On Marketing and Branding in Japan

Earlier in May, I spent about a week and a half in Japan. Part of my trip was dedicated to doing a little bit more research on a film I uncovered in the archive of the National Film Centre in Tokyo (with the kind help of Xavier Bensky) in 2007. The film is called Kaidenpa senritsu, and it’s the only surviving pre-war Japanese science fiction film. You can read a little bit more about it in my book.

The other part was dedicated to doing some research on branding strategies in Japan and how they relate to the wider culture(s). There’s already some interesting work on this: for instance, Martin and Herbig’s 2002 article “Marketing implications of Japan’s social-cultural underpinnings” is a good place to start. But as I start preparing for doing some research this fall in consumer culture theory, I thought it would be interesting to see firsthand some of the branding strategies that companies use there.

Here are some of the things I noticed: these are just informal notes, a starting place for further research.

1. 727 Cosmetics and the Shinkansen

Image via blog.goo.ne.jp. I didn't manage to snap my own photos of these, but this one is fairly representative.

Image via blog.goo.ne.jp. I didn't manage to snap my own photos of these, but this one is fairly representative.


I did a fair bit of traveling while I was in Japan, as I had a JR Pass. This pass is one of the greatest travel inventions ever, as it allows you to travel anywhere the JR goes, including on the shinkansen, for the entire duration of the pass. I spent a lot of time on the “shink”, and instead of reading, I mostly looked out the window.

What did I see out the window? Mountains, homes, rivers, beaches, bamboo, shrines, rice and green tea fields, all the beautiful things you see on every train trip… and hundreds of signs for727 Cosmetics.

It seems that 727 Cosmetics had taken the billboard concept to its logical conclusion and, with permission (and payment) of farmers and small landowners, set up large signs in fields and on hillsides all along the shinkansen route. Most of these were nowhere near stations, but were instead dotted across the long stretches of rural land between stops, in small towns that looked hardy but not particularly flush.

Not many other companies seemed to have done this; there was one, but I cannot for the life of me remember its name – which suggests that perhaps that company didn’t put enough signs along the route! I wonder if 727 Cosmetics paid for exclusive signage rights, and how much. I’m also somewhat surprised that more companies here in Canada don’t do this: there are tons of billboards along the roadsides in rural areas, as we see on our frequent drives up to the cottage in the summer, but not many that I’ve seen along the train routes.

2. Animation Sells

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Japanese culture, but it’s important to note nonetheless. Animated characters are everywhere, and they brand things. In fact, they brand nearly everything. Including smoking in public, as the photo to the left shows.

What Japan has done fairly successfully with its brand characters, though, is something that hasn’t been quite so successful with North American characters: taking a brand character and extending its signification into the non-brand cultural space, turning it into an artifact that simultaneously signifies and does not signify its brand.There have been some experiments in this direction with North American characters – does anyone else remember the execrable Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool Sega Genesis game from 1992? (If you don’t, be very glad.) None of these, however, has had the social traction of what I might call “transitional” Japanese brand characters.

One example of these is “Suica’s Penguin”, who now has his own store at Tokyo Station, “Penguin Stadium” (or “PenSta”)Suica – which means “watermelon” in Japanese, but watermelons are not nearly as cute as penguins – is a rechargeable transit card that’s usable throughout most of eastern Japan. The penguin is its mascot, and has become so popular that merchandise featuring the penguin sells very well.

This is all probably associated with the huge popularity of “cuteness” in Japan, but that’s for another post.

…Okay, confession time: I bought a Suica’s Penguin notebook myself. It’s very cute.

3. Loco for Local

Image via goukaseishi.com.

Image via goukaseishi.com.

One major social convention in Japan is that when you travel anywhere, you must bring gifts back home for your friends and coworkers. These take two forms, which often overlap: meibutsu, which are goods for which a particular part of Japan is “famous”, and omiyage, yummy treats for everyone.

Big brands have gotten into the swing of meibutsu, the largest being Sanrio, the makers of the famous character of Hello Kitty. Initially, one would think that intense localization would limit the extent of a meibustu brand’s reach, as it would become associated with one particular region (and therefore not the others). However, Sanrio has figured out a way to reverse this concept, integrating Hello Kitty with local tradition and iconography.

In Hakone, which is famous for its sulfuric hot springs and “onsen eggs” (eggs cooked in the boiling hot springs, whose shells turn black from the sulfur – it’s a lot less disgusting than it sounds), Kitty-chan is holding a blackened egg. On Miyajima off the coast of Hiroshima, which is famous for its incredible “floating” red torii gate,Kitty is sitting under a torii. Even different areas of Tokyo have their own Hello Kitty products: the old shopping district of Asakusa near the Senso-ji, where I stayed this trip, had its own Hello Kitty gimmick currency a few years ago.

Culturally, people in Japan generally take a lot of pride in the things for which their region is famous. The ubiquity of Hello Kitty, and its association with nearly every single place – and every single thing that place is famous for – brands the character of Kitty-chan as an inextricable part of Japanese culture, and piggybacks on that pride.

Further Questions

This is all just some very preliminary thoughts, a few starting points for some further research. I wonder, though: where is branding going to go in the next few years, especially since Mixi (the huge Japanese social network) seems to be losing ground to Facebook? How will Japan’s reliance on the mobile web affect companies’ marketing strategies? And, in an increasingly internationalized, increasingly digitized world, how will Japanese brands marry local and global?