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Our mission is to unmask Japan to reveal the real consumer truths

Connecting With Consumers

By: Dominic Carter

Nowadays, it’s often said that television is a dying medium and that newer, more interactive forms of media are taking its place. This is certainly as true in Japan as it is anywhere else. But even in the world’s biggest advertising market, the US, TV still has an important role to play. We can see this evidenced by the hype that surrounds each year’s highly anticipated Superbowl ads.

A classic example is the Volkswagen ad that aired in 2011 featuring a child dressed as Star Wars’ Darth Vader. The boy struggles to make his power felt on various parts of his home until he comes face to face with his dad’s new VW and starts the engine — just using the power of “The Force” (helped by his dad using a remote start button behind the scenes). For the 2012 Superbowl, VW continued the Darth Vader theme, albeit with a somewhat witty and unexpected twist. Both campaigns are great pieces of advertising, and well worth checking out on YouTube.

It’s hard to imagine a similar level of cultural anticipation around a television campaign in this country. Japan is the land of the 15 second spot — bite sized chunks of often celebrity-driven TV that, to the untrained eye, seem to have little narrative or strategic meaning connected to the brands they advertise. None have reached Superbowl levels of cultural interest, but one campaign has come close: the multi-year “White Family” series for mobile carrier Softbank. This campaign, which has aired over 100 different versions since June 2007, has captured the hearts of the Japanese public and has coincided with several years of strong market progress for Softbank.

The famous White Family series is produced by Yoshimitsu Sawamoto and his team from Japanese advertising behemoth Dentsu. Members of the White Family comprise a mother, daughter, an African- American elder brother, and a father who has turned into a white dog. The color white is supposed to represent a new simplicity for Softbank’s pricing. The reasons as to why the father turned into a dog and the older brother is African-American have never been “officially” explained.

However, Sawamoto has a close connection with dogs. He writes, “I’ve never thought deeply about it, but I felt like dogs do preach or give you advice when you’re in need. i simply thought it would be nice if the father was a dog.”

The African-American man first appeared in Softbank’s Aquos cell-phone ads as the “yoso guy” — which in Japanese literally means ‘unexpected.’ His character and blank look have not changed since he began appearing in the White Family series.

The campaign reflects Japanese family life as well as popular culture, using common “gal” slang (“Gals” are cute young Japanese females like the ones you often see in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward). Lately, the ads have taken an even more fantastical tack, like being set inside a space rocket, racing with famous Japanese superhero Ultraman and batting in front of famous baseball player Sadaharu Oh.

The dog-father, who reflects in some ways an idealized Japanese father, even has his own Twitter account with over 180,000 followers.

The White Family campaign is unusual in Japan in that it is relatively uncommon to carry the same themes over a period of years — for domestic advertisers at least. Advertisers commonly believe that they are battling such a crowded media marketplace — and jaded consumer — that constant “freshness” is a must. In the same way that Hollywood constantly pumps out movies hoping for hits, domestic marketers are always churning out new products and campaigns. Given this notion, Softbank appears to have struck an interesting balance between freshness and consistency, which provides some useful pointers for foreign brands pondering their strategy.

White Family remains a very Japanese advertising campaign in that it doesn’t always make sense as a story (unlike the US VW ads) and does not overly dwell on product stories or reasons to buy. in this sense, its seemingly postmodern course would be anathema to most American marketing directors.

However, there are some characteristics of Japanese advertising and marketing in general that are worth knowing about if you are marketing your brand here:

· Frugal Japanese consumers tend to be more defensive about spending money than their American counterparts

· Trusting the seller is even more critical in Japan before transactions take place

· Endearing or appealing celebrities and characters are often used in ads to get around these first two barriers

· The way brands are created and marketed is very different and based on emotion that often doesn’t directly relate to product attributes or reasons to buy

· Campaigns, packaging and whole sub-brands are often used for short bursts and then discarded in favor of the next big thing

Marketing in Japan, like so many other things, often bypasses the critical mind and works on pure emotion. That Softbank can carry on this campaign over such a long time — and still hold the interest of consumers — carries many worthwhile lessons for those trying to connect with consumers in this market.

21st April 2012

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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