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The pathway to competing on a global stage

Anya Bailey

Senior Advisor, Japan


The pathway to competing on a global stage

This is an exciting period for Japan. High-profile global events such as the Olympics and Rugby World Cup, combined with the arrival of the Reiwa era, will shine a spotlight on the country’s culture and accomplishments.

From a business perspective, corporate Japan is increasingly driving the global news agenda. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic revival program and, in particular, his ambitions to improve transparency within corporate Japan, have led to a significant rise in cross-border activity. Japanese companies are increasingly looking to generate value for shareholders from beyond the Japanese shores. Indeed, Japanese companies were the second most active in mergers and acquisitions compared to their global peers in 2018, acquiring 777 foreign companies during this time.

The country’s renewed business prominence offers a great opportunity to showcase the strengths of ‘Japan Inc.,’ but it also means that Japanese brands have to be ready for heightened levels of scrutiny.

‘Japan Inc.’ is viewed internationally as a reliable, trusted, and long-term business partner that boasts some of the world’s most successful companies. At the same time, however, a number of Japanese companies are still coming to terms with increased global attention. Activist foreign investors are demanding change, and while Japanese boards are listening, cultural challenges remain. It does not come naturally for Japanese business to publicly defend their brands – or, what’s more, to shout from the rooftops about what a great job their brands doing behind the scenes for customers, employees, and shareholders.

It is in this regard that strategic communications becomes essential for Japanese business looking to succeed on a global stage. A forward-thinking, targeted, and coordinated communications strategy is vital for companies looking to build their brands globally. This can be built around four key areas:

Get social

At the core of any successful communications strategy is a focus on stakeholder engagement. Particularly when brands go global, stakeholders expect them to appreciate cultural nuances and adapt accordingly. It’s not enough to simply extend what brands do in the Japanese market into foreign countries. The expectations are very different. It’s about knowing your audiences, what matters to them, how they think and what they expect of you. To accomplish this, companies first need to go through the process of mapping global stakeholders to understand who they are. Then they need to create a plan on how to reach them. Stakeholders must feel that companies are engaged and listening. This engagement builds trust and support, which is needed to be globally successful, especially in difficult times. This is a long-term investment, led from the very top, and requires a solid and targeted engagement plan that covers all stakeholders – everyone from investors through to NGOs.  

Be bold

Modesty and humility are core traits of Japanese culture. But on an international stage brands need to be more bullish to ensure audiences are aware of their unique strengths. Developing a consistent and compelling narrative to act as your global anchor demonstrates openness and makes sure that all your audiences hear the same story. From an external point of view, stakeholders need to hear your story in your own words – and often. From the point of view of your workforce, a clear corporate narrative is important in building one culture and ensuring everyone is working towards the same goals, regardless of geography.

Think long term

Developing a well-defined, integrated strategy based on regular communication is key. Think ahead in order to maximize every event ensures momentum. Bring stakeholders along on the journey with you. Although there will always be landmines to throw plans off course, a bespoke plan that is aligned to each and every business objective will help to protect and build value. Different geographies have different priorities; your communications plans therefore need to adapt based on those different markets. If, for example, your company is on a three-year journey, think about what your stakeholders will want to know along the way to demonstrate the effectiveness of that strategy and to show consistent delivery. A long-term, well-considered approach will form the backbone of a successful communications strategy.

Prepare for the worst

Crises happen. Companies that plan ahead for the worst-case scenario are proven to emerge with less reputational damage than those that bury their heads and hope the worst never comes. The most effective crisis planning takes account of the most likely scenarios within each key market. International expansion means greater scrutiny by global governments, regulators, consumer groups, and shareholders. Companies need to be ready for that – and preparation is key.

‘Japan Inc.’ already has a great deal to be proud of within international society. Looking forward, however, the Japanese companies with the most long-term success on the global stage will be those that recognize the role that strategic communications play in building and protecting their brands.