1. A time to take stock
In 2021, Japan was supposed to be fresh off its Olympic triumph, with a new chapter in the country’s history well underway. Instead, it has undergone a long pause – and 2021 will now be a different sort of year across all categories. Many of the new strategies and ways of working that arose in 2020 were adopted quickly and out of necessity. Some will prove to be temporary adjustments that are quickly reversed; other changes will be here to stay. 2021, then, will be a time to sit down and decide what elements of the “old”, pre-pandemic of doing things should be preserved and combined with the “new.” This is a time to question everything.
2. Olympics Hope
The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was a disappointing consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking forward, however, what a rescheduled Olympics could offer for Japan (and Japanese brands) are even greater opportunities to touch the world. Even moreso than before, the Tokyo Olympics could be a symbol of hope, resilience, ingenuity, and togetherness. These are emotional themes that should also find special resonance in brand communications in 2021. Japanese brands have often emphasized functional benefits over emotional messaging in their marketing – but with the world watching, the “Olympic halo” could offer the perfect opportunity to focus on positive human sentiment.
3. Opportunities for transformation
Relative to other countries, Japan didn’t impose the strictest forms of lockdown in 2020. In most ways, this was a blessing. But it also means that Japan didn’t experience the kind of wholesale social and economic changes experienced by other countries during the worst of the pandemic – and it means that going forward, strategic transformations will have to be more diligently pursued. For example, some countries were forced to build out entire new systems for telecommuting– whereas, in Japan, the shift toward working at home was more gradual, and didn’t involve as much cultural or infrastructural change. 2021 will offer brands an unprecedented opportunity for strategic transformations and innovation – but only if they choose to pursue it.
4. Focus on the home
Home has evolved to be more than just a shelter. Increasingly, it’s also Japanese citizens’ workplace and entertainment center. At the height of the pandemic, home became a sanitary oasis - so long as it was carefully scrubbed and sanitized - but also a site of mental stress, as people struggled to regain “me time” amid all the togetherness. In some households, men and women began sharing chores more equally - but there was also more work to go around. What’s clear is that after years of chasing new experiences outside the home, Japanese people have been reminded that it’s equally important to invest in and enjoy their immediate surroundings. For brands, then, home represents a site of great upheaval - but also opportunity. From appliances to healthcare, beauty to beverages, entertainment to e-commerce, home is where the heart is. It’s also where the profits lie.
5. The Era of the Public
For years, brands put out advertisements that focused first on products, and then on people – namely, the types of individual lifestyles that those products could enable (e.g. romantic, active, fun). Now consumers are increasingly rewarding brands that also put forth a vision of society – a shift that Kantar’s Chief Knowledge Officer J. Walker Smith calls the “Era of the Public.” “Not only must brands deliver a superior product for a more fulfilled person, brands must also contribute to a better society,” Smith explains. “The Era of the Public means a new brand ethic. This ethic is more than purpose, more than social responsibility, and more than good over greed. It is about brands adding the public to their portfolio of product and person.” Conversely, when brands are seen to act in ways that are contrary to the will of the public, backlash can be swift and hard to reverse.
6. Tighter Wallets
In April 2020, consumer confidence in Japan declined to an all-time low. And while public sentiment recovered somewhat in the months that followed, declining household income will likely remain a challenge that all marketing activity will have to contend with. When people have less money, or signs point to a recession, consumer behaviors like “trading down,” opting for generics, and delayed purchasing all rise to the fore. In response to these phenomena, it is not enough to for brands to simply discount prices and offer new value bundles: to hope, in other words, that existing brand goodwill will carry the day. Brand Salience - though important - is no guarantee of purchase in difficult times. Instead, Meaningful Difference matters more than ever, and so does Innovation. Consumers are looking for that “extra push” to go with the brand name.
7. The Advertising Imperative
In the same way that consumers will face budgetary pressures in 2021, so too will brands. At times of crisis, it’s tempting for brands to go into “maintenance” mode: to cut back on campaigns and communications, and hope to draft off existing brand perceptions while preserving marketing resources for sunnier days. But experience shows that this is not a winning strategy. BrandZ™ analysis of brand recovery since the financial crisis of 2008 shows that brands that protected their perceptions of Meaningful Difference recovered more swiftly and grew more quickly in the years to follow. As BrandZ™ Global Strategy Director Graham Staplehurst wrote in the 2020 Global Report, “Waiting to invest will not add comfort or certainty, but it will jeopardize effectiveness. Brands need to come easily to mind and be easily accessible. Disappearing from the marketplace to gain a short-term financial benefit will make it more difficult and expensive to rebuild brand presence.”