Big in Japan

Nigel Barker
International Digital Marketing Adviser | Business West
23rd September 2020

Last week the UK announced its first Free Trade Agreement since it’s departure from the European Union. Having an FTA with Japan is a landmark event that will enable the UK to build new trading relationships with, not only Japan, but other countries globally.

There is much to celebrate about this event for the South West. For instance, in 2019 businesses in the region exported £600 million to Japan, £300 million of which was machinery for generating power. That is a solid base to build our businesses from. 

The UK’s exports have been growing by, on average 7.6% over the last five years the new agreement will enable more trade to flow between the two nations, leading to more jobs and better prosperity.

So, it’s all good then.

Well yes. BUT for businesses in the region to really maximise this exciting new opportunity I would like to paraphrase Martin Lawrence in the 2003 Cop Action Sequel Bad Boys 2 by saying ‘Stuff Just Got Real.’ What do I mean by that? Or was it just an excuse to use an edited version of the original quote? Partly yes, any excuse to use that quote, but actually no.

Stuff has ‘just got real’ and businesses must pull their trousers up, get real themselves and make the most of this incredible opportunity, because it won’t just come to them.

Step out of the comfort zone

Most companies that I work with are exporting to what I would call ‘easy territories.’Europe hasn’t been so much exporting as ‘selling.’ I have long said that as a member of the EU it has been as easy to sell T-Shirts to Faro as it has been to sell them to Falmouth.

Culturally the nuances between the UK and other European nations is incredibly small. Significant, but still small. For instance, linguistically it has been relatively easy to ‘be understood.’ From a style perspective there isn’t a huge amount of difference. We are all European for a start.

In short, localisation, within the single market that we were part of has mostly been about getting some good translation done, convert currencies and away you go.

Similarly, selling to the USA, the language is obviously incredibly similar. Subtle changes, but not significant.

Japan is a completely different ball game all together. To my shame, I know absolutely NO written Japanese, and can only say a few very basic phrases. I say phrases, they are more like individual words really and that’s only because my kids follow a few Instagrammers and people on TikTok. They know more than I do!!

Conversely having worked in Europe throughout my life, I can exist in France, Belgium, Italy and Germany and at best, fit in and at worst, get by.

I am fairly typical, dare I even say average.

So what can we do to make the most of this new and exciting market? Well, the first thing to do would be to do your research. Japan is a country built on tradition and

relationships. If you have no relationships in the country then you need to start to build them. Your digital output is as important a part of building a relationship as a physical presence so you need to pay very close attention to that.

Doing business in Japan doesn’t ‘Just Happen’ it takes time to develop the trust needed. I’m not talking a few weeks, or months, I am talking a few years to develop those connections and links that will enable you to maximise your presence in that market.

Pictures paint a thousand words - but are they the right words?

To be ‘Big in Japan’ you need to think very carefully about your entire digital output. Learn how that will be received and remember that images speak volumes for you as a brand so pay very close attention to those images.

Successful businesses marketing to Japan, ensure that they are working with creative teams in country to help them build a brand both on and off-line. This means that the lovely photo shoot for this year’s make-up campaign, shot in a disused warehouse in London with western models won’t work in Japan. Culturally that won’t resonate with them, and you need to resonate with your target audience.

In almost all instances you would need to re-shoot using at the very least Japanese models, but ideally in a location that would then really engage with that audience.

Remember your brand values, colours, images and strap-lines are localised to a specific audience, probably your current audience. The Japanese are an entirely new and very different audience and will look for a completely different set of signifiers to a western audience. Even your brand name might need to change. This is more common than you might think.

Don’t translate - trans-create

Directly translating your marketing ‘blurb’ won’t achieve the cut through that you need. The best way to have impactful marketing messages in Japan, and in fact anywhere globally is through trans-creation.

An example of this in action is the way that technology giant Intel approached the Japanese market.

We all know their slogan ‘Intel Inside.’

When this was translated directly into Japanese it didn’t work because the success of that slogan lay in the alliterative ‘bounce’ of the ‘In’ sound. ‘Intel Inside’

Trans-creation enabled the team localising the slogan to come up with ‘Interu Haitteru’ - which actually means ‘Intel Is Inside’ not far away from the original keeps that rhyming bounce with the ‘teru’ syllable. Similarly ‘Intel Is Inside’ doesn’t have the same snappy bounce that won it so many fans in the West.

It’s about honour

Japanese also has a different hierarchy of formality for addressing people. It uses honorific suffixes, known as ‘keigo’ which are attached to the end of people’s names, giving the level of formality to be used.

From a business perspective, ‘sama’ is very respectful, used for people of a higher rank and is used for clients and customers or correspondence with business partners. Conversely ‘San’ is less formal and used in common conversation between friends or very familiar associates.

In my mind I think of that as the difference between using ‘Vous’ and ‘Tu’ in French, however it is more complex than that in reality, and as such needs very careful advice and consideration.

Be Exceptional

Another culturally significant side of the Japanese is their expectation of quality. The Japanese have very high expectations. They won’t accept a product that is almost perfect or an idea that is nearly complete, and a long-standing relationship built on trust can be undone by the smallest detail.

A colleague of mine, works with a client who had been successfully exporting jam to Japan. It had taken years to build this relationship and it was going very well, That was until ONE jar of jam was found to have the minutest speck of mould on the surface. Not only was the whole shipment seen to be contaminated but the relationship was set back and stern words were said about ‘quality and disappointment.’ The business had to work very hard to regain the trust of the Japanese distributor.

This is a long way from my nan’s widely held view that you can ‘just scrape the mould off the top and it’s fine underneath!’ It’s true, you can, I do, and I’m not dead, yet, but it does demonstrate the challenges that businesses have got to face. UK businesses looking to trade successfully with Japan need to get it right, first time, on time every time.

But , let’s be honest, that isn’t how we are necessarily used to doing business over here. We tolerate a bit of slack. We have got used to not delivering perfection. We are used to scraping a bit of metaphorical mould off the surface from time to time.

To trade with the Japanese not only does your quality control need to be exceptional, but so does that of your entire supply chain.

It all seems like quite a lot of work. Is it worth it?

Well, considering that the population of Japan is double that of the UK for a start, I would say yes it is. With the right support, planning and execution South West businesses can really benefit from this new and exciting Free Trade Agreement.

Over the next few years you will start to see more Japanese products on our shelves in the UK and conversely, the Japanese will expect, and want to see more UK products on their shelves, in the same way that the flow of goods between the UK and Europe increased when we joined old The Common Market.

This is a good thing, but much like one of Japan’s most iconic exports ‘Mario’ and his brother ‘Luigi’ you need to navigate this varied and interesting landscape with care and precision. And if you are anything like me playing Super Mario Brothers you will need help from people that have already done it.

As I said at the beginning, it’s exciting, the opportunities are vast, and if you want to use this new FTA to expand beyond the ‘easy territories’ you can.

Just remember ‘Stuff Just Got Real.’

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