Brand in Japan: Why is brand strategy different here? Part 3

Brand on the Inside

External focus on the corporate brand image is also mirrored inside the Japanese corporation.

According to Tokyo marketing veteran, Mineo Kamiyama, most companies think “product brands should only be managed by people who know the product”. This is somewhat different from Western practices where Brand and Marketing managers are often marketing professionals first, and product experts second (with the exception of many B2B marketing and sales organizations, which would espouse the Japanese way). For better or worse, this means that the average Japanese Brand Manager, despite their usual lack of marketing savvy, is often left to his own devices when it comes to marketing strategy and tactics. Furthermore, the energy behind those strategies are often directed at new product development, line extensions and packages redesigns, things that Japanese managers see as getting quick, quantifiable results. In other words, new, different, whiz, boom, bam! Unfortunately, brand strategy and brand building tactics don’t have the same immediate effect, and are therefore ignored.

HRTo make the corporate situation even worse, most Product/Brand Managers don’t remain as such throughout their careers. In Japanese companies it is common to implement internal company-wide staff rotations so as to develop generalists. Senior Account Directors become Research Professionals, Creative Resource Managers become Media Planners and a Regional Sales Director replaces a 3 or 5-year veteran to becomes your brand’s next Brand Manager. Lucky you.

To complete the picture, on-the-job training and personal, spoken-only role handoffs are very common. And written brand guidelines or manuals typically don’t exist or are summarily dismissed. According to Kamiyama, that means that a product’s “brand strategy essentially changes at the same time the product (or brand) manager changes.”

In the end, this all happens because top management sees their product brands as a pale shadow compared to their corporate brand. Time is certainly spent on brand image, but the majority of it is for the corporate brand only. That’s where top management sees value, so that’s where they put their energies and their best marketing people.uniqlo

Change is coming…sort of.

Some would say there is no need for change; that this is the Japanese way. It’s different yes, but why mess with it. For the most part, at least in terms of how brands are managed, I agree. (However, I would disagree with HR practices, i.e. building the generalist and sacrificing the expert, on-the-job training and the misc. politics that circumvent better marketing practices. But that’s another blog, for another day.)

I don’t think the whole system should change, but I do think that Japanese companies can easily inject more product focus, better brand continuity and more brand consistency into their product marketing efforts. This may also help Japanese companies to be bigger players internationally. For the last several years the top 100 worldwide brands have only contained 6-8 Japanese companies—surprisingly low for the world’s second largest economy.

healthyaA Western-style brand strategy has worked on a few occasions in Japan for both companies and product brands. For instance, both Softbank, the telecommunications giant, and Uniqlo, Japan’s version of The Gap, started, gained notoriety and became successful without a large corporate parent company. Pocari Sweat, a sports drink and Healthya, a wildly popular green tea drink in Japan also succeed by branding their names over their respective parents Otsuka and Kao Corp. These last two companies went out on a limb, but unfortunately, are of the minority who are trying product marketing and/or the House of Brands model over the traditional model. You can barely find the Otsuka or Kao names on the Pocari Sweat and Healthya bottle and many Japanese people don’t know who makes these drinks. Yet, both brands were product marketed to wild success. And there are several more examples like this (though, not a great deal more).Pocari

When in Rome…

In the end, one must work within the confines of their discipline’s environment, be it geographic or otherwise. And though I have long since realized this, I also know that organic change happens very slowly—and in Japan, even slower still. So if you work with brands in Japan, it is good to understand what makes them tick here. And though it is also important to practice the when-in-Rome mentality, one must never forget that Rome fell, or maybe only its brand did.


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