A detail-driven market fuelled by a commitment to quality and perfection, Japan is a quirky melting-pot of tradition and future-gazing.
Now, as the host nation of the Rugby World Cup, which runs until 2 November, and the upcoming 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Japanese culture is in the spotlight like never before.
But what about the country’s business culture and the role marketing has to play?
In the first of a new series, Marketing Week explores what it takes to work as a marketer in key regions around the world, both from a culture perspective, as well as looking at the role marketing plays in businesses more generally.
Firstly, it is important to understand that, traditionally, marketing has not been regarded as a strategic function within Japanese business.
A major reason for this is the old-school ‘job for life’ culture, which sees graduates enter a business after university. In exchange for security, they must be prepared to rotate around the business, being trained as generalists rather than marketing specialists.
As a result, what someone studies at university is not particularly relevant to where they are assigned in a business, explains Pernille Rudlin, a former marketer at Mitsubishi and Fujitsu, and current managing director of inter-cultural consulting firm, Rudlin Consulting.
“The number one thing the Japanese just don’t get is that in Europe we want to have a professional identity,” she explains.
“You say you’re a marketer and you might belong to the Chartered Institute of Marketing, you go to networking events and conferences, you might write papers and build your career that way. It’s not about getting promoted in one company, it’s about becoming well known among your professional peer group. But there’s nothing like that in Japan at all.”
Rotating people to different departments means it is difficult to have the same level of expertise in a specific discipline such as marketing, acknowledges Jonathan Kushner, chief communications officer at McDonald’s Japan, who has worked in the country for more than 20 years.
“There is a strong focus in Japanese corporations on sales and marketing is seen as supportive of the sales function,” he states. “That can often be a career path for people within the corporate hierarchy to move into sales and general management.”
Jim Geraghty, Heineken Rugby World Cup project director, agrees that Japanese culture is far more dominated by sales than marketing.
Geraghty moved to Tokyo in January to lead on the beer giant’s World Cup sponsorship activation, having previously been based in Ireland. One of the biggest changes he has had to adjust to is the fact marketing does not necessarily have a seat at the top table.
“I’ve spoken to my Japanese colleagues about this and they absolutely agree in terms of marketing being seen to be reporting into sales and so there’s a vulnerability about marketing in this market when it comes to investment and work,” he explains.
The role of the CMO, for example, does not traditionally exist in Japanese businesses, which tend to outsource their marketing to large advertising agencies such as Dentsu Aegis and Hakuhodo, explains Natalie Meyer, founder and CEO of insights agency Tokyoesque.
She calls these agencies the “gatekeepers” of Japanese media.
Meyer says the mistake international companies often make when they enter the Japanese market is not going through these traditional PR and advertising agencies, so they end up on the “periphery”.
“They’re not on the TV shows, they’re not in the big newspapers and that means they don’t have that chance to build trust with the Japanese consumer. They aren’t being found in the same channels and they focus too heavily on the digital side. You still need that traditional spread,” she explains.
Roel de Vries, senior vice-president of marketing, customer experience and brand strategy at Nissan, agrees that client/agency relationships are different in Japan.
While specialisation has taken place within western agencies over the past decade, this has not happened in Japan. The likes of Dentsu Aegis and Hakuhodo remain full-service agencies, which is not without its challenges.
“In Japan, we need to make sure we get the expertise into these agencies and the specialisation we need in terms of technology and data,” says de Vries.
Known for its long hours and hardworking culture, Japan does have something of an image problem when it comes to striking a work/life balance. Aware of this reputation, the government and companies are encouraging employees to explore new ways of working.
Having lived in Japan for the past two-and-a-half years, James Williams, Coca-Cola vice-president of Olympics assets and experiential marketing for Tokyo 2020, believes change is afoot.
Internally, he is introducing a ‘fail fast’ working culture, which is challenging given the hallmarks of Japanese business are detail, precision and perfection.
He wants his team, for example, to present their work in progress, rather than only show him the finished article.
“They’re like, ‘No, I have to wait until it’s absolutely perfect and I’ve thought about everything and have every bit of detail before I share it with you’,” Williams explains.
“That’s very much a Japanese way of doing stuff, and sometimes it’s great because you wouldn’t have thought of certain things. But it’s about getting a fine balance between what they’re used to doing and different working styles.”
Rather than responding to an opportunity or challenge by launching straight into an ideas meeting, de Vries agrees that Japanese businesses take a much more considered approach. First, they study the issue, discuss the course of action, agree on the execution and then move forward. Although this may take time, savings are made once the decisions are signed off.
“In many other cultures you have this fantastic brainstorm, everybody feels good and then you walk out of the room and everybody realises you actually forgot about this and that,” de Vries explains.
“Then next week there’s another opinion and a week later there’s another opinion and in the end it’s much slower.”
Geraghty is experiencing the best of both worlds, blending the international culture of Heineken Japan with the traditions of Japanese business through local brewer and joint venture partner, Kirin.
“There’s a strong Japanese influence within Heineken so it’s respectful and hierarchical compared with at home. Japanese culture, in general, can be very formal; at Kirin everyone wears suits,” says Geraghty.
“It’s very traditional, perhaps a little safer in terms of the marketing aspect and loyalty is absolutely huge. A lot of the Kirin employees will have gone in as graduates and will still be there 30 or 40 years later.”
The marketing mix
The perception outside Japan is of a technologically-savvy, digitally innovative country and while true, the media landscape remains relatively traditional, says Meyer.
“I see the way British and American marketers and insight people deal with Japan. They think ‘that’s so cool’, but that’s an image that’s been constructed as well. That in itself is a piece of marketing,” she notes.
It is important to understand the market demographics. By 2030 one-in-three Japanese people will be aged over 65, according to Euromonitor data. Contrast this to a young generation growing up glued to their smartphones.
There is a fine balance to be struck between a preference for TV and print among the older population and the mobile-first younger generation, explains Kushner.
Although McDonald’s Japan appreciates TV is still the dominant channel, the roll-out of the fast-food chain’s app has generated 60 million downloads, which is close to half of the population.
“We have a very active news media in Japan, we have the largest circulation newspapers in the world, so the traditional content providers still have a very important role to play,” Kushner states.
“That said, digital is the way of the future and Japanese consumers are very well connected. They want fun, exciting and engaging campaigns.”
Another important factor is the high level of loyalty towards domestic brands and the wealth of customer data Japanese businesses hold. As a result, customer relationship management (CRM) and targeted marketing are relatively sophisticated in Japan.
“If you look at the total media mix it would be higher in TV than some other markets, but at the same time [Japan’s] targeted marketing is quite a bit ahead of other markets,” de Vries explains.
“It’s a bit of a mix, but I would say the difference comes from a different set-up around loyalty and the ageing population.”
Aside from the differences in the working culture and marketing mix, language difficulties could prevent marketers exploring a career in Japan. This is despite the fact many high-profile brands opt to hold meetings in English.
In 2010, ecommerce giant Rakuten introduced an English-only policy, cosmetics company Shiseido made English its in-house language in 2018 and Honda plans to follow suit next year.
If you look at the total media mix it would be higher in TV than some other markets, but at the same time [Japan’s] targeted marketing is quite a bit ahead of other markets.
Roel de Vries, Nissan
Despite the shift towards English, understanding Japanese is undoubtedly an advantage in business. Having lived in Japan for more than two decades, Kushner is fluent in the language, though many of the McDonald’s Japan executive team, brought in for their international experience, have meetings conducted with a translator.
“I’m listening, getting the original, intended nuance – both in Japanese and English – and I sometimes see how there might be misconceptions and a meeting could take a [wrong] turn because of something that was misinterpreted,” notes Kushner.
Compared to two decades ago, many more people in business are comfortable speaking English, yet generally, Japanese is the main form of communication, adds Kushner.
Geraghty has not learnt the language as he is only going to be in the country for a year and working on a global event like the Rugby World Cup means there is a culture of English being spoken in most meetings.
“Have there been times when conversations have happened after meetings? Probably. And it’s only natural that it’s easier for Japanese people to have those conversations [so things] could move quicker, but I think there has been a real culture instilled from World Rugby,” he explains.
“Within Heineken Japan, there’s a strong culture of being open to new markets. We have always had international general managers. There will tend to be always one, if not two, international employees working within the team.”
With the Rugby World Cup under way and the Olympics on the horizon, de Vries is confident marketing is being seen as more of a strategic function within Japanese business.
An ageing population, combined with a high level of loyalty, means the focus is on retention business, giving greater prominence to marketing and branding, he explains.
“Some of the world’s strongest brands are coming out of Japan and are very innovative and modern, whether that is SoftBank or Rakuten, Uniqlo or Muji,” adds de Vries. “There is a marketing and branding revival happening in Japan.”
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