Navigating The Undercurrent Of Search Marketing In Japan – Part 1

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Back in high school I was looking through a magazine and found an article on advertising in Japan.  It talked about how Ford had pulled a five-year advertising campaign from Japan that had fallen flat and the company wasn’t sure why.

That article sparked my interest in Japan, and it struck me even back then that a company can’t just enter another country with their finely honed best practices from the United States and think that they’ll be successful.

The same applies today to local search engine marketing.  The strategies that make an ad or a landing page effective here in the States will not necessarily attract consumers in Japan.  That’s not to say that you’ll have to throw all of your best practices out the window.  Rather, you’ll have to adjust, adapt and test.

I lived in Japan for two years, and now I help run local search for Japan’s leading advertising media provider and publisher.  There’s so much on the surface that most people focus on – identifying keywords, selecting the best ad networks, etc.  But there’s an undercurrent of cultural traditions that affect search engine marketing that most people don’t know or don’t see unless they’re immersed in Japanese culture.

If we examine the larger cultural trends, we can glean insight into how to create search campaigns that will be effective in reaching consumers in Japan.

The Importance of Saving Face

Saving face is one of the most important motivators in Japanese culture.  This is usually presented as a cautionary tale – a warning to never make someone else look bad.

But in search marketing it can be an opportunity for those who understand the heart of this cultural value.  It can be argued that the Japanese love of data and information can be tied to the concept of “face.”  Here’s the idea — if designed well, your ad or landing page might be a chance to help someone make a good, well-informed decision.

Here’s what I mean — Japanese consumers love data.  They want as much information as possible about any given product or service – data or information they can process and analyze.  The theory is that if the consumer has all the possible information on a given subject, he or she is less likely to make a bad decision or do something that appears foolish. What’s more, like in Western cultures, consumers want to make well-informed purchasing decisions.  They can do that if they’ve got thorough information.  “Thorough” as it relates to search marketing is a relative term, however.

To attract US consumers, we typically recommend landing pages that are clean and focused, with a clear call-to-action – any collection of in-depth information happens once the consumer has made initial contact with the advertiser.  So, a hair salon and spa advertising in the United States might focus its messages on: “we’re dependable, we’re honest, we’ve won awards, we’ve got the most skilled staff in the area.”

But to attract consumers in Japan, that might not be enough information to drive a consumer to even initiate contact. Instead, a Japanese salon and spa would need to offer this type of information from the outset: “These are the are very specific solutions we offer at our salon, here are photos and names of our stylists, here are the prices associated with our services.”

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Part 2 of this post will appear tomorrow.

About the Author

Brendon David is a Senior Manager at the Los Angeles-based SEM software and online advertising company WebVisible. He has extensive experience working in Japan and with Japanese clients, and helps head search marketing initiatives in Japan for WebVisible.

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3 Comments

  1. Richard David

    Very interesting great insight into how marketing affects other cultures. US companies have been so used to making other people groups conform to our ways of industries but the global market is now requiring a paradigm shift in our thinking. I guess one size doesn't fit all.

  2. Matt Thorn

    Well composed and interesting article. As an American neither involved with nor claiming expertise in advertising living in Korea rather than Japan, it is interesting to note how much I can associate my own business objectives here in Seoul with this article. The focus above is on marketing ideologies, but I believe it is important to note how these same differences between reaching an audience in the “west” or “east” extend not just beyond the borders of the US and Japan but also how notions like “saving face” and information dissemination and processing extend beyond the realm of marketing and indeed are applicable to every facet of business, culture, and interpersonal relationships in this part of the world. In the States, I would perform my work scope for a client, produce a narrative report on my findings and recommendations, and issue an invoice. In the Far East, our scope of work and objectives may be identical, but that same report better have a dozen photographs or graphics for visual attractiveness and two dozen graphs, charts, or tables for quantifying and analyzing results. Moreover, that same report is no longer casually submitted via email PDF; no invoicing will be requested to a Korean client until a full PowerPoint production replete with formal introductions, three piece suits, and laser pointers is presented to the “Chairman”. This is just one example of not just how different client (or interpersonal) expectations are but also how information must be presented and interpreted here. I suspect anyone like myself and this author who spends considerable time in the corporate climate of the Far East can absorb some truly beneficial tactics and methods that will only serve to complement their products and services in the States or elsewhere.

  3. @Matt Thorn Appreciate the comment. What great points you make about doing business with the Korean culture. There are, indeed, many parallels between doing business with the Japanese and Korean cultures. The points you make about quantitative analysis ring true. The need to fully understand ALL elements of an initiative, project, roll-out, implementation, etc all ring true. The SEM world is no different. Rightfully so, the Japanese clients with which I've done business typically let the numbers do the talking. That said, the importance of strong interpersonal relationships cannot be underestimated. Underestimate the importance of building solid relationships on trust and shared experiences at one's own peril.