State of the Brand - Luminaries of Asia

An excerpt from Brandingmag’s publication on branding in Japan and Asia

21. 10. 2021

Alison Jambert, Co-Founder and Communications Director

Eat contributed to Brandingmag’s State of the Brand, Luminaries of Asia issue, where founding partner Alison Jambert discussed the state of the branding in Japan and Asia. Download the full publication here:

What is the state of branding in Asia and in Japan, in particular? Is there a clear distinction between branding, marketing, and advertising?

Asia, in itself, is a region of diverse cultures, meaning that each market has its own nuances when it comes to approaches to branding. However, a lot of these markets share the same trait of having home-grown corporations with decades of history, built not necessarily on story-telling or creative excellence but on a trusted reputation founded on product performance and societal contribution.

In Japan, for example, many consumers have an established recognition and trust in corporate brands like Morinaga or Toyota because of their staying power in their respective areas of Japanese life as well as their ability to continually add new and exciting SKUs to their product portfolios. Their brand strength lies in their longevity, size, and ubiquity. Furthermore, Japan and many cities in Asia might be best characterized by their merchant approach to business – focusing on continuous product releases and sales rather than thinking consciously about building a brand. Japanese consumers are also very sophisticated in terms of evaluating product performance at a detailed level and less tolerant of shortfalls.

The result is an approach to marketing that is extremely pragmatic, focused less on perception and more on action, meaning that brands, as we know them, are seen as those assets that simply appear as part of a sales effort in which the product or service does more of the talking. Branding, marketing, and advertising are often seen as one and the same thing – the act of promotion to drive sales. However, things are changing dramatically. As consumers are exposed to compelling story-telling from overseas brands and as competition intensifies, design craft and a communicated sense of purpose and identity are becoming more and more important in the market.

What would you say is your biggest challenge as a branding specialist in Asia?

The largest challenges faced by branding and creative companies in Asia also emanate from the region’s biggest strengths. Asian corporations have established history and reputation with an unparalleled scale of reach, and, in many ways, have cracked the formula for success. This formula largely involves lessons learned from post-war, manufacturing-oriented, economic growth – innovative hardware produced with low costs, made with high quality, and distributed just in time.

However, today’s business environment entails more than creating more of the same, for more people. In many industries, it means re-envisioning what a category actually means, adopting new technologies, and being able to attract talent from new generations with different values and expectations. In most cases, this involves a digital focus, too.

Branding, at its best, can help align a company around a new direction and establish momentum for employees and communicate a new direction to customers. However, organizations in Asia may not set themselves up for this, with the exception of younger, more dynamic companies. Tradition and precision mean that new processes or even visual symbols can be met with hesitation and an attitude in which risks far outweigh possible rewards or opportunities. Even if corporations are receptive to change, it can be difficult to gain access to key decision-makers, both for agencies and employees themselves, especially amidst complex organizational structures that resist new ideas that threaten to disrupt harmony.

Additionally, marketing education is also a relatively new addition to universities in many parts of Asia, in contrast to its long-standing status in the US and Europe. Couple this with the fact that the traditional Japanese approach to cultivating talent is to develop ‘generalists’ that have exposure to company operations across a range of fields but not necessarily deep expertise, and this means marketers who may not be as used to getting the best out of their agencies. This means that agencies have to go the extra mile to produce effective work.

How do Asian clients perceive branding? Do they see it as a strategic business tool or is it just about visuals in their opinion?

For many of Asia’s markets, the consumer engine is relatively new and fuelled by either novelty or symbols of status. For this reason, new product development, advertising, and, more recently, influencer and digital marketing are at the forefront of the marketer’s arsenal. Many companies recognize the value of beautiful and crafted experiences, however, the perception that these are all connected and part of a holistic and connected concept of ‘brand’ is not as established. Marketing efforts can be siloed and compartmentalized without feeling the need to ensure a consistent brand perception.

A sense of company purpose and societal contribution is a well-established concept with many companies showcasing missions and visions on their sites, advertising, and packaging. However, this is not yet seen as something that has tangible implications for design.

Many of Japan’s most iconic companies have identities that have largely remained untouched for decades, and even more have visual identities that are lagging behind the strength of their product and service experiences. The brand is not yet seen as a lever that can be pulled to enhance the desirability of a company and its offerings. This is a big opportunity.

Where does the Asian market differ from other global markets (e.g., the US or Europe)? What should foreign brands focus on when trying to reach this target?

Although there are quite a few universal principles in marketing, the Asian market can be difficult to penetrate largely because of how consumerism has developed. Asia is home to domestic brands that have gained public trust, reach of distribution, and power. Purchase behaviors and positive perceptions regarding these brands can be very deeply engrained, both on the supplier and consumer sides of the coin, meaning it can be difficult to get a foothold. Gaining market share takes much longer than expected, especially taking into account the need to learn a new set of consumer values and preferences.

For example, Japanese consumers expect much higher levels of quality at seemingly minute stages of the customer experience, such as unboxing or the call center. Any shortfall can be a sign of a lack of care and attention on the part of the brand. The sheer cultural history of Asia and the diversity within the region itself means there’s also an intricate web of meanings, symbols, and memories that can be tapped into or avoided, meaning that once foreign brands do get a foothold they need to continue to watch their footing.

The key to success in Asia, put quite simply, is deep cultural understanding. It takes a combination of global perspective and local presence to succeed – and, in many cases, stakeholders, including investors and consumers, want a sense of commitment to their country, as well as appeal to a sense of national pride. Many brands have taken hits to growth because of cultural blunders.

In other words, there needs to be a balance between global perspectives, local presence, and understanding. The emphasis is on balance as Asia is still a dynamic market, ripe for innovation. There is an appetite for a global approach. Many of the brands we partner with, work with us precisely because they want to be able to express themselves to a world-class standard and be perceived as more ‘international’ or worldly by their audiences.

What is your take on branding that you think is different from how Western specialists approach it? Are there any cultural principles, such as tradition or discipline, that influence it?

Branding has the potential to drastically change an organization’s direction and provide a kick-start to growth. A Western approach to branding reads these as experimental, disruptive, and rapid. This makes sense given the dynamism of the world we’re in, but at times, can be counter-productive in Asia. 

Firstly, any branding effort in Asia needs to be firmly rooted in business growth. We go the extra mile to prove how any project can demonstrate tangible improvement in the issues that matter to our clients because the market demands clarity and immediacy of results. And part of this is being able to provide both the thinking and the making sides of the branding equation – providing sharp, strategic thinking, local insight, and being able to craft designs that are truly world-class across print, digital, and experiential. Simply put, there needs to be a direct link between theory and practice.

Secondly, deep engagement is necessary. We have a multicultural team that brings perspectives and talents from all over the globe. However, we position ourselves as partners to our clients, providing not just provocative thinking, but giving them the support needed to navigate the Asian market from a consumer perspective and an organizational perspective. This might mean taking a more hands-on approach to presenting their solutions to senior leaders in the organization or capitalizing on immediate growth opportunities as a start-up.

Thirdly, Asian markets are usually built on a network of trust and personal relationships. This means that any given client will have a myriad of different partners providing different parts of the marketing mix. This can be a problem from a brand standpoint, which is why Western agencies may focus on taking as much of the pie as possible. However, our approach is to position ourselves as partners to our clients – safeguarding the brand by ensuring consistency and impactful communication across all these different pieces, and identifying opportunities to strengthen the whole or plug missing gaps.

Japan scores as the 4th most valuable nation. What is the foundation of such a powerful national brand and what are the tradeoffs?

Firstly, a brand must always be built on strong foundations – the quality of life, high standards of education and healthcare, and technological advancement are just some of what sets the foundation for a powerful national brand. Japan has this in abundance – long life expectancy, flourishing automotive industry, and advancements in areas like robotics are just some of what it is known for. Natural endowments also contribute heavily to this foundation – resources that lend themselves to tourism, like beautiful mountainscapes and hot springs, for example. Moreover, its people have a reputation for dedication, politeness, and hospitality.

However, above these foundations there needs to be a strong set of cultural accomplishments, as well. These you might refer to as cultural capital, or the very basic ingredients of ‘soft power’. Do they have cultural exports that resonate with the global values of the time? Japan has

reinvented itself multiple times. Firstly, building a reputation for an unique yet effective business culture, onto pop culture exports like anime, J-Pop, and fashion, and now, a sense of craft applied to life’s basics – as we see with Uniqlo and Muji.

These attributes are a promise to audiences, that positively influences decisions to travel, invest, or study/work in a country. However, the trade-off for such a powerful nation brand and all-powerful brands, in general, is that all brands are a promise, and promises must be kept or they lose trust.

Crises put powerful brands under great scrutiny. COVID-19 itself has placed doubt on Japan’s technological superiority – exposing outdated practices such as having to come into work to get your attendance stamped, and challenged perceptions of Japan as coordinated and efficient – with its hesitation to impose lockdowns. Japan will be scrutinized, prompting governments, businesses, and brands to uphold their national reputation.

What are your recommendations for brand specialists from Japan?

A general rule of thumb for succeeding as a brand agency or consultancy in Japan is being able to become an interface between Japan and the rest of the world. Japan has a strong domestic environment – domestic corporations are granted the natural advantage of a highly loyal consumer market with strong and predictable consumption habits and rituals. Similarly, many local agencies are able to provide outputs that fuel this demand, with strong relationships that provide the foundation for ongoing collaboration. Local business intricacies and language requirements also naturally deter overseas agency competitors.

However, the tides are changing. Increasingly, Japanese consumers are aspiring towards brands that exude a sense of global cosmopolitanism – and they are consuming foreign media that embodies similar elements. There are also a large number of iconic foreign brands in Japan that have disrupted market share by balancing international values and aesthetics while leveraging local preferences when it comes to distribution networks and communication styles – Apple is only one example and there are surely more to come.

This means that brand specialists will have to play the role of empowering local brands to look globally for inspiration and relevance. As foreign brands enter the domestic market, Japanese brands are also increasingly aspiring towards the world stage. Brand specialists can play a role in elevating standards of design and storytelling to enable these brands to compete in markets where they may not have the tradition and consumer loyalty they are naturally used to. This requires a mix of local market insight and global vision – something brand specialists have to cultivate to succeed in Japan’s future branding landscape.