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Five cultural misunderstandings to know before launching in Japan

In 2013, the Japanese government set about creating a three-pronged approach to break free of economic stagnation. Known colloquially as the “Abenomics” strategy, named after the incumbent prime minister, Shinzō Abe, the initiative has catalysed huge economic changes including almost 50 per cent lower unemployment, 2.5 million more women in work and a 53.7 JPY increase in the Japanese GDP.

Now is an exciting time to begin targeting Japan. With the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games taking place in 2020, plus the Osaka-Kansai Japan Expo in 2025, the potential marketing opportunities for sport, tourism, AI and biotechnologies are huge. Moreover, the recently signed EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement will see a reduction in tariffs, enabling better opportunities for exports.

The risk factors

Of course, as with any foray into a new market, there are plenty of risk factors for businesses trying to extend their global reach. Historically, Japan is one of only four countries in the world to never have been colonised by Europe. As a result, we have a region that is culturally and commercially disparate from everything we know as Westerners. Our research has led us to identify five key differences in Japan:

  • A less direct, more polite approach to advertising
  • Japanese and English alphabets/vocabulary
  • A preference for busy, rather than a “less is more” design approach
  • Continued loyalty towards brick-and-mortar retail
  • Traditional folklore

With our extensive knowledge of the Japanese market and world-leading research methods, we have examined the key factors that make for an effective launch strategy in Japan. These insights are further underpinned by anecdotal evidence that shows what went right, and what went wrong, for brands launching in Japan.

The advertising misfire that led to an entire product launch for Pepsi

In spring 2018, global soft drinks powerhouse Pepsi made a tactical move to launch their own “Japanified” product – J-Cola. With no expenses spared on the marketing budget, the product ad depicts an extravagant Japanese festival, complete with monster trucks, bright colours and some of Japan’s best-known musicians.

The latter isn’t a new marketing tactic for the brand. In 1997, for example, Pepsi appealed to Western markets by having the Spice Girls front their “Generation Next” campaign. In less than a month, their cola market share increased from 15.1 per cent to 19.6.

However, they were not always as successful on a global scale. Notably, in 1994, Pepsi tried to take an American advertising model to Japan: comparative advertising. The competitive nature of the commercials, which saw taste testers comparing Pepsi and Coke, was so poorly received in Japan that five major television channels in Tokyo refused to air it. Quite simply, the Japanese consumers saw this competitiveness as a rude and highly disrespectful marketing tactic. Comparative advertising is even illegal in countries such as Argentina, but the resounding message here was that aggressive, competitive marketing did not appeal to an Eastern audience.

Two decades later, Pepsi have done their research. Suntory, who head up the Japanese Pepsi brand, factored the results of the 2015 GlobalData Q4 Survey into their Japanese product. It revealed that 18 to 34-year-olds found the concept of a drink tailored to night-time consumption appealing, up to a 32 per cent margin. This resulted in the “midnight” J-Cola concept, further bolstered by the abovementioned advertising campaign.

The sales figures of this new product remain to be seen, however this case study identifies the need for even the largest brands to rely on more than their reputation on home soil alone to guarantee a successful entry into disparate markets. Only with key research into Japanese customs, in this case, advertising, can these brands have any hope of success – even if they have to launch a new product.

While Frozen translates, smoke fails to light up the Japanese market

Accurate translation is one of the most challenging aspects of considering entry into new markets for global brands. When marketing within cultures that share similarities such as common language roots or shared cultural norms, branding messages usually translate effectively without much need for localisation. In English to Japanese, however, there are a multitude of considerations to take into account such as:

Disney hit Frozen became the third-highest grossing film in Japan, and the use of effective translation could well have been a key factor for this. Film executives identified that directly translating the English title into Japanese would not convey the appropriate messaging, so renamed the film ‘Anna and the Snow Queen’, which proved to be highly successful.

Equally, the lyrics from the film’s most recognisable ballad within the West, ‘Let It Go’ were thoughtfully re-written in Japanese to convey the same emotions rather than being a direct translation of the English lyrics. The acute and insightful efforts made by Disney display the exact attention to detail that must be incorporated into all marketing strategies when considering entry into Japan.

In comparison, cigarette brand Salem’s famous “Salem, feeling free” slogan was directly translated into Japanese without taking any semantics into consideration. This resulted in the brand unjustifiably telling Japanese consumers that “when smoking Salem, you will feel so refreshed that your mind seems free and empty”. The difference may be slight, but the essence of each statement conveys an entirely disparate message and could prove highly detrimental to the brand’s successful entry into the Japanese market.

It is not enough to simply plug a slogan into a machine translation – brands need to understand how their products are received in the Japanese market and try to appeal to the emotions of their target audience.

The journey of the Japanese aesthetic

Historically, Japanese design has evolved considerably, particularly over the last three centuries. While today, it is commonplace to see modern Japanese designs favouring a “busier” aesthetic, for example, heavily loaded webpages, this has not always been the case.

A notable example is Japanese places of worship. Shinto shrines are sacred, quiet places, without regular visitors, and an overall sense of calm. This wabisabi approach favours the “less is more” sentiment, compared to historically crowded Catholic places of worship.

However, progressing to the WW2 era, the Western influence clearly made its way into Japanese culture, for example, changing concepts of space utilisation in the Japanese household.  This may be a contributing factor to the ‘busy design’ that Westerners traditionally associate with Japan in the modern day. While the West moved on after WW2, embracing the Scandinavian minimalist approach (popularised by modern retailers such as Ikea), Japan holds on to the post-WW2 Western design aesthetic.

Businesses looking to localise their product in Japan should bear these design sentiments in mind, in particular, online. Just 50 per cent of the Japanese population uses a smartphone, compared to a considerably  higher 85 per cent of consumers in the UK. Again, this underpins the argument that busier design still works in Japan, as mobile-friendly design is not held in as high regard.

However, conversely, history should not be overlooked. With Japan’s “simple” design history, Westerners have firm foundations on which to build their brand in the modern-day Japanese market.

Loyalty beats digital

With a comparatively low number of smartphone users than in the West, Japanese consumers are less convinced by online retail. According to our insights, 80 per cent of Tokyo residents between 18 and 64 years of age shop in brick and mortar stores, in comparison to just 21 per cent of Americans. Japanese respondents to the 2014 Consumer Survey preferred the “overall experience of going shopping”.

These findings were echoed in the Epsilon survey into Japanese consumer loyalty, which revealed that shoppers held value for money and customer service in extremely high regard. Westerners looking to target Japanese markets should heed the warning of online retailers such as eBay, whose digital, non-customer service-focused approach led to the company bowing out of the East. The lesson to be learned here is that retailers should earn their customers’ trust, which cannot be done without first researching and understanding the buyer.

Pampers should have plumped for peaches

Once again, Japan proves that large Western brands cannot always rely upon the reputation of their branding to succeed in the East. Procter & Gamble, whose Pampers product shifts 789,000 units in the UK per year, was almost run out of business in Japan. When the brand launched its disposable nappy range in Japan in the 1970s, sales took a nosedive.

Research into popular folklore would have revealed that the stork, a common Western symbol used for baby product advertising, has no significance in Japan. Rather, using imagery of the giant peach that Japanese folklore depicts as being sent from heaven to deliver babies within (from the story of Momotarō), would have held far more cultural significance and been an instantly recognisable branding idea for a baby product. Brands which rely on emotive, family-led advertising must familiarise themselves with Japanese traditions before attempting to target this new market.


Katie Thompson

Katie Lingo


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