Mind the Gap

Working to ensure your brand succeeds In Japan – and other unique cultural markets

02. 06. 2020

When it comes to global businesses entering the Japanese market, overcoming cultural gaps is one of the foremost challenges. This isn’t simply about adapting your product and service to the marketplace − your brand also needs to be delivered in a way that’s consistent, while being relevant and engaging to local audiences. 

This brand management process requires you to consider a range of factors, including language, cultural differences, buying behaviour and insights into the target market. Implementation needs to factor in all your communication and business partners – to develop and convey a consistent brand, it’s essential you are all on the same page. 

From 20 years of experience working on branding and communication in Japan, we’re aware of the importance of understanding and embracing these different cultural perspectives. Below, we provide some thoughts on these differences and some things to consider when investing in this market. 

Emotional vs Literal 

There’s a saying that products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind. That’s why successful companies in the West invest in the core components of their brand – its DNA if you will – values / personality / tone of voice / visual language. This provides differentiated positioning. In Japan, things are a lot more literal, especially with traditional companies – it's all about identity and guidelines – logos, colours, templates usage. The result is recognition, but a lot less emotional resonance, both within the company and with their target market. In contrast, the Japanese consumer is very brand savvy, so investment in effective brand positioning, targeted content and great storytelling will deliver rewards. 

Our recommendation: 

You can’t change the way things are, but you can factor them into your strategy. Importantly immerse your partners and stakeholders on the ground in your brand story – these are the people who will be developing this market for you and they should live and breathe your brand.  

Real world application: Diptyque 

Holistic vs Fragmented 

Unlike the West where brands and messaging are developed holistically and delivered consistently across multiple channels, Japan’s operational processes tend to break things down into many parts or tasks. It’s not unusual for projects to be divided up across multiple departments and outside agencies, who may (or may not) be working together. This can result in fragmented and inconsistent communication. 

Our recommendation: 

Localise instructional brand guidelines which articulate how your brand translates into language and design. Consolidate your brand, marketing and communication teams internally. Where possible work with an agency that can work with your team and deliver the level of creative you need across multiple channels. 

Real world application: The Peninsula Tokyo 

Controlled vs Reactive 

In Japan, businesses place value on tangible assets (physical deliverables), ideas, brand values (what your brand is and is not), less so. Combined with Japan’s heightened service ethic creates a tendency to react to new circumstances by adapting the brand, often subjectively, rather than providing a values-based response. This reactive approach means that the brand becomes eroded and weakened over time. 

Our recommendation: 

Demonstrate to your partners and stakeholders the value of living and breathing your brand values, rather than simply following guidelines in a document. This empowers your team to make considered ‘on-brand’ responses, when new situations arise. 

Real world application: Meroware