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Japan As a Post-Branding Society?

By: Dominic Carter

In a 1988 work entitled Postmodernism and Japan,[i] the authors make the interesting hypothesis that what is “postmodern” in the West has existed in Japan in a number of manifestations extending back to what European and American historians term the ‘early modern period’. Scholar and critic David Pollack nicely encapsulates the book’s basic premise:

…..what they have discovered of late is not so much that Japan has been catching up with the latest Western ideas as that the West, only belatedly begun to come around to a ‘postmodern’ position that has existed in Japan ever since the seventeenth century.[ii]

The essays in the book probe the issue from a number of angles but most interesting for the purposes of this article is Marilyn Ivy’s section on the “consumption of knowledge in Japan”. With a frame of reference derived from the pseudo-Marxist postmodernism of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Ivy analyses a series of television commercials which have apparently no relationship to the products that they are attempting to sell. Her conclusion is that far from being subversive, as some postmodernists would have it, these ads make power “fun” and “entertaining” and use self-ridicule as a tool to enhance brand image. Replace the word power with products and you are left with a very useful insight into how advertising works in Japan. If Japan is the original postmodern society what does this mean for modern advertising and branding?

Because the target audience of such work as cited above is essentially a rather narrow slice of academia falling loosely within the field of “cultural studies”, such insights and debates have cut little ice with Western brand strategists and marketing managers in the Japanese market. The purpose of this paper is to illustrate and expand the observation Japan has always been postmodern and to look at the implications of this for those attempting to do business here. Twenty years on, a case can be made that global market trends seem to increasingly suit a Japanese style of marketing and brand management. This paper considers two differences in the Japanese mindset and consumer culture that have wide implications for branding and marketing for those interested in both Japanese and consumer behaviour.

First, it is argued that the way brands are run in Japan anticipates a global trend in terms of consumers craving constant innovation and new sensory experiences. Online communities and internet marketing is used in illustration of such a trend. It offers Japan as a model for strategies aimed at the global consumer.

Secondly, Japanese advertising is scrutinised in greater depth. Building on the well established, but not always well explained, conclusion that Japanese advertising is more “emotional” than that in the West, a case is made that this is indeed an example of where culture still matters but that here too, Japan may be a step a head of the West. It also notes that the relationship between the universal and the particular is in a state of constant flux and that this is a key variable to consider in relation to marketing.

Ultimately a view of Japan as a “post-branding society” is suggested, the implication being that to get a good sense of the future, it is well worth taking a good look at Japan.

Innovation & Experience: the world as we don’t know it

The modus operandi of Japanese consumer product companies, with their traditional use of “disposable branding” strategies, holds valuable lessons for western marketers in their home markets searching for growth in increasingly fragmented, experience-seeking markets. Western brands spend vast amounts of money on research and launch relatively few new products in a year but they know these products will have a good chance of success. Surprisingly, for a society that places such emphasis on safety, when it comes to new product launches, Japanese brands are notable for the high risks that they take. Partly this is because the consumer mindset in Japan has always been one that seeks new experiences and views ideological concepts and symbols as much more of an aesthetic choice than as a set of meaningful cultural referents, as they tend to be viewed in the West. This is very visible in some of the products on sale at convenience stores (which also have remarkably high turnovers of products available). For example, curry doughnuts, or sandwiches filled with strawberries and cream only seem weird to outsiders because they appear to be subverting the ideas that ‘doughnut = sweet’ and ‘sandwich = savoury’. As non-native products in Japan they merely become aesthetic choices, a way of decorating, what is without any doubt when the ingredients are analysed, a perfectly logical sweet or savoury snack. “How postmodern!” “How hilariously ironic! “, exclaims the outsider but rather, How Japanese!

A look at online communities and internet related consumer phenomena reveals that Japan might not be so “weird” after all. The Google Generation has a much lower boredom threshold. When faced with new products, brand names or images, within seconds the consumer can research, review and understand. This seems to bring up a potential problem for brand strategies that focus on only a few products. As Apple have had to continually update the ipod in order to maintain an interest in it, and are now struggling to do so, it is fair to wonder if it might not be increasingly difficult to create products that have more than a one-click shelf life. The success of YouTube reflects a desire for authenticity, a need to bypass official media and keep up with peer consumers. In Japan the success of Mixi, Splume and other internet community sites manifest the local affinity for peer confirmation and keeping up with what everyone else is perceived as doing or buying. This gets to the heart of the contradiction in Japan between consumer homogeneity and relentless demand for originality and innovation: the group instinct is strong but the group is autonomous — it leads rather than is lead.

The Japanese consumer society has long demanded that its brands are unpredictable. This doesn’t mean that brands should fundamentally change or that being a highly reputable, long established brand isn’t a key part of being a success in Japan. It is that, dressed in their respected and familiar clothes, brands must constantly strive to surprise and entertain the consumer. Postmodern consumer communities across the globe appear to be moving in this direction, and this is indeed the drive behind much internet marketing. In Japan, stores and websites have long been offering product rankings that change on a weekly or even daily basis, again confirming a need for peer confirmation in tandem with a need for innovation.

This culture of innovation, authenticity and ruthless ranking by consumers is one that global consumers are growing familiar with.

Emotional marketing; the universal and the particular.

Another feature of the Japanese market is that advertising in Japan has a much greater focus on the emotional. Dr. Carolyn. A. Lin explained in the early 1990s in her comparative study of Japanese and US TV commercials:

The emphasis on using emotional rather than informational appeals is also apparent in Japanese television commercials. Though these commercials can be relatively informative….they clearly avoid mentioning product benefits and guarantees……This is because the latter approach can be perceived as an “insult” to the consumer’s intelligence concerning their ability to make a sound judgement about their company preference.

The situation has changed little in this respect. One of the most common reactions that western marketers have when witnessing Japanese advertising campaigns and product strategies is a barely concealed “what the..?”.

Take a recent ad for Pocky, the chocolate coated biscuit straws: (October 2018 update: YouTube user account deleted)

It may look “bizarre” and leave Western viewers confused but the message is a very simple emotional equation. Pocky = Happy.

Unfortunately, the temptation has been for Western brand “experts” to take a view of the Japanese market as simplistic in its emphasis on emotion. But as stated above, bypassing the intellect is done at least in part to avoid insulting it. Consider the opinion of Elly Miller, general manager of a major Western advertising agency working in Japan. In answer to the question “How does the concept of branding in Japan compare to the West?” she states:

In the West, branding is very well developed as a concept. Clients are pretty well educated as to the benefits of branding. In Asia, the whole field of strategy and branding is in development and the clients don’t fully understand yet just how vital that branding element is to their success. Branding and design companies here are doing too much design and not enough branding.

Firstly notice the slippage in the answer between Japan and Asia; this immediately alerts us to a mindset that is missing the point about the uniqueness of the Japanese market. Secondly it mistakes different for wrong. Yes, there is more emphasis on design rather than branding in the Western sense and Western strategies can work very well in Japan but the Japanese emphasis on design is really all about emotion. Miller is of course an advocate of “emotional branding”, but it is the argument here that such branding must to be put deep into context. Too much information, or over-planning could alienate the Japanese consumer.

Another look at online advertising media shows where this insight really bites. A recent study of internet marketing in Japan notes that in a world where the more products and brands are universal and the more and more there is a demand for the particular, cultural differences still matter. Shintaro Okazaki researched difference between US and Japanese online marketing strategies, he concludes:

The analysis of creative strategies produced the most striking differences between the two market samples The American market sample indulges in providing more complex or sophisticated online appeals, while mixing rational, entertaining and emotional appeals…the Japanese market uses more symbolic and metaphorical appeals.

Okazaki seems surprised that his research didn’t confirm an emotional bias in Japanese strategies but blames this in part on the sample and questions his methodology. Perhaps however the “metaphorical and symbolic” are of greater prominence because these are indeed related to emotional response. Creatives in Japan 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. They use aligned creative ideas and treat emotion as a tool to lodge thoughts into the memory. The Japanese are much more concerned about lodging the right emotion and linking it to what they are selling, than the right thought. This collapses the view of emotion as a consequence of cognition; it is in fact a much more dynamic, synergetic relationship.

As global consumers grow more and more impatient, and access to hard information about products becomes easier, it seems a fair prediction that a bias towards emotional advertising, perhaps via symbolism and metaphorical creative strategies through the medium of websites, will strike a greater chord with consumers worldwide. This is what is meant by a post-branding world: where product launches are more frequent and success is determined by the dictatorship of the consumers. Getting the balance between the universal and the particular right requires a high sensitivity to context but it is time for Western brand managers to learn something from Japan.

Conclusion

By looking at how brands work in Japan, and the significance of the thirst for new experiences in terms of postmodernity, it was shown that brands may have to learn to be more unpredictable and take greater risks.

It was then argued that emotional advertising is a postmodern, or post branding phenomenon and likely to have more of a place in the online society of the here and now.

This article has been necessarily brief but nudges towards a research programme that analyses how and why Japanese branding methods are successful in the Japanese market, and how the Japanese experience might serve as model for other markets worldwide. Analysis of online marketing and the evolution of consumer appetites requires reform if not revolution in methods and may be even objectives. Because Japan was postmodern before such a label was even invented it makes it a compelling and educational consumer society to study.

[i] Miyoshi, Misao & H, D. Harootunian (eds.) Postmodernism and Japan (Duke University Press; 1988)

[ii] Pollack, David, “Modernism Minceur, or is Japan Postmodern?” Monumenta Nipponica 44:1 (Spring, 1989) p.76

[iii] See for examples http://www.webranking.net/http://ranking.goo.ne.jp/

[iv] Lin, Carolyn A., “American and Japanese TV Commercials” Journal of Advertising Research (July/August; 1993) p.42

[v] Miller Elly, Interview entitled “Emotional Branding” in Metropolismagazine (August; 2005)

[vi] Okazaki, Shintaro “Does Culture Matter?: Identifying Cross-national Dimensions in Japanese Multinationals’ Product Based Websites Electronic Markets 14:1 p.67

By: Dominic Carter (27th September 2010)

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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