From longing to belonging - Japanese brands'​ missing opportunity

As Instagram, TikTok, and the Metaverse becomes even more widely available, modern brands now have more opportunities than ever to hijack the spotlight, connect with and become a part of their target audience's lifestyle. Heineken and Burger King are some of the prime successful examples.

However, with more opportunities comes more risks. Brands must now compete fiercely to grab the target audience's attention. While some healthy competition drives innovation, too much competition could push brands into a "red marketing ocean." It's no longer strange for brands to push out millions after millions of budget only to gain a fraction of the market. As the competition rages on, some brands realize the need to improve their relationship with the current user base. It's easy to understand why. After all, to win the war for market share, you have to defend your own portion while trying to chip away at others'.


The article highlights the shifting landscape of modern branding, marked by platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and the Metaverse, offering both opportunities and heightened competition. To combat this, brands are increasingly focusing on community-building strategies to solidify market share. Successful examples such as Heineken and Burger King showcase the effectiveness of fostering brand-to-user and user-to-user interactions, establishing shared values and traditions that turn brands into integral aspects of consumers' identities. However, Japanese brands have been slow to adapt to the new landscape as compared to their Western, Chinese, and Korean counterparts. This problem can be attributed to the traditional emphasis on product quality and Japanese culture's reluctance to share brand opinions. To survive and thrive in the new landscape, Japanese brands need to start: defining unique values, tailoring communication to local brand communities, and maintaining long-term commitment to community-building.

One popular strategy brands use to defend their market share is building communities for their users. Through communities, brands can not only foster brand-to-user communication but also create opportunities to build user-to-user communication. This, in turn, helps brands to develop shared consciousness, traditions, and even moral responsibilities (Albert et al., 2001). Brands that successfully build communities then become trustworthy friends and a part of their users' identity instead of just risk-free purchase options. In other words, brands that successfully build communities make it even harder for their users to change ships and easier to defend their market share (Stansfield et al., 2020) (Mills et al., 2022). If you don't like academic research, feel free to take a look at Sephora, Apple, and the miraculous revival of Harley-Davidson. These are but only a few successful examples.

That being said, if you've been living in Japan for a long time or have been working with Japanese clients on their branding projects, maybe you've already realized the lack of enthusiasm whenever someone mentioned the word "community." It is not an exaggeration to say that Japanese brands are one step slower than their counterparts in the West or China and Korea, its neighbors, in building brand communities. We've all heard of proud iPhone or Galaxy users but never proud Xperia users. We've heard from enthusiastic Tesla owners but never from Toyota owners. Why?

Part of the reasons lies in Japanese businesses' slow steps in building their brands. While Japanese businesses had been wildly successful globally prior to the 2000s, the strategy of conveying superior product quality combined with low price no longer worked as time passed. While the mark "Made in Japan" still gives advantages to brands, simply conveying functional benefits is no longer sufficient. Unfortunately, it took too long for Japanese businesses to realize this. Even now, most of the Japanese businesses that have begun building their brands are brands that have been operating overseas. Think brands like Shiseido, Sony, Toyota, and Nissan. That is not to say there are no domestic businesses in Japan that haven't been building their brands. Think Matsumoto Kiyoshi, Daiwa House group, and NEC. That said, as Western brands and other neighbors aggressively expand into new markets, the future of Japanese brands looks bleak.

Another part of the reasons lies in the Japanese culture itself. Compared to Korea and China, Japanese people are more conservative in sharing their opinions publicly, especially when it comes to their favorite brands. Although social media like Instagram and TikTok are popular in the country, these channels are often used as tools for expressing one's identity and connecting with friends and relatives. Japanese users rarely employ these tools to interact with brands, domestic or not. A look at official Instagram pages from big brands such as Starbucks, Lawson, or Uniqlo reveals this characteristic. This, in turn, makes it more challenging for brand strategists and brand managers to correctly audit and measure the brand's performance. That being said, this doesn't mean that Japanese users do not care about brands. In reality, a walk through the busy Shibuya crossing or the Ginza area in Tokyo reveals conversations about brands, large and small. Further observation reveals many smaller local communities of brand enthusiasts. This, in turn, shows that while it is possible to build and foster brand communities, Japanese brands cannot simply copy and apply successful strategies from oversea. A different set of strategies is a must. The question, then, is how we can build strategies suitable for Japanese brands.

The first step to building thriving Japanese brand communities is ensuring the brand has a strong foundation. This means that Japanese businesses must correctly identify what their brands offer and stand for. While this may sound trivial for Western brands, for Japanese brands, this means that they must move away from simply stating functional benefits. A significant jump, indeed. However, without identifying the brand's values and purposes, brand strategists and managers cannot determine whom they need to speak to and how they should speak. As a result, all subsequent efforts to build communities would go to waste as there is no one-size-fits-all community. Communities must be built with a clear target and a clear purpose.

The second step to building brand communities in Japan is to ensure that the brand is going out of its way to meet the users where they are. As stated previously, many small local communities of brand enthusiasts exist in Japan. By reaching out to these communities, brands could minimize the time and effort needed to achieve the desired result. However, to reach out to these communities, brands must go beyond and adapt their communication strategy. Brands may change their wordings, employ words already being used by local communities, or invent a common "brand language" between the brand and the local communities. By doing so, brands could establish relationships and common cultures more efficiently with their users while creating cult-like movements.

The third and last step to building brand communities is maintaining the effort. Building communities take a lot of time before the process can bear tangible fruits. Especially in Japan, where branding is still not the top-most priority for many business owners, maintaining the effort is even more vital. This fact creates various challenges for brand strategists and managers as the pressure to improve the short-term bottom lines could quickly terminate a brand's community-building project. The key here is to balance short-term wins and long-term gains. Brand strategists and managers can create short campaigns with interactive opportunities to combine traditional sales boosting methods with fostering communities. Create events that encourage local communities to interact with each other and to let their voice be heard. Create discussions, online or offline, where the brand can quickly address concerns or issues raised by these communities. The opportunity is plenty. Do not forget that communication is always two-way.

From longing to belonging. How Japanese brands achieve this will undoubtedly shape the future of branding in Japan. As a strategist and designer, I'm more than excited to see what the future has in store for the industry.

Published on
August 2, 2022