Sustaining Emotional Engagement in Japan

The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami still resonates in the hearts and minds of Japan’s people. In the wake of this great tragedy, corporate leaders were called to reflect on their values and their engagement strategies.

This was a chance for businesses to look to their brands as a source of connection, to acknowledge the emotional impact on customers and provide a reason for growing forward, together.

Kizuna—a term that emphasizes the importance of engagement rooted in emotional connection and trust—became a popular concept in Japan after 311. But kizuna is little more than a buzzword when it’s not rooted in the brand. Only a few Japanese brands were able to create the type of connection that led to sustained impact.


What’s less intuitive is that for foreign companies, it is more difficult to engage with customers in Japan than in many other markets in the world.

The reason for this is simple: Most companies saw kizuna as an opportunity to create short term emotional connections but failed to align their messages with their raison d’etre. For example, many Japanese television networks ran kizuna campaigns, but viewers could perceive no difference between the broadcasters because they were focused solely on emotional impact, without connecting it to their brand’s purpose or values.

The answer is to approach customers from an emotional perspective, but to also make sure that emotional appeal is connected to your brand. Promotional activities last a limited time. Branding has a long-lasting impact on customers.


Driving growth

Interbrand’s analysis of this year’s Best Japan Brands revealed five patterns common to the top-growing brands: deepening unity; addressing unmet and hidden needs; fostering strength; developing effective customer touch points with greater reach; and creating authentic bonds. We found that brands that focused on creating emotional bonds—in other words, that engaged with their customers—showed exceptional growth.

When a company launches an engagement activity that is inconsistent with its brand, customers are either confused or fail to associate it with the brand, so the connection is lost or short-lived.

Unity of rider and mount

Mazda is an outstanding example of a Japanese company that leveraged its brand in its promotional activities and demonstrated strong growth as a result. Between 2013 and 2017, Mazda’s sales increased 46%, and its brand value soared 233%, as indicated by Interbrand’s Best Japan Brands analysis.

Focusing on 2016, Mazda executed a series of exceptional customer engagement programs, most notably internal brand training activities that led to the development of customer touchpoints and campaigns that communicated the brand’s philosophy and its vision for the future of the automobile. Mazda also expanded its reach into customer’s lives by engaging audiences through music and the arts.

Mazda’s success results from knowing the fundamentals of its brand and expressing this knowledge in everything from product design to corporate messaging. But there’s more to Mazda’s growth than this. Mazda’s efforts to engage people with its brand philosophy of “jinba ittai”—a horse-riding expression meaning “unity of rider and mount”—is key to framing the Mazda brand in the minds of its employees and its customers.

A deeper connection

It is critical to establish a holistic engagement strategy for your brand, one that encompasses everything from internal to external communications, and spans both the physical and virtual worlds.

It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that Japanese society values emotional engagement. This form of personal interaction is surely a universal trait. What’s less intuitive is that for foreign companies, it is more difficult to engage with customers in Japan than in many other markets in the world.

One common reason is that the signals can be misread. Japanese people tend to be more respectful, which may give the impression that they are more engaged than they are. Misled by this response, the foreign company is baffled that customers do not follow through with an actual transaction.

Businesses grow in Japan only if they achieve true engagement that’s centered around the customer but grounded in their brands: engagement that reaches deeper than a surface-level connection.

Managing on the global stage

Similar problems are faced by Japanese companies attempting to engage customers in other markets. Effective engagement strategies vary from region to region, and standard customer research may not be enough. Today, markets are more nuanced and each requires more extensive knowledge.

In addition, Japanese companies tend to grant more autonomy to their local operations, leading to consistency issues across regions. In this digital age, the merest sign of inconsistency is quickly spotted and held up for worldwide scrutiny.

Learn from the best: Apple and Coca-Cola are global operators, selling to numerous markets, and both maintain strict control of their brands to ensure that identity, messaging, and communications are aligned everywhere.

This is not to suggest that all Japanese companies need to centrally manage their entire operations. However, they must put in place a clear definition of their strategies and marketing capabilities before they step out on the global stage.

The heart of the organization

Authentic engagement unlocks growth. The question is, how do businesses achieve this? Through customer insights? Big data? Segmentation? Market intelligence? Better customer journeys? All these things will point leaders in the right direction, but the most significant answer lies at the heart of the organization: the brand.

Create greater synergy between the business and the brand, express the brand authentically, diligently, and consistently, and business growth will follow.


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