After teaching the rest of the world how to efficiently churn out consumer products from automobiles to computers, Japanese companies are increasingly looking to the West to learn how to better market their wares. As consumer spending in Japan has fallen for eight consecutive months (down 3.1 percent during the first half of 1998 versus the same period a a year ago according to recent government figures), marketers have had little choice but to rewrite their marketing playbooks.
And so, years after their American counterparts discovered the intricacies of brand building, Japanese ad agencies and brand managers are desperately trying to master the art of connecting with the buying public by emphasizing product and consumer benefits.
Until recently, "most Japanese companies have relied on the company name to provide an umbrella brand for all their product lines," said Hotaka Katahira, professor of marketing science at Tokyo University, who recently finished a study on branding that has not yet been published. "The key was to keep the corporate name in front of consumers. The products themselves were merely incidental, almost afterthoughts in advertising, which did little more than create a favorable mood," he explained.
Though this approach continues to work for a handful of top-ranked companies, such as Sony and Honda, "for most it has become an increasingly outmoded approach," Katahira said. He sampled well-known Japanese companies such as Toyota, Suntory, NEC, Shiseido, Nissan and Kirin Beer and found that nearly 60 percent responded that they had begun focusing on more targeted ads. "Now the market has changed. There's greater emphasis on consumer benefits and a need to [understand] consumer insights."
The gap between Western ads and many Japanese ads can been seen in commercials for Sofy, a feminine hygiene product marketed by Unicharm, which dominates the $625 million sanitary napkin market. The Sofy account was long handled by Hakuhodo, the nation's second-largest agency. But in 1997, feeling increased sales pressure from rival brands, Unicharm moved the business to J. Walter Thompson Japan. JWT was charged with a developing a stronger brand image, one that could be extended throughout Asia.
Visually, both the Japanese and American agencies employ similar imagery, using computer-animated product demos to show how a side-gather in Sofy's design, plus powerful absorbency, ensure that the product works well. But there the similarity ends. In the Hakuhodo spots, well-known actress Misako Tanaka rather stiffly describes the product's form and features. The new JWT spot that broke last month employs a girl-next-door, who not only describes Sofy, but also describes how using the product makes her feel: "I don't know why, but I feel secure--it's that kind of feeling isn't it?"
"That's the key difference," said JWT account director Masaami Okamura. "The old campaign was good at demonstrating Sofy's innovative design, but failed to relate the brand's features to the consumer and persuade them that the product offered a real benefit. It had a manufacturer's perspective rather than a consumer insight." The Sofy campaign began only last month, so it is too early to measure its sales impact.
Certainly, when it comes to targeting consumers effectively, Japanese ad agencies are often surprisingly unsophisticated and years behind their American and British counterparts. "Even though it has become increasingly important to narrow down the target definitions in building brands, advertisers find that [Japanese] agencies lack knowledge about targeting and have
an immature approach to market segmentation," said Katahira. "By and large, [Japanese] agencies still rely on traditional demographics and are less comfortable in handling lifestyle and consumer values," he added.
One reason for the lag: Most of the research technologies have been developed by European and U.S. ad agencies.
Some foreign agencies located in Japan are now taking advantage of the opportunity to create new brand identities.
Consider McCann-Erickson's advertising for Sokenbicha, a canned tea blended by Coca-Cola Japan from traditional ingredients believed to promote health. While rival beverages compete by listing the herbs and other ingredients in their recipes, Sokenbicha has taken the crucial next step of relating them to potential consumer benefits. "Adlay, brown rice, evening primrose, Sokenbicha; refreshingly, healthily, beautifully; Sokenbicha," sings a wood-sprite in one deceptively simple McCann spot. Launched in 1994, Sokenbicha had won more than half of Japan's $1.46 billion blended-tea market by the end of 1997, reported A.C. Nielsen.
To be sure, there's a large corner in the Japanese psyche that prefers indirect, almost understated messages, particularly if the spot conveys the sense of emotional accessibility which Japanese consumers often respond to.
For example, to mark the January launch of TTNet, a new telecommunications provider selling low-cost phone services, McCann creative director Masao Miyashita recreated The Kantaro Terauchi Family, a popular Japanese soap opera, using the original director to craft a series of vignettes about life in a highly dysfunctional, comic family. In this case, however, the family squabbles all revolve around their attempts to switch their phone service from NTT, Japan's domestic telephone giant. Both the commercial and the upstart company appear to be a success. Three months after the campaign launched, TTNet claimed 1.16 million new users, about 16 percent more than had been projected.
"Each brand has clear positioning driven by a penetrating consumer truth: TTNet, as a new choice in the era of deregulation and Sokenbicha as a notion of well-being. In both [cases], there are significant elements in common, guiding principles that play to effective brand management," said Chris Beaumont, McCann's chief strategy officer for Asia. "These are factors that need to be properly emphasized anywhere in the world, but most certainly in Japan, where the increasingly 'vacant' corporate brand can no longer support initiatives that are more product or feature-oriented," he explained.
Even declining brands can be salvaged this way, observers contend. Unilever's Ponds washable cold cream, which had built its ad campaigns around the imaginary Ponds Institute, which dispensed advice on skin care, had been losing market share in Japan for years. But Ogilvy & Mather Japan discovered that local women were concerned that their facial cleansers were not doing their job well enough. The agency suggested Ponds focus on this problem and demonstrate its cleansing properties while turning the Ponds Institute into a symbol of reliability. A single TV spot depicting women re-discovering Pond's efficacy while bathing in an outdoor hot spring reversed the brand's long-term decline and have helped push it to category leadership this year, sources claimed.
Not everyone is convinced local marketers truly grasp what the new buzz words mean. "Though brand building is much talked about, it's questionable how well it is understood in Japanese companies and how well it's being implemented," said Gil
Aranowitz, communications manager for Adidas Japan. "There's a tendency simply to grasp at the aesthetic rather than to communicate a concept to the consumer."
Katahira, however, is unswayed. "The role of mass advertising today is brand building. In the eyes of advertisers, strong brands equal strong businesses, " he said. It remains to be seen if this revelation has come in time to reverse the downward spiral of consumer spending.