big brands as it contributes to the re-enforcement and fulfillment of these expectations. Marketers thus divide the market into users (with varying degrees of loyalty and experience) and non-users. Their job is usually to produce firmer loyalty among users and promote trial among non-users.

But how does one deal with the new marketing reality where an increasing proportion of the market fails to respond to the tried and tested tactics of the past, or at the very least where significant opportunities are missed because your potential buyers are not watching traditional media or seeking the comfort of predictability. How does one deal with a market that places a premium on new experiences and where you’re literally only as good as your last idea?

Welcome to Japan

One of the most common reactions that western marketers have when witnessing Japanese advertising campaigns and product strategies is a barely concealed “what the..?”

One hypothesis as to why Japanese advertising seems odd to our eyes is that the creators of the ads often concentrate on creating the intended emotion in their ads through whatever creative means necessary; whereas western advertisers tend to concentrate on creating the “right” thought which is centred on the product and its benefits. Western advertisers generally feel safer employing strategically aligned creative ideas and, while recognizing the role of emotion, view it as a tool to make the advertising memorable, thus making it more likely that the “right” thought will be lodged in the market’s collective memory. Advertising pre-testing, often used by major western marketers among their target audiences, being of its nature verbally and semantically driven, tends to re-inforce the desirability of creating the right thought as the sales trigger. Japanese on the other hand appear to be more concerned with creating the right emotion and linking this to the brand, thus using emotion rather than thought as the call to action. This bypassing of the intellect, or deliberative faculty, counterbalanced by a direct connection with emotion characterizes not only Japanese advertising but also multiple aspects of the culture.

In fact the Japanese way is uniquely suited to an environment where the core need is increasing of the number of sensory experiences. Which is why in we are living in what is, perhaps coincidentally, a “Japanese moment.”

The world over, brands play a role as short-cuts to decision making because they build the promise of predictable experience. But in Japan, and arguably in the future in global terms, it is the ability to cater for unknown appetites and provide fresh experiences that the market is looking for. In a parallel development in the arts, Japan has in many ways anticipated the movements of the West. Minimalism and so-called “conceptual art” that came to be considered in the 20th century as avant-garde in the galleries of London and New York have been commonplace in Japan, at least in essence, in many cases for centuries.

The answer is not to abandon your big brands. After all, it’s not as if big durable brands don’t exist in Japan and command a large portion of the market. It is that a lack of risk taking and a failure to recognize the growing demand for new experience among sophisticated buyers can lead to the type of predictability that the stratum of consumers that actually drive any given market are coming to reject. Marketers in the west might well find that the answer to growth lies not always in understanding branding better, but in a higher level of risk taking and, dare we say it, a shorter term view. The experience of Japanese marketers shows that while corporate reputation is highly important, delivering predictable experiences is not always a formula for success.

Originally Published in Nikkei Weekly, 26th March 2008

CarterJMRN is a strategic market research agency that has been helping clients with consumers and businesses in Japan and beyond since 1989.

We believe that, although the terrain you face in building a successful marketing strategy and activation path sometimes seems obscure, the path to success is knowable and that the consumer is the guide who will show you the way.

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