Brandless Nation Vol.1: Brands in Japan

Visiting an electronic shop in central Tokyo reveals a lot more about Japanese sales tactics than many business books. When you walk in, you will usually enter the smartphone section where all the carriers have their little booths and display their new models. Walking down the aisle, you notice the seductive glossy screens that smartphones have, inviting you to hold them and try their unique features. When the temptation becomes too strong to bear, you decide to pick up this beautiful LG Velvet fresh off the factory. 

As you hold the phone, you notice the Jaws music starts playing, and all the 店員 in the store look at you like a thirsty man looks at the picture of a bottle of water. The song becomes louder while the staff rush at you with the hope of getting a good commission. As the staff arrives next to you, they load their guns with specs and features, a good business smile, and the show begins. 

Sales Tactics

Living in three different countries, I have seen how different cultures approach customer service. In Venezuela, we display customer service in two ways: We are either very friendly or personal, or we just straight up ignore you until you approach the register to pay. In other words, warm or abysmal. In the United States, service overall is good. When you enter a store, the staff will usually tell you, "Please let me know if I can help you with anything." In Japan, though, things are very different. Customer service is terrific, people usually do their absolute best to please the customer. Japanese customer service is something that I genuinely admire since it comes from the concept of おもてなし (Japanese hospitality). 

The thing that caught my attention is the effort that companies put into highlighting a product's features, rather than using the power of the brand or what in Japanese we call ブランド力. Whenever I go into an electronic shop and start playing around with a device, the staff will approach me immediately and start talking about the features of the device and their specs. Personally, I feel like the staff is entirely distorting my perception and experience with the product. I want to experience it by myself and not having someone telling me how to experience it. Discovery is a very intimate thing, and it should not be interrupted. This behavior translates into their advertisements, marketing strategy, and branding overall. 

On a side note, culturally, I understand why they are doing this. Long explanations make Japanese consumers feel safe and more involved in the buying journey. But if this is the case, how come many foreign brands such as Apple and Nike, have entirely dominated the Japanese market (a very tough market to enter). The answer lies in the brand. 

Brands in Japan

One of the things I love about living in Japan is using Japanese products because they are amazing. The packaging is beautiful and ergonomic, they last and the quality is out of this world. If I ask you to tell me a couple of famous Japanese companies, maybe you would name companies like Toyota, Sony, Mitsubishi, or Rakuten. When you see their logos, read their slogans, or hear their jingles, what goes through your mind? Is it something concrete, such as product quality, specs, and professionalism, or do you feel an abstract feeling, like innovation, creativity, or courage? What about companies like Apple, Nike, or Under Armour? 

Although Japan has fantastic companies that create state of the art products, branding is something that needs a bit more abstraction, something that is non-tangible. There are companies like Nintendo who use emotions like nostalgia and innocence to sell their products. There are also companies such as Pocari Sweat who make a touching and unforgettable commercials. Besides only a few, companies usually use what Philip Kotler calls Product-Centric Marketing. In this strategy, companies try to convince the audience to buy a product based on tangible features. This was a common theme during the industrial era until the Mad Men days of the 1960s. 

The Purpose of Commercials

Why do movies take such a long time to come to Japan? Some movies open in theatres worldwide in February but will premiere in Japan in November, why is that? The simple answer is "street-cred." In the eyes of the company creating a localized marketing campaign for a movie, the more money the movie makes abroad and the more awards they get translates to success in Japan. How many times have we seen "大ヒット" in every foreign film or book commercial? This is obviously not the case since movies like "The Greatest Showman" and "Bohemian Rhapsody," both by 20th Century Fox, made bank in Japan and not abroad. Movies that deal with identity and showing your true self to the world will more likely resonate with a Japanese audience. Commercials in Japan usually either inform the audience or create awareness. Emotional engagement is not as typical. 

On the other hand, check out this commercial by Apple. Yes, it tells us all the possible things through the use of an iPad, but they never talk about specs. We never hear about the camera, processor, or anything like that. Instead, we get a cinematic commercial with beautiful narration and an exciting plot twist. It's not necessarily what you are buying but what you can achieve if you obtain this object. This is a beautiful example of how Apple uses its powerful brand to sell us electronics. On the other hand, there is a lovely commercial by LG. They combine both spec descriptions and a nice abstract emotional punch. 

Last Thought

Marketers must develop an intimate, emotional relationship with their audience. The moment you realize this is the moment you become a real marketer. If Japanese ad agencies could combine the quality of the products they sell with an emotional attachment to the brand through abstract thinking, they would make a match made in heaven. 


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