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What Can Brands Do for Increasing Health Gaps?

Munehiko Tosaka

Sudler Japan Inc.

Client Service Director


What Can Brands Do for Increasing Health Gaps?

In Japan, people’s health and longevity are affected by their differences in income, area of residence, employment pattern and family makeup - to a degree that disparities in health outcomes are a serious concern to society. As the World Health Organization notes in its analysis of health outcomes, it is these demographic variables – rather than people’s varying abilities to manage their own health – that tend to drive the “health gap” in Japanese society.  

In background of Japan’s health disparities are structural changes in Japanese society – most notably, those that began to emerge during the country’s so-called “lost 20 years.” A prolonged economic slump, dwindling birthrates, and an aging population have weakened Japan’s safety net system. At the same time, there have been drastic changes in the working environment, including a marked increase in the hiring non-regular employees - which has ultimately resulting in larger income disparities in the Japanese population. This not only leads to disparities in the quality of life and educational opportunities for children, but also threatens people’s health.

Michael Marmot, a former chairman of the World Medical Association, has noted that Japan’s poverty rate is the 7th highest among the 35 developed countries that comprise the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) as of 2017. Despite Japan’s world-renowned universal health insurance program, Marmot expressed great concern about the country’s growing health disparities. Japan’s rate of relative poverty for children is the 11th highest, meaning that one in every six children are living in poverty. It’s no surprise, then, that the Japanese government lists the reduction of health disparities as one of its highest political priorities.

There are also marked health disparities across Japanese regions that can be attributed to differences in diet; indicator statistics such as average life span, healthy life expectancy, and years lived in less than full health due to disease and/or injury show substantial geographic variances.

The expansion of the healthcare market is a global trend, and together with technology products such as wearable or implantable devices, is considered a growth market. The Japanese government also sees “health” as one of the supporting pillars of the nation’s economic growth strategy, where market expansion and job creation are expected.

For all this high-level economic activity, when it comes to improving the health of its regular citizens, Japan has found it difficult to reach impoverished individuals, thanks in no small part to their poor health literacy. How Japan can best motivate and improve the health of these uneducated or uninterested people is a challenging issue, since exhorting the importance of healthy behavior tends to work best on people who are already highly health-minded.

What, then, should be done on the level of health communications? Rather than taking a “high-risk approach” that targets only the unhealthiest among us, campaigns that take a “population approach” to address everyone, including people who are currently healthy, have proving to be more effective.

To engage consumers in today’s diversifying society, health-minded corporations and governments need to offer people something that grabs their attention and compels them to share with others. Consumers don’t want stories that are only told from a brand’s perspective – they want moving, signature stories that feature narratives told from the user’s perspective as well. Such stories will enhance brand visibility and brand energy.

How can brands best accomplish this goal at a time when stories we are telling about life, health, and work are changing? We live in an era of 100-year life spans, where expectations are shifting from working “long periods of time each working day” to “working for a long period of your life.” But what should this new working life look like, and how does health fit in to this picture? The Japanese government’s view about what Japan should strive for as a future society, summarized in the concept “Society 5.0,” draws a picture of a society where people and things are connected with IoT (Internet of Things), knowledge and information are shared, robots and autonomous driving technology are enabled by artificial intelligence, and everyone lives comfortably and in an actively engaged way.

The sharing economy, as typified by Uber and Airbnb, places great value on consumer experiences and designs them from the users’ perspective. Similarly, experiential marketing focuses on personal communication in the space where a brand’s core value is condensed; by offering memorable, interactive experiences, a brand can build emotional connection between itself and consumers. In “Society 5.0,” vast amounts of information will be collected from sensors in the physical world and accumulated in cyberspace. This big data will be analyzed by AI, and the result will be fed back to the physical world.

There is no magic solution to the challenge of improving Japan’s future health outcomes. That said, what does seem clear is that brands can make people healthier by utilizing technology and social capital, listening to narratives, and responding to personal experiences with empathy-I am sure these will bring us a better future.