Branding in Japan – How to Impress Your New Audience

Posted By Jim Kersey

Each country has its own cultural preferences and norms, and to succeed commercially, international brands must often be adapted to the local context.

The way you choose to reflect yourself through your branding in Japan does more than just help you stand out, it also helps you conquer the many challenges foreign companies face when entering the Japanese market. This includes overcoming the lack of trust consumers have for non-domestic brands they’re not familiar with.

By tailoring your brand to cater to local trends, expectations, styles, and themes, you can make yourself appear more reliable, appealing, and trustworthy to your new target market.

If nothing else, Japanese customers can be extremely demanding and running your brand through a diligent vetting and localization process will help identify potential weaknesses that could prevent you from gaining traction in Japan with your products and services.

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How Important Is Branding in Japan?

Assuming you already understand the general importance of having a strong brand, a few reasons why branding in Japan requires some extra attention include:

  • Without a brand, it’s impossible to builds trust with customers in Japan who are naturally risk-averse and relationship-oriented
  • Price and product quality are not enough to win over Japanese customers. A more holistic brand experience is necessary
  • In Japan’s most competitive markets, strong brands are needed to stand out and remain memorable in the minds of potential customers
  • A localized brand will show consumers you’re not just another generic global company and are committed to providing unique value to Japanese users
  • Strong branding makes partnerships with Japanese companies, investors, or other such parties much easier
  • Good branding makes the rest of your marketing and advertising efforts much easier when trying to connect with
  • Japanese consumers who have unique preferences and expectations

HB Pro Tip: Your audience isn’t going to magically discover your products or become loyal patrons just because you put out a few PPC campaigns. While this might be enough to gather some initial traction, Japan is a highly relationship-oriented culture where even customers and brands are engaged in dynamic interactions and communication over several years. Poor or ineffective branding in Japan will put you at a serious disadvantage.

What’s Unique About the Japanese Consumer?

Window shoppers appreciating branding in Japan

Everything from identifying the problems in your target market and solution mapping to building a brand that is competitively positioned starts with understanding the Japanese consumer mindset.

Risk aversion On Hofstede’s Uncertainty Avoidance Index, Japan holds one of the highest scores of all societies, registering 92/100. This can translate into an unwillingness to buy products from less known brands.
Distrust in organizations Japanese people are incredibly distrustful of organizations, according to indicators like the Edelman Trust Barometer. And while they are more open to marketing and advertising than other developed nations, it can take a lot for your brand to win over loyal customers.
A love of Japanese products Western brands and goods are not always seen as better. There is a huge preference for domestic brands here in Japan, and foreign companies can often find themselves at a disadvantage, even if their products are better and cheaper than their competitors.
Collectivism & homogeneity Individuals in a collectivist culture may make decisions differently to those in a more individualistic culture, like the US. Where people are more group-oriented, consumers will look for brands that reinforce norms and establish their position in society, rather than ones that make them stand out too much from the crowd.
Information seekers Japanese consumers prefer more information than less when making purchasing decisions. You might be able to get away with minimal product descriptions in your home market, but be prepared to offer more information to Japanese customers who are keen to learn about how your products are made or what they’re made from.
Demographic trends Japan has a unique population with a rapidly aging society and falling birth rates. And different segments have quite different preferences and expectations. For example, your products may be more suited to older consumers with higher purchasing power. If so, you must adapt your brand to suit the needs of this group, rather than relying on your existing, potentially youth-oriented, marketing strategy.
Image conscious Though not individualistic or egotistical, you could say that many people in Japan long for quiet recognition. Brands say a lot about who we are and you’ll need to carefully map how your brand is positioned so customers believe you can improve or at least maintain their image.
High expectations for quality There’s perhaps no country in the world where poor quality can damage your reputation so quickly and so much. Whether it’s inconsistencies in your online customer experience or defects with your actual product, you must avoid your brand being perceived as anything less than perfect.
Selective purchasers Many individuals are not prepared to be the first-mover. Reviews, ratings, comparison sites, and recommendations from friends are fundamental to the buying process for Japanese shoppers, helping them to feel more confident about their purchasing choice. 

HB Pro Tip: Japanese consumers are less concerned with standing out and being different. Instead, many prefer brands and products that are more widely accepted by their peers. Therefore, presenting yourself as too unusual, unique, or disruptive can hurt your brand.

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How Loyal Are Japanese Shoppers?

Two loyal shoppers browsing shop and branding in Japan

Loyalty in Japan is an important virtue. Customers are happier to stick with brands they’ve already established a relationship with as long as they continue to be treated well — even when competitor brands offer similar products at a lower cost.

Loyalty programs and point cards are everywhere. Reward systems are used by most of the nation’s largest brands in some form, with Rakuten, Amazon and T-Point offering some of the most popular schemes.

Even if a point card or loyalty program doesn’t work for your brand, it’s wise to look for ways to build more long-term relationships with your customers however you can.

Effective Brand Positioning in Japan

Don’t expect to immediately inhabit the same position in the Japanese market as you do at home. You might be able to get there eventually, but could face a great deal of resistance from Japanese competitors who are already established.

With a realistic approach to how your brand can feasibly achieve a specific position in the market, it can often be worth adapting your strategy to focus on a more achievable target in Japan. For instance, niche segments could be easier to dominate and just as profitable.

Marketing output, pricing, promotions, distribution, packaging, and competition are all factors to consider when proactively positioning your brand to give you an advantage in Japan.

Check Your Brand Name in Japanese

Foreign names stand out (sometimes in a good way and sometimes not). This is the same in Japan as it is in any country, so keep this in mind when you’re considering how your brand is perceived by your audience.

While you may be completely unprepared to make a change to your name, consider that is potentially the one thing someone will remember about you, and having something appropriate for Japanese consumers is crucial. The same goes for your individual products and services.

A few things to remember during a brand naming or translation process are:

  • Consider how words sound phonetically
  • Check word associations and related meanings in Japanese
  • Does it have the same impact in Japan as it does in your home market? (memorable, consistent, punchy etc.)
  • Is it too vague or obscure for Japanese consumers to understand?
  • How does it compare to the brand names of your competitors?

The brand name “Kit Kat” for example, was transliterated into “kitto katto” in Japanese when Nestle entered the market, which mirrors the phrase “kitto katsu” and translates into several catchy phrases, like “never fail” or “do your best”. Now used as a good luck charm and consumed by millions of Japanese children and adults each day, it’s an example of how your name can play a huge role in your success in Japan.

Optimize Your Visual Branding

Designer working on visual branding in Japan

Your visual identity is conveyed through all of your external brand communications and marketing. It includes everything from your logo, colours, typography, imagery styles, and composition styles.

Color palette Studies suggest colour preferences differ between cultures. In a study into the cross-cultural differences in color preference between Japan v. the USA, it was found that Japanese observers had a greater relative preference for light colors and pastels, rating them higher than Americans.
Image choice It’s easy to deter Japanese consumers with brand communications that only feature Western models. You’re in Japan, so incorporating local faces into your campaigns is the least you can do really. Settings or people that seem out of place can make people think you’re not truly invested here or your products don’t fully cater to the needs of Japanese shoppers.
Formality & style There’s a bit more scope in the Japanese market for your brand (regardless of how corporate or commonplace your services are) to be a bit more eccentric in your marketing and advertising output. For example, cuteness and silliness are common themes in advertising. However, be careful that your core brand image is always suitable for your consumer target and intended market position.
Language & typography Text and typography are fundamental to your visual brand image in Japan. With multiple alphabets and regular use of the English script too, the styles used in Japan are incredibly diverse, with text orientation also appearing in vertical as well as horizontal.

What Are Japanese Websites Like? Take a Look at Some Intriguing Design Trends

New Sleeping Baby Logos for the Japanese Market

Sleeping Baby branding in Japan

When we worked on new logos for the Sleeping Baby brand for the Japanese market, we did so with careful consideration of Japanese preferences and expectations. Our main objectives were to:

  • Use soft, playful colors that are well suited to Japanese tastes and help to differentiate each product from one another
  • Develop custom typography to connect more with the brand’s personality
  • Produce unique graphics that inspire a feeling of calm and relaxation (a core component of the brand’s appeal to mothers who want their babies to sleep soundly)
  • Create synergy between each logo’s shape and the individual products they represent
  • Achieve designs that meet the high expectations of Japanese consumers for visual presentation

How do you think we did?

Upholding Japanese Customer Service Expectations

Shop owner displays products and example of effective branding in Japan

Serving customers with an extremely high level of respect is standard practice in Japan. The hierarchy between vendors and customers is rooted in tradition, and this system carries through to many aspects of the commercial world.

The same global principles apply in that good customer experiences are created by making products and services that are easy-to-use, innovatively designed, functional, and aesthetically pleasing. However, the average Japanese consumer is more likely to scrutinize small aspects of quality and brands are therefore forced to go above and beyond.

For foreign brands, with a natural disadvantage, the pressure is even greater for you to deliver experiences that can rival your Japanese competitors — especially if you’re offering similar products and services.

Quality applies not only to your product but to everything you do. All customer-facing aspects of your brand should be flawless in their presentation, consistency, and quality.

Building a Japanese Website?

As a cornerstone of your digital market efforts, your website should obviously be appropriately tailored to the Japanese market. Several significant differences between website designs in Western countries and those that are popular in Japan include:

  • Less white space
  • Several contrasting colors and design elements are often used within small spaces
  • Usage of multiple CTAs
  • More data and text information
  • Multiple scripts are sometimes used as well (and both vertical and horizontal text lines)
  • Smaller and more frequent graphics are common rather than fewer high-resolution images
  • Data, testimonials, and statistics are given more priority on landing pages to build trust with the user
  • Accurate and realistic images of products are given prominence, often with real people using real products

HB Pro Tip: Website development or localization is always best done with the support of Japanese native speakers and web development professionals. This will help you adapt your brand to retain your important values and principles while portraying yourself in the best light to your new market.

Get in Touch for Help with Your Next Web Design Project

Getting Your Brand Noticed

Infographics about Japan's top social media platforms SNS Facebook

Widespread brand awareness in Japan is incredibly hard to achieve. It’s gotten easier with developments in digital marketing, but the more competitive the market, the harder you’re going to find it to establish your brand’s image and personality among your target audience.

It’s best to find the most suitable outlets for your brand communications based on what you know about your Japanese audience and the platforms they like to use.

Between Japan’s most popular SNS channels, there’s a lot of demographic variation. For example, Facebook is more popular among older demographics (catering to a similar group that LinkedIn does in other developed nations), with many using Facebook to connect with colleagues and business contacts.

Similarly, TikTok is a rapidly growing social media platform in Japan and probably the number one place to reach a Gen Z audience with your brand awareness strategies.

Japanese SNS Platforms User Breakdown

Sources: Insta Lab

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Branding Checklist for Japan

Company owner working on branding checklist for Japan

Finally, take a step back and ask yourself a few key questions about your overall branding and how it may (or may not) be optimized for the Japanese consumer.

 

Does your brand seem believable and credible in the eyes of discerning Japanese consumers?
Is it timeless enough to allow for growth and long-term success in a rapidly changing market?
Does it differentiate you from others, without making yourself too different?
Is your brand name, logo and core identity easy to understand and remember?
Does it highlight the unique value of your products and services?
Does it meet the expectations of your specific target demographics in Japan?
Can your branding be consistently carried through to all your digital marketing activities?
Is it the best you can do?

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