One of the best things you can do for your business before entering the Japanese market is to look at what successful brands get right in Japan and apply these learnings for your own brand’s strategy in Japan.
In this article we will highlight some of the key things that successful foreign brands in Japan do which help them to excel in this dynamic market.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
7 Things Successful Brands Get Right in Japan
The Japanese market continues to appeal to globally-minded businesses looking to expand into new markets and for good reason.
In addition to boasting the world’s third largest market in terms of GDP, Japan also has a large population of over 120 million people—making it an attractive country for overseas brands searching for big opportunities.
Unfortunately, many foreign brands in Japan have a hard time replicating the success they have had at home or in other markets. Indeed non-Japanese brands commonly struggle to find the right approach to reach Japanese customers or fail to resonate with a Japanese audience.
Although the exact strategy for Japan that a given brand will take will always be slightly different, depending on factors such as industry and business size, looking at the things that successful foreign brands in Japan have in common can greatly help when it comes to informing your own brand’s strategy.
They Possess a Truly Unique Value Proposition
The first, and most important, thing that successful brands do right in Japan is they have a truly unique value proposition.
Japan is a mature, fully industrialized country with a sophisticated consumer market.
Additionally, the nature of Japanese businesses means that most home-grown brands are incredibly focused on the domestic market and less so everywhere else in the world.
Without a unique selling point or value proposition, brands will find themselves having an extremely difficult time gaining a foothold in the Japanese market, where established, domestic businesses already compete for market share.
That’s why the first thing that non-Japanese brands looking to enter this market should consider is whether or not their brand is bringing something new to the table.
What that something might be can vary, but ideally it should be distinct and not easily imitated in order to help create a competitive advantage against domestic Japanese brands and businesses that operate in the same vertical or sector.
Take Starbucks, for example.
Starbucks has found tremendous success in the Japanese market, and is one of the most popular brands, of any industry, in the country.
You don’t have to go far to find a Starbucks’ cup in Japan
The company’s success in Japan was not a result of lack of competition though. Numerous other coffee chains, such as Doutour and Veloce, were also around prior to Starbucks’ arrival on Japanese shores.
Nor is Starbucks’ enduring success in Japan a result of its popularity overseas. In fact, popularity abroad is by no means an indication of potential success in the Japanese market.
Instead, Starbucks had something else going for it.
Starbucks’ concept of a “third place,” or a space for gathering and connection that exists between the office and one’s home, its unique menu of coffee-themed drinks, and its practice of being a non-smoking establishment all helped to differentiate Starbucks from existing competition in the Japanese market.
The rest is history and Starbucks today enjoys a special kind of status in Japan that is rivaled by very few brands.
They Localize Their Offering
The most successful foreign brands in Japan all do a fantastic job of localizing their offering specifically for the Japanese market and Japanese consumers.
When we say localize we’re not just talking about language (i.e. translation), although that is also critically important when marketing to a Japanese audience.
Instead, we’re talking about going back to the fundamentals of marketing and the Four P’s—in this case “product.” In many cases brands may need to localize their product or offering in order to give the best chance of success in Japan.
Of course, this requires a certain level of both flexibility and resources, and businesses are often apprehensive about such suggestions.
However, it’s not without reason that we feel so strongly about the need for thorough localization. Over the years we have witnessed many brands try to force a non-localized product or service on to Japanese customers and it almost always ends in failure.
If that isn’t convincing enough, then it’s worth pointing out that even global brands like IKEA had to localize their offering in Japan.
Photo source: IKEA Japan
At IKEA locations in Japan spaces and showrooms that better fit within the Japanese context of smaller homes, apartments and rooms with less space than those found in western markets had to be built.
The smaller sized living spaces found in Japan also meant that certain pieces of furniture, simply wouldn’t work in Japan.
As a result, IKEA had to make items like sofas specifically for the Japanese market, or risk missing out on selling those items to Japanese customers.
Obviously, not selling a staple item such as sofas was never an option, so IKEA took appropriate measures, and this practice of localization for a specific market has now been expanded to other countries and markets that IKEA operates in.
While the extent of localization will differ from business to business, there isn’t any brand out there that wouldn’t benefit from localizing their product to better fit the Japanese market.
They Understand Their Japanese Competition
As mentioned earlier, the Japanese market is highly competitive and most industries and verticals have numerous domestic businesses and brands already vying for Japanese customers.
Therefore, understanding who your competition is and what their relative strengths and weaknesses are, is absolutely critical to finding success in Japan.
Ideally you should have a firm grasp of who the major players in your space are before entering the Japanese market, but if you have already entered the market there are still plenty of reasons to look into your competition in Japan.
One of the strongest cases that can be made for doing a thorough competitor analysis in Japan comes down to positioning.
Knowing the positioning that each of your competitors have taken will help you determine the ideal positioning for your own brand within the Japanese market. At the same time, however, you shouldn’t be surprised if a local Japanese brand has already staked out the position you would have liked to have claimed for yourself.
In some cases, even if you are the dominant player in your home market, if your ability to position (or re-position) your brand in the Japanese market is fundamentally compromised, then it’s best to revisit our first point, while also taking into consideration what you’ve learned about the competitive landscape in Japan.
Although it can be tempting to just start selling in Japan, first understanding the strength and weaknesses of your Japanese competitors, as well as their relative position within that space, is something that successful brands all do and should not be ignored.
They Understand Japanese Consumers
Japanese consumers tend to be difficult for non-Japanese businesses and brands to truly understand.
The most successful foreign brands in Japan, however, understand that Japanese consumers are different than those in their home market and take that fact to heart.
While a foreign brand may not have the same level of understanding that a domestic brand made up entirely of native Japanese staff might have, the most successful non-Japanese brands all possess a firm grasp of Japanese consumers’ preferences, tastes, and behaviors. They accomplish this either through working closely with local agencies, trusted partners, or their own Japanese hires.
Brands that fail, on the other hand, often try to forge their way in the market by themselves, providing directions from a distantly located HQ (often a continent and multiple time zones away), and without any knowledge or specific experience dealing with Japan.
While it’s easy for those who are uninformed to write off cultural differences between Japanese and western consumers as insignificant, this could not be further than the truth.
The devil is in the details when it comes to both Japan and Japanese consumers, and learning about Japanese culture and values will go a long way in improving your performance in the Japanese market.
They Adopt a Multichannel Approach to Marketing
One of the most underappreciated things that successful foreign brands do right in Japan has to do with their ability to develop an appropriate multichannel strategy for the Japanese market.
In an earlier article we identified digital transformation as one of the key digital marketing trends in Japan. In many ways, this point is an extension of digital transformation that we find to be especially relevant for direct to consumer and online retail in Japan. Essentially, with more businesses prioritizing ecommerce in Japan, brands must use multiple digital channels to reach Japanese consumers.
In previous years, many businesses in Japan were able to get away with focusing on a single digital platform to drive business results. But with recent changes to the digital landscape, including the move away from third-party cookies and issues surrounding the right to online privacy, digital marketers in Japan face new challenges that make it necessary to adopt a multichannel approach.
However, when adopting a multichannel approach to your digital marketing in Japan, not only do you need a strategy for each digital advertising platform, such as Google Ads or social media, but also a cohesive media plan which brings it all together. This kind of integrated marketing strategy requires a much greater degree of experience to successfully execute.
While some brands are hesitant to branch out of their comfort zones when it comes to advertising platforms, having identified the inherent risks in over-reliance on a single channel, the best brands in Japan overwhelmingly choose to diversify.
Successful brands in Japan are not one-dimensional in their marketing efforts, and they make use of numerous channels to achieve their business objectives.
They are Consistent Across All Areas of Their Business
To be a successful business requires consistency and the ability to deliver and hit targets when it comes to sales, operations, marketing, and customer service.
The most successful brands in Japan maintain a high level of consistency among all aspects of their business.
Consistency in product and service is, of course, important to note because Japanese consumers have notoriously high expectations. In the realms of both B2B and B2C, Japanese tend to be very particular when it comes to quality of customer service and often require a good amount of communication in order to be satisfied.
Delivering a consistently superior customer experience, on the other hand, is important not only as a reflection of your brand, but in terms of establishing trust among Japanese customers.
While product and customer service are likely the first things that come to mind when considering the overall strength and performance of your operation, there is another area which you must strive for consistency in if you want to sell in the Japanese market. That is digital marketing.
This is true whether you’re in fashion or tech, whether you target enterprises or sell directly to Japanese consumers.
With regard to digital marketing in Japan by non-Japanese brands, however, lack of consistency is widespread.
Brands that only engage in periodic or sporadic advertising, often lacking any sort of cohesion, will find it difficult to succeed in Japan due to the competitive nature of the market. The thing to realize here is that if you aren’t consistent with your marketing then your competitors will be.
Successful brands in Japan never stop marketing.
They Focus on Building Their Brand in Japan
Establishing a brand is critical to long-term success in Japan. Not only do brands enjoy more success than generic offerings in the long-run, but in the short-term as well, without consumers knowing who you are and what your business is about it’s nearly impossible to gain any sort of traction in the Japanese market that would set you up for future success.
So the question is: how should one go about building a brand in Japan?
While a few select brands may be able to leverage some brand equity or buzz from their home market, more often than not succeeding in Japan means starting from scratch.
This means you will need to invest time into brand-building on top of the other activities involved in getting your business operational in Japan.
Promoting your product or service and building awareness through digital marketing and advertising are often the most appropriate first steps for non-Japanese brands, especially for those who lack a substantial physical presence in the market.
However, more than tactics and strategy, understanding the importance of the long-game and recognizing that the work will take time is critical to managing both the outcomes and expectations for your business in Japan.
As touched upon in our previous point, building your brand is all about building trust with Japanese consumers and establishing credibility. This doesn’t happen overnight, especially in cases where there is close to zero awareness of your brand in the market.
That being said, once you do have a solid foundation for your brand in Japan you will often find other opportunities open up and your options for marketing and growing your business to be greatly expanded.
Bottom Line: What Successful Brands Get Right in Japan
Japanese consumers continue to seek out new products or services, regardless of the brand’s country of origin, as some of the most successful foreign brands in Japan can attest.
Achieving the same level of success in Japan as such brands, however, is a different matter.
Ultimately what makes a brand successful in Japan is a combination of factors, that include having a unique value proposition and a marketing strategy specifically designed and implemented for the Japan market.
Understanding the fact that seemingly small differences and cultural nuances can have tremendous impact on your efforts in Japan is another thing which can go a long way in helping you and your brand find success among a Japanese audience.
Rather than attempting to go it alone in Japan, enlisting the help of local experts or partners is often the best choice for non-Japanese brands in order to avoid wasted time, money, and energy.
Despite the challenges of entering a unique foreign market, if your business is interested in expanding your brand in Japan it can be a very worthwhile investment when approached correctly.
Interested in Working Together?
Plus Alpha Digital is a marketing agency that specializes in helping non-Japanese businesses successfully navigate the Japanese market. Contact us to schedule a discovery call and see how we can help you achieve your goals in Japan.