It’s widely accepted across the globe that Japan is one of the hardest countries to launch into for overseas brands and navigating this is what we do as a PR agency in Japan. Home to one of the most competitive media markets in the world, Japan is definitely a tough nut for many to crack. Oftentimes, these challenges are even further exacerbated by a company’s lack of a physical presence in Japan (and no, an APAC office in Singapore doesn’t count). With best practices in Japan regularly running counter to what works in other regions of the globe, it can be even more difficult to properly nail your strategy for Japan.

Now, during my tenure at Kyodo PR, I have assisted in overseeing the market entry campaigns for some of the world’s biggest brands. In the past several years, I have been part of account teams that have successfully planned the launches for some of the top names in music streaming as well as online dating. In all of these cases, the notion of messaging for Japanese audiences was integral to successfully nailing the launch. Simply put, the same narrative that works overseas may not be as effective here in Japan. As such, a brand’s angles need to be re-evaluated during the launch planning phases.

Proximal & Ultimate Value

Confused Japanese woman is perplexed while looking at smartphone

Especially when it comes to non-physical entities like apps, one phenomenon that I’ve noticed time and time again is that Japanese audiences tend to struggle understanding the value proposition of a given service. On the surface level, the media (and by proxy the public) can easily grasp what an app does. However, when it comes to the societal significance of said service, I’ve found that media gatekeepers often fail to deduce much beyond the self-evident. Though it’s really anyone’s guess why, I like to think that this initial inability to surmise the underlying implications stems from Japan’s so-called “monozukuri” craftsmanship legacy.

When explaining this oddity to clients, I’ve recently been resorting to a framework that I call “proximate vs ultimate value.” This is borrowed from a schema known as proximate & ultimate cause. Often used to discern the true cause in accidents, this means of examination is quite helpful in cutting through the noise. Let’s examine the case of an airplane crash. Here, the proximate cause might be that the plane didn’t have enough lift to keep it in the air. This unfortunately isn’t very helpful. In a case like this, what we really want to know is the ultimate cause, that the left engine fell off.

Getting back to the topic of messaging, proximate vs ultimate value is similarly useful for working out the “why” of a service. As mentioned, the Japanese media are often great at comprehending the details of a brand’s surface level value. Alas, where they tend to initially fall short is in grasping the transformative power of the enterprise in question. Let’s take the example of a globally popular dating app (an area with which I have a lot of experience). Here, the true underlying value proposition is that apps of this kind allow Japanese to transcend the boundaries of their social circles. During otherwise dead time, users can meet individuals they would otherwise not encounter via group-centric Japanese society’s traditional, offline means.

Overcoming a Lack of Visuals

A Japanese woman looks at a streaming site on her laptop

Similarly, another great case is video content streaming. Even in 2020, Japan still greatly lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to this regard. Though many in the public are aware of what a service like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video allows, they miss the intrinsic, paradigm shift-level implications of these platform’s value propositions. To use my nomenclature, here the “ultimate value” would be that video streaming services allow a user to go from passively consuming whatever is broadcasted on TV to being an active viewer. The implications of this are profound (albeit blatantly obvious to a western audience who is intimately familiar with video streaming). With an endless library of content at one’s disposal, a user can watch only whatever titillates his or her unique interests. What’s more, they can do so at their own leisure, be that an episode a night or during a half-day binge.

Once you’re aware of the framework of proximate and ultimate value, it’s actually not all too challenging to derive what these are. Similarly, it’s not too much of a herculean task to get media gatekeepers to comprehend the true value proposition either. That said though, where the challenge really lies is in getting coverage of these angles. As outlined in this piece, the Japanese media tends to be fact-centric, and therefore you’ll need to come up with creative ways to get exposure of a brand’s ultimate value. Here, you need to be creative while also aligning your activities with the mechanized means by which the Japanese media pickup information.

At least in my own experience, two go-to strategies for getting media coverage of an app’s true value proposition are interviews and data driven releases. Unlike with press conferences or press releases, one-on-one interviews with senior executives presents the opportunity for more nuance. If a speaker can artfully weave the ultimate value into his or her answers, this can be a sure shot way of getting them in front of the public. While this tactic is potent, it typically requires a physical presence in Japan, a hurdle that can be challenging for companies with no official Japanese office.

Public Relations & Trend Jacking

Two Japanese have a business meeting while discussing data

When interviews aren’t possible or when there’s no justification for setting one up, my tried and true alternative has been data driven releases. This is a topic that I’ve touched on before in my piece on trend jacking. When it comes to promoting a company’s ultimate value, you’re looking to use proprietary data to come up with announcements that showcase the value proposition. For example, music streaming services might source numbers that highlight how the app’s discovery features lead to users on average finding X% more songs. Alternatively, a company like Netflix might publish stats on users’ behavior regarding marathon viewing sessions.

All in all, especially when it comes to market entry, it’s important to think of ways to get media exposure of your brand’s real benefit. By default, the Japanese media ecosystem is very good at reporting on what your offering does but it often neglects to tell potential users why they should adopt your service. Because of this, it’s important for us marketers to weave ultimate value threads into our messaging while also pondering deeply on how to get exposure for these angles. Otherwise, you’ll find it increasingly hard to convert users from merely knowing about your offering to being paid customers.


About the Author

Donny Kimball is a digital strategist and growth hacker at Kyodo PR who specializes in tourism promotion. A PhD. candidate at Sophia University who grew up in Japan, he blogs about social media strategy and how customer behavior is changing.

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