Unleashing the Power of Purpose: A Strategic Imperative for Japanese Brands in the Global Arena

Working with Japanese brands, one concern that brand owners and marketing leaders usually address is how they can ensure continuous growth for their business. As the world restarts and borders open up, Japanese brands are facing a new frontier of challenges. With international competitors returning stronger than ever, the pressure for Japanese brands to maintain their domestic dominance has never been more intense. To add to these concerns, as the Japanese market becomes increasingly competitive and saturated, Japanese brands must look past the border to continue expanding. The key to success is to maintain and reinforce brand power, especially now that brands no longer have their home advantages when entering the international arena. The question is how. In this article, we will explore the vital role of authentic brand purposes in creating business values and how they can become the key to Japanese brands’ continuous growth.


In this article, we first highlight the global market position of Japanese brands, indicating a significant gap compared to US and EU brands in terms of both numbers and growth rates. We then look at the concept of brand purposes as a key factor in successful branding, using Google and Coca-Cola as examples. The article emphasizes that a strong, unique, and authentic brand purpose drives innovation, value creation, and positive societal impact. The modern consumer and investor mindset also demands brands to have clear and purpose-driven actions. However, many Japanese brands lack distinct and impactful brand purposes, relying on generic terms and sometimes simply complying with Sustainable Development Goals. To rejuvenate Japanese brands, Japanese brands need to redefine brand purposes and involve heritage exploration, internal conversations, and strategic alignment. Implementing these redefined purposes would require strategic adjustments, initiatives, and marketing efforts.

Understanding the Current Market Landscape

Before diving into what brand purposes are and how they can help reinforce Japanese brands, let us first look at how Japanese brands fare in the global market.

According to Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2022, of 100 top global brands, there are only 7 Japanese brands (Toyota, Honda, Sony, Nissan, Nintendo, Panasonic, and Canon) compared to 50 brands from the United States and 37 brands from the EU. A closer look also revealed that compared to other international brands in the same sector, most Japanese brands demonstrated a relatively low to average rate of growth YoY (for example, in the Automotive sector, Japanese brands demonstrated a 10% average growth, significantly lower compared to Tesla’s 32% and Ferarri’s 31% bump). It is also worth noting that brands from China (Huawei and Xiaomi) and South Korea (Samsung, Kia, Hyundai) are seeing significant growth momentum as they penetrate global markets, with Xiaomi entering the list this year at 84th place and Samsung staying at the 5th place (behind Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google), making it the most prominent Asian brand.

Switching to BrandZ (a report created by Kantar, a respectable consulting agency), the number echoes, if not tells an even grimmer story. Of the 100 Most Valuable Global Brands in 2023, only 3 Japanese brands (Toyota, NTT, and Sony) made it into the list. On the other hand, including Tencent, Alibaba, and TikTok (ByteDance), the BrandZ report contains many Chinese brands, with South Korea’s Samsung also landing at a spot higher than Toyota (54th vs. 62nd).

Despite using different evaluation methods, these numbers signal a common phenomenon across global markets: Japanese brands’ influence is significantly weakened. Just what happened? To better understand the culprit behind Japanese brands’ exhaustion, we must look at the shared points between successful brands that Japanese brands are missing.

The Power of Purpose: A Lesson from the Best

A brand's success can be attributed to many factors, including intelligent pricing strategies, optimized distribution strategies, and so on. However, from the branding perspective, one common thread ties successful and influential brands together: strong, unique, and authentic brand purposes. 

Let’s take Google as an example. 

Since its founding in 1998, Google has remained true to its purpose to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” As a late mover (before Google, there already existed many popular search engines and directories such as Yahoo’s Yahoo! Directory and Yahoo! Search), Google came into the market with a simple search bar right in the middle of a blank webpage, breaking away from the clustered look created from columns of functions and directories that many search engines in the day strived to achieve. Thanks to this simple appearance, Google quickly became the most simple and accessible search engine for many, experienced and new Internet users alike. This simplicity led to Google’s growth in popularity, even as the dot-com bubble burst. Over the years, Google continued to develop new services that stayed true to the brand’s purpose. From Google Maps, which quickly offers location information through simple searches and filters, to Google Finance, which aggregates real-time stock data from all markets worldwide, it’s safe to say that Google’s brand purpose is the North Star for its service development philosophy. At the same time, the same purpose also drives Google’s actions, which have supported the growth of many businesses, promoted quality education, and contributed to global sustainable developments, garnering strong support for the Google name and pushing it to become one of the most valuable brands in the world (with an evaluation at 251,751$m in brand value) as a result.

Let’s take a look at another example: Coca-Cola.

As the world’s most beloved beverage brand, Coca-Cola’s purpose is to “refresh the world, make a difference.” Like Google, starting from its famed Coke, Coca-Cola continued to develop and acquire beverages that stayed true to its purpose. From the sizzling Sprite, Fanta, to Aquarius, Dasani, to juices such as those from MinuteMaid and Innocent, all of Coca-Cola’s products serve to hydrate and enhance the consumer’s mood throughout the day. Of course, Coca-Cola’s purpose to “refresh the world” doesn’t stop at its products. From the brand’s water stewardship (which aims to relieve water stress, protect local water resources, and bring fresh water to communities in need) to its effort to promote sustainable packaging and reduce carbon footprint, the brand’s purpose remains the core of Coca-Cola’s sustainability actions. It’s no wonder that Coca-Cola was able to cement its leading position (with an evaluation of 57,535$m in brand value), leaving Pepsi, its long-time rival, far behind on the ranking board (with an evaluation of 19,622$m in brand value).

Both examples illustrate the primary roles of a brand purpose. When clearly defined, a strong brand purpose acts as the main driver behind a brand’s developments and social actions. As a result, if the brand purpose is authentic, unique, and conveyed correctly, it can drive innovation and create significant brand and business values. Indeed, studies by Peter Field using the IPA Databank have revealed that brands with strong brand purposes commanded better growth compared to their counterparts.

It is important to note that as the market shifts and consumer preferences change, a strong brand purpose is no longer a “nice-to-have.” Modern consumers are no longer just looking at simple benefits and values offered by products or services but also at how the business is contributing to society as a whole. As a matter of fact, research conducted by Cone (a Porter Novelli company) in 2018 revealed that 78% of Americans believe companies must do more than just make money; they must positively impact society as well. Similarly, investors are shifting to a “double-materiality” mindset, evaluating a business’s financial and social impact before making decisions. As a result, brands that focus on simply making profits without a clear purpose will start to lose favor and, eventually, be swept out of the market.

Redefining Japanese Brands' Purpose

Now that we have taken a look at the vital role of brand purposes in the success of a brand, it’s time to return to Japanese brands.

Interestingly, many Japanese brands have a defined set of V/M/V (Value, Mission, Vision) readily displayed on their website and other corporate materials. However, skimming through these materials quickly reveals the overuse of generic terms such as trust, equality, sustainability, happiness, etc., instead of unique purposes that could help set brands apart. Indeed, you can simply go on one business’s website and copy their V/M/V statement, then paste it on a different business’s website, and nothing would seem out of place. In many instances, some brands rely on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as their safeguard. However, instead of “spearheading” the charge, these brands create statements that simply make them only “complying.”

For a brand purpose to be successful, it must be authentic, unique to the brand, strategically fit, and resonate with all stakeholders. Think of both Coca-Cola and Google. One simply cannot copy these two brands’ purposes and paste them into another business, even if that business is in the same sector as the original brand. Pepsi cannot use “refresh the world” as its brand portfolio isn’t a good fit for this purpose. Similarly, Yahoo would have a hard time convincing its audience if it changed the brand’s mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Having a brand purpose that fails to differentiate and explain the brand’s reason to exist will simply render the brand purpose ineffective. As a result, it becomes more challenging for a business to give birth to innovations, and their social actions will not speak volumes. Over an extended time, this will lead to a decline in brand influence as other competitors with a stronger brand purpose sprint ahead.

As a result, to reignite Japanese brands in the changing global market, Japanese brand owners must first revisit their brand purposes and ensure that they are a good fit for the brand. To do so, brand owners will have to revisit their brand’s heritage, converse with employees working at different levels in the organization, and consider various limitations in resources and business vision. Defining a strong brand purpose will involve many back-and-forth conversations, but only through solving conflicts can a brand create statements that resonate with stakeholders at all levels.

With brand purposes redefined, brand owners will also have to make extra efforts to revise their brand and business strategies, create initiatives that support developments to reinforce brand purposes, and invest in marketing efforts to ensure that the redefined brand purposes are heard wide and far. Where applicable, brand owners will also need to consider creating and supporting brand communities that could help to represent and strengthen their brand purposes.

Some last words

As the world’s third-largest economy and home to many prestigious brands, it goes without saying that Japan is still a force to be reckoned with. However, as the market shift and customer preferences change, with advantages in operational efficiencies start dwindling, embracing strong and authentic brand purposes has become non-negotiable for Japanese brands. Starting from redefining to activating and strengthening, it’s no exaggeration to say that the process will be a tedious one. However, with hard work comes great rewards. When done right, combined with the enormous financial advantage, Japanese brands will undoubtedly rise again across the global market. It will be an exciting future to behold.

Published on
July 28, 2023