This is Part 1 of a three-part post. Come back in a few days to read Part 2.
When in Rome… I don’t even have to finish that phrase. One automatically knows what it means. It stands for something through its meaning, concept and constant repetition. It has become a universal brand statement for living, traveling and working abroad. But when it comes to living with brand strategy in Japan, I have a difficult time obeying the old maxim.
In Japanese companies, “brand” is often looked upon with disinterest, disbelief or, at times, derision. Once, while giving a presentation to a group of my clients on the subject of brand continuity and the importance of focusing on a single message, an attendee fell asleep. This could have been due to him staying up late the night before to catch up on Lost episodes. But more likely, it was because he, and most Japanese marketing folk don’t understand, appreciate or believe in the idea of traditional Western product brand strategy.
I’ve struggled with this throughout the last four years of my tenure here in Japan. It has confounded me and frustrated me while searching for an answer to this riddle. Frustration is generally derived from the general disinterest (falling asleep) but also at the complete and total disregard for what I consider basic brand principles.
To provide a frightening client example, about three years ago my company developed a new marketing communications campaign and tagline for one of our Japanese multinational clients. The campaign was doing well and the tagline was not only getting brand recognition, several countries, other than those it was intended for were also organically utilizing it. Who knows, it might have been the next ‘When in Rome”. But then, all of a sudden and without warning, our client came up with a new tagline (with another agency). When asked why they did it, they simply told us that they wanted to do something “new”. The campaign and tagline were unceremoniously trashed. And this is not at all uncommon in Japan.
So why would a company with successful messaging throw it out the window for no good reason? There are a few key perceptual differences in Japan that drive this behavior and prevent most Japanese companies from embracing the Western idea of brand.
New is Good, Good is New
Japan is a country that, despite its rich cultural heritage, treasures newness and is fed on fad. When a new restaurant opens people invariably flock to it in droves (often, it is left barren the next week or month). If someone receives a new toaster as a gift, they immediately throw out the old one. And most Japanese people would never buy things like appliances, furniture or clothes used. This focus on newness is one of the key societal reasons Japanese advertisers insist on “mixing things up” and throwing brand to the wind (or in the trash as it were).
Traditional brand strategy tells us to create something memorable and of quality and then stick with it over and over again until it garners recognition, sales and loyalty. In the West, a good brand and messaging can, and often does last 3 to 10 years, or more. But in Japan, it’s rare that a product marketing campaign is repeated for more than 1 or 2 years. If a new manager comes in, so too does a new message. If a senior executive has a fresh idea, it becomes a new message. If awareness or sales go down, they immediately think that the problem is that their message is old. And a new message very often means a whole new messaging strategy—in essence a new brand.
But of course, this is just one reason brand is the way it is in Japan.
In the next post I’ll talk briefly about how brand portfolio structure, and the importance of a name , affect brand strategy.