Every brand manager or business owner trying to sell their product in Japan has asked themselves how they can improve their performance in the Japanese market. These days, in competitive industries like B2C ecommerce, it’s probably a daily question.
Brands from overseas face numerous challenges in entering the Japanese market and most foreign brands have some inherent disadvantages when stacked up against Japanese brands on their home turf.
The language barrier is the challenge that everyone can anticipate—Japanese isn’t widely spoken anywhere outside of Japan—which means you’ll need both translation and localization for anything you do.
But it is the cultural barrier and a general lack of understanding of both Japanese consumers and the Japanese market which are far more relevant to a brand’s success or failure in Japan. Indeed, Japanese domestic companies tend to run circles around all but the biggest, foreign-owned brands. And it’s especially true with small to medium sized niche brands in B2C, who typically have the most difficulty in expanding their businesses in Japan.
So, returning to original question, how can brands improve their performance in the Japanese market?
Unfortunately, there is no universal answer nor one that can realistically be offered without a detailed understanding of a specific brand and their operations in Japan.
Even when working with an agency partner who possesses prior industry knowledge, your business may have very different metrics, financials, and resources when compared with your competitors.
That’s why, without careful analysis of your unique situation, sales numbers, and marketing data, it’s impossible even for those with prior experience in your industry or vertical to make accurate assessments or design effective strategies to help you increase sales or reach more customers in Japan.
In other words, advice on channels, research, pricing, communications, tactics, all of these things must be considered and designed specifically for a given business and isn’t something that can be replicated and repurposed from business to business.
For that reason, we believe the most important action that a brand can take to improve performance in Japan starts with revisiting their go-to-market strategy for Japan. Everything else is secondary.
“But hang on,” you might say, “What about digital marketing strategy for Japan?”
Your digital marketing strategy is simply a component of your overall strategy for the Japanese market, but with most consumer-facing brands of today focused only on digital—and having experience in their own market advertising on many of the same platforms that are available in Japan—they tend to dive head first into digital marketing tactics in Japan as a matter of course.
The line of thinking often goes, “If what we did worked in our home market it will work elsewhere too.”
Unfortunately this is not the best approach to marketing in Japan.
That is not to say, that digital marketing or social media marketing in Japan are not important. Far from it, they are absolutely critical for many businesses—especially D2C brands—in Japan, but one cannot skip the crucial step of establishing a Japan market strategy which guides your digital strategy.
In fact, in order to succeed in the Japanese market in the current, challenging conditions it’s even more imperative than ever that those brands that are unfamiliar with the ins-and-outs of selling in Japan proactively address any gaps in market knowledge and understanding, so as to focus on building a strategy specifically geared towards Japanese consumers.
Both Japan’s size and unique characteristics demand it.
While there are always opportunities for new businesses in the Japanese market, they are not nearly as easy to act upon as some who enter the market believe.
And it is because we have seen this scenario play out time and time again that we are confident enough to make this statement.
In fact, it doesn’t make much sense to think that a country with 125 million people would not warrant a custom approach—especially when its consumers have proven to be so different from even neighboring countries’ and have earned a reputation for being extremely tough to sell to.
It’s only after you’ve built your market strategy for Japan out that you can do a deep dive into how you execute in key areas like search engine marketing (SEM), paid and organic social, content marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), email marketing, and conversion rate optimization (CRO). And, since each of these areas potentially represents a whole other challenge, it is not an easy–or quick–task by any means.
Bottom line, for most foreign-owned businesses it is their overall Japan strategy which has the biggest impact on their performance in the market. Given the current challenges facing all businesses in the Japanese market, brands with a better strategy will have a significant leg up on their competitors.
Looking for deeper insight?
At Plus Alpha Digital we design and implement strategies that help brands better reach Japanese consumers and grow their business in Japan. Contact us to learn more about our services and to find out if we’d be a good fit for you.