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Market readiness: Japan

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Market specific messaging is the start point to any campaign, service launch or new business. But what about if you are an established brand entering an entirely new market? Like, say, Japan.

Market specific messaging is so important to your brand really resonating.

Whether we are facilitating Buyer Persona workshops or Customer Focus Groups and Perception Surveys – understanding your audience is an area Pink Mingo work closely with clients on.

It is the start point to any campaign, service launch or new business. But what about if you are an established brand entering an entirely new market? Like, say, Japan…

Japan is the world’s third largest market, but with strong locally grown brands, demanding consumers and the need to completely adapt management styles to succeed, some businesses try and fail, or fail to try, to crack Japan.

In this interview, Elizabeth sits down with Tokyoesque founder Natalie Meyer to find out more about the mighty Japanese market, barriers to entry and how brands can get market ready...

EL: You work with both European and Japanese clients, what brings Japanese brands to Europe and vice versa?

NM: In my experience, Japanese brands are largely attracted to the ability to become more globalised by partnering with European companies.

They realise that the Japanese market, whilst lucrative, can be restrictive for local brands – especially when we think about aspects like the ageing society. Japanese clients also really appreciate the high level of knowledge that can be gained from observing how European businesses are run.

We’ve organised tours in London for Japanese companies who want to experience things first hand. For example, a tour of various co-working spaces, which still aren’t as prevalent in Japan.

On the other side of the equation, European brands see the huge potential that the Japanese market offers for business development, not only into Japan itself but also as a stepping off point for the rest of Asia.

There’s also a general perception among Japanese consumers that European products are luxurious and aspirational, so brands know there’s a demand.

EL: There is no denying Japan’s economic strength, but with wages and nominal gross domestic product (GDP) remaining pretty static for several years, a rapidly ageing population and a reliance on exports, how confident are your clients on the sustainability of the market?

NM: Despite those key factors you mention, we see the market as being sustainable for European clients precisely because Japan wants to boost its global credentials.

The situation is improving, but the reality is that Japan is still a fairly isolated market with a low percentage of people able to speak English fluently.

This often limits the number of quality connections made with foreign companies, but that’s where Tokyoesque comes in; we act as a bridge between Europe and Japan, closing the gap in terms of cultural understanding and helping to connect the right people.

EL: Clearly there are risks in expanding to any market, and Japan has been impossible to crack for a wide range of businesses from eBay and Vodafone, to Dasdaq and Boots the chemist. What unique challenges and opportunities does Japan hold for brands?

NM: The main challenges of expanding into the Japanese market are primarily cultural.

For instance, failing to fully understand how Japanese companies do business, accidentally causing offence or being ignorant of local customs can mean that a deal goes down the pan.

Western companies may be used to decisions being reached quickly, but in Japan there’s a strong bottom-up hierarchical structure and as a result, it can take significantly longer to come to a decision.

It’s also important to read between the lines; what Japanese representatives say isn’t always what they really mean. So before investing time and money into market expansion, it’s first crucial to research Japan’s cultural nuances, measure consumer sentiment and gain insight into industry trends.

Challenges aside, we know that Japan represents solid opportunities for brands operating in certain sectors, particularly cybersecurity, fintech, and e-sports. But even in other industries, as long as products are of high quality, Japanese companies are likely to be receptive.

For instance, Tokyoesque recently helped a British client selling game meat to secure several appointments with Japanese resorts and hotels during their trip to Japan. As well as offering high quality products, the client was accompanied by an interpreter who was able to help the meetings run smoothly.

EL: With Japan Rugby 2019 and Tokyo 2020 Olympics fast approaching, are you seeing a shift in the types of brands that want to expand to Japan?

NM: Honestly? There’s not really much of a difference in the types of brands, but there is a significantly higher level of interest in expanding to Japan.

The brands we’ve spoken with tended to be considering Japan in the first place. I feel like these two major global events are acting as catalysts to give European brands the push they need to finally expand to Japan. Some of them already have a presence in other Asian countries like China, but now they can clearly see what a good opportunity there is in Japan.

EL: OK, so we are convinced. Next stop, Japan. How can brands ensure they are prepared and that they have the right proposition for Japan?

NM: Market research is absolutely key, which is why this year we started offering the Market Readiness Score.

To begin with, we offer a free diagnostic report. For this, all brands need to do is answer a few simple questions about their business and we then highlight key trends in their sector and suggest further areas for investigation.

Localisation is also a really important aspect to bear in mind. Simply translating marketing materials, websites, and other documents into Japanese isn’t necessarily going to be effective.

There needs to be a fundamental localisation of concepts to better resonate with a Japanese audience.

EL: Tokyoesque has a clear purpose and a focused problem that you are solving for clients. How did the business start and evolve? How did you identify the need?

NM: Tokyoesque started in 2014 when contacts from my days working in market research in Tokyo began to contact me to provide information they needed from London.

The business naturally evolved from there as I realised that we were ideally positioned in London to serve as a bridge between Europe and Japan.

At first, people asked me why we were focusing on Japan and not China. But since 2014, Japan has become much more on the radar – thanks to events like Tokyo 2020 – and it is now accepted that Japan is again a key market for expansion.

The other thing I had to learn as we grew was how to go after only the needs that we know we are able to support skilfully. Thus we position ourselves as cultural insight experts in Japan, which clearly differentiates us from other Japan experts.

EL: Finally, what is the best bit about being an entrepreneur and what advice would you give other entrepreneurs?

NM: I would say the ability to have a vision and build that vision with a team that also believes in it is what I value the most.

Get other people on board with you. If you can do this – whether through a co-founder, employee or advisor – then you suddenly have obligations and responsibilities to someone else.

That will push you to clarify and act on that vision even more effectively.


Tokyoesque is a cultural insight agency that connects Europe and Japan markets by empowering businesses with knowledge of their global audiences

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