Marketing Week

Understanding how brands operate in Japan  

By October 17, 2019No Comments
Coke Japan
Creative from the Coca-Cola campaign for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

As a marketer moving to the Japanese market, it’s fair to say there is a lot to learn. From shifting consumer tastes to the role of brands and the overwhelming desire for quality, it can prove a bit of a culture shock.

Coca-Cola vice-president of Olympics assets and experiential marketing for Tokyo 2020, James Williams, moved to Japan from Brazil two-and-a-half years ago having served as director of marketing and sponsorship at the Rio 2016 Games.

He describes the experience as “quite a shift”, both in terms of getting to know the Coca-Cola business in Japan and understanding the market. The company has more than 50 brands and 800 products in Japan, of which Coca-Cola is not the main player.

“If you look at the total of Japan we’re probably the market leader in all ready-to-drink drinks. If you look at it in certain categories we’re definitely not,” Williams explains.

“If you look at it in any other market, you’ve generally got all the soft drinks we lead clearly on, so here it’s trying to come to terms with that.”

This means approaching the Olympics in a different way. For the London 2012 Olympics, which Williams previously worked on for Coke, the promotions were focused on brands like Coca-Cola, Innocent, Powerade, Schweppes, Abbey Well and Glacéau.

For Tokyo 2020 there will be a greater focus on the wider portfolio, including billion-dollar brands created specifically for the Japanese market such as I Lohas water, Ayataka tea, coffee brand Georgia and sports drink Aquarius.

A marketer with a similar experience to share is Jim Geraghty, Heineken Rugby World Cup project director. Geraghty, who moved to Tokyo in January to lead on the beer giant’s World Cup sponsorship activations, came from Ireland where Heineken is the market leader. In Japan, the brand only claims a 0.2% market share.

“Heineken in Japan is extremely different to what I’m used to,” Geraghty explains. “We are seen as a very young brand in the Japanese market.”

While Heineken has challenges to overcome in the wider Japanese market, having been a World Rugby sponsor since the mid-1990s means the beer brand is a regular fixture of the match day experience. Geraghty has been working closely with the sales teams on the ground to raise the profile of Heineken’s Rugby World Cup sponsorship to build distribution and visibility, giving the brand a better foothold in the market.

“You could see it as a challenge and an opportunity. Consumers won’t be able to get Heineken in the vast majority of bars they go into, so that is potentially an opportunity lost from our side. But it is also an opportunity for us to use the Rugby World Cup to try and increase our foothold in this marketplace,” Geraghty explains.

“It’s an opportunity where we see so much visibility to boost brand awareness, sales and distribution.”

The Japanese market seeks perfection

When working as a marketer in Japan it is essential to understand just how quality conscious the Japanese consumer really is. The typical shopper has very high expectations and holds brands to a higher level of service than consumers almost anywhere else in the world.

“The Japanese have a word for it called ‘omotenashi’, which means Japanese-style hospitality. It was a buzzword used in the bid for Tokyo 2020. It means quality,” explains Jonathan Kushner, chief communications officer at McDonald’s Japan.

“We have guest experience leaders that we’re introducing into the restaurants called omotenashi leaders. Their role is to anticipate what the customer wants before the customer requests it, to be one step ahead and make their time in the restaurants a really special, feel-good moment, so there’s no friction at all.”

McDonald's Japan
The McDonald’s Japan Tsukimi burger (meaning looking at the moon)

The pristine nature of any product is a top priority for Japanese consumers. Such is the level of perfection that if a retailer has a Coke can with a dent in it the company will take it away rather than let the store sell it.

It’s important to understand that Japan is a convenience culture too, says Williams. Whereas you can buy cases of Coca-Cola in the UK or US, in Japan it is all about instant consumption on the go, which has a lot to do with the fact people tend to live in smaller flats in urban centres.

A similar level of perfection is required in the beer market, which is dominated by four main brewers, all of whom produce the highest quality beer, says Geraghty. In his role he works closely with Heineken Japan’s joint venture partner, the brewer Kirin.

“We spend such painstaking time ensuring the quality is at the highest level. They will not accept anything less than 100%, whereas I guess in Western cultures you’re happy in terms of getting things through quicker,” he explains.

“You go with 80% perfect and say ‘let’s get it out into the market’ whereas here they will quadruple check everything. They will only accept perfection.”

Heineken in Japan is extremely different to what I’m used to. We are seen as a very young brand in the Japanese market.

Jim Geraghty, Heineken

In many cases perfection and novelty come hand-in-hand. Natalie Meyer, founder and CEO of insights agency Tokyoesque, explains that Japanese marketing can be quite trend-focused, with a preoccupation for limited editions and creating a sense of buzz.

“Social media has started to contribute to that in the past 10 years and the marketing culture has naturally followed. The other side of it is this need to create trust with the consumer. That’s more important with a Japanese consumer than with a typical British or American consumer,” she explains.

“The Japanese consumer will do a lot of research before they decide on buying a particular brand. It’s about creating that trust or a sense of experience.”

Heineken Japan
A Heineken Japan campaign for the Rugby World Cup

Alongside a quest for perfection, loyalty towards domestic brands is a key feature of the Japanese market. Upon coming to Japan, Geraghty had a preconception of Asian consumers aspiring to buy international brands and discovered this was, in many cases, the reverse.

“There is such a strong loyalty to local brands and quality is seen as probably the most important factor for them choosing a brand in the first place,” he suggests.

Meyer agrees that Japanese consumers generally see domestic brands as inherently trustworthy and high quality because there’s a certain standard expected in Japanese culture. While it feels less risky to go for a Japanese brand, European or American brands are seen as having the “coolness factor” that a domestic company might struggle to create.

“If you’re a Western brand going into Japan there is a tightrope you have to walk and I would suggest testing out through research whether you want to keep an aspect of that foreignness in the market,” says Meyer.

“If you do that you have to think about how you create trustworthiness and that sense of it being high quality.”

While there are many quirks of Japanese consumer culture to get to grips with, the market is evolving and opening up to international opportunities as the country is thrust onto the global stage courtesy of the Rugby World Cup, Olympics and Paralympics.

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