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By Dominic Carter

Using Market Research in Japan to Re-connect with Your Customers

Both cautiously and optimistically we can say that it looks like the peak of the Covid crisis has passed in Japan. Shops are open, restaurants are filling up, people are going back to their offices and, supported by the government’s ‘Go To’ travel campaign, domestic tourism is showing signs of life. These are all very promising indicators that things are going back to a situation that appears normal. However, as the dreaded cliché says, it is a new normal.  

Some brands held off speaking with their customers during the crisis as the insights we could gain in that hothouse were seen as temporary at best and misleading at worst. In some cases, the insights gained in that context need a ‘use-by’ warning label, but they did help those brands that stayed in touch maintain a more empathetic stance and strong situational awareness.  

To paraphrase the old saying: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is today!” 

Indeed, those brands that have kept in touch with their customers from the beginning of the crisis are at a distinct advantage, but it is never too late to reconnect. 

There are three broad areas where we have been working with our clients in the last six months: 

Empathising Current Experience 

Understanding of current lived experience is a highly engaged exercise. This type of work is usually done when our client is very new to the Japan market or is embarking on a major re-invention of their approach to their category. For so many brands now though, their hitherto familiar landscape has changed enough to warrant spending significant facetime with their consumers, where they live, shop and work. 

Engaging with consumers for these purposes is usually best done via what we call ethnographic, immersive interviews. Usually we would undertake this type of work face to face; however, the requirements of social distancing have led us to lean on digital technology to bring us into the lives of Japanese consumers. We have seen just how cluttered and chaotic houses have become as both partners deal with disruptions at work and school. This has opened up insights into both practical problems of physical space as well as an increasing need for emotional space.

Uncovering Needs 

The impact of the crisis is ongoing and is creating new needs. Many brands have had increased focus placed on their digital fulfillment capabilities and this has brought with it an urgent need to ensure that digital customer journeys and experiences are seamless, convenient and engaging. To ensure that these needs are understood and being met we are also engaging with consumers via our digital useability projects remotely, probing the user’s experience in their own homes on PC websites as well as smartphones. This has entailed some creativity in reproducing the lab experience in people’s homes, but we have been able to glean some very raw and immediately applicable insights for our clients.

Insights are not only needed in the digital ‘delivery’ space, but also in categories that serve emotional needs such as food, drink and all forms of leisure and entertainment. We have been carrying out extensive remote ‘virtual’ interviews, both oneonone and in focus groups that have allowed us to understand needs in areas as diverse as food and drinks to entertainment consumption to cleaning and child and adult care. These insights are being fed into planning and development for the launch of new products or communication campaigns in the Spring. Life goes on, and it is essential that the right products and communications approach are in place for early 2021. 

Measuring Intentions 

Lastly a key area of market research during Covid is the measurement of consumer sentiment and intentions. This work is typically carried out via quantitative surveys and can be carried out as a one-off exercise, but works best when the measurements are benchmarked and then tracked continuously or at least via regular ‘dipsticks’. In more normal times the areas covered in tracking surveys include anything from brand awareness, behaviours and purchase consideration to customer satisfaction. Currently we are fielding tracking studies for our clients that have businesses in the areas of leisure and entertainment, which are very sensitive to concerns around social distancing. This data is critical for those clients in knowing how to plan their physical and promotional activities in the current environment. 

Needless to say, nobody knows how long the current Covid crisis will last – and indeed just how much the consumer has changed, and how long those changes will last for. It is a highly risky marketing environment and decisions taken today may need to be altered. Nevertheless, we feel it is time for brands to be more proactive and engaged with the market and their core customers – to take more risks. As consumers adapt, it’s crucial for brands to understand changing needs and expectations in their category and what customers are looking for, in order to successfully set up the brand for a post-COVID-landscape. Now more than ever, market research is a key conduit for helping brands in Japan communicate and stay relevant. 

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.