JAPAN: Design links with Japan

As the Trade Partners UK fact-finding mission bears some fruit for UK groups, Richard Clayton asks those working in Japan how they broke into the market

From Sapporo to Saitama, star-struck schoolgirls are sporting David Beckham pendants on their mobile phones and Japanese crowds at World Cup matches are just as likely to be wearing Michael Owen shirts as their own team colours. But it’s not all football fever in Japan.

After a decade in the doldrums, the world’s second largest economy has just recorded its first quarter of growth for two years. A little consumerist joie de vivre, like that generated by this month’s World Cup, is precisely what’s needed to kick off a sustained recovery. And the current yen for Beckham et al can only help the interests of UK business once the tournament is over.

Several large design groups, including Enterprise IG, TKO Design, Interbrand and Ideo, have established offices in Tokyo and Citigate Lloyd Northover recently announced a strategic partnership with local digital consultancy Renaissance iMedia (DW 6 June).

CLN’s move followed its participation in a Trade Partners UK fact-finding mission. The subsequent report – prepared by CLN digital media director Neil Hudspeth and Design Business Association chief executive Ian Rowland-Hill, who also made the trip – suggests it will be no walkover for UK designers hoping to make it big in Japan, but that their efforts should be rewarded in time.

And time is the key factor. Hudspeth describes new business development as a ‘slow burn’.

‘As a nation, Japan is inherently sceptical of Western business practices and gaining people’s trust is crucial. It’s by no means easy for UK designers [to make their mark]. You need a unique offer and you must be marketed by a known quantity there. You can’t go into it cold,’ he says.

CLN’s target is to sign up a client after a three-month marketing drive through Renaissance iMedia, which is lightning quick compared to Priestman Goode’s experience. Director Paul Priestman, whose first visit to Japan stemmed from a 1987 award win, says it can take four or five years of relationship-building to convert contacts into real work.

Hudspeth believes the best opportunities for UK consultancies lie in offering high-level strategic input. He says Japanese companies have long been wedded to their manufacturing base and ‘holistic, drawn-out research and planning processes’, but China is taking on the production work that was once their stock-in-trade. The challenge is to reinvent themselves as 21st century ‘knowledge businesses’, Hudspeth thinks.

‘If one message should be taken on board, it’s the fact that original thinking is highly valued and opportunities are certainly there to be developed,’ he says.

Wolff Olins board director John Williamson agrees. Wolff Olins has an agreement with Japan’s second largest ad agency Hakuhodo and Williamson says the Japanese struggle to apply branding theories to real world situations.

‘While the Japanese have done exhaustive research on the theory of branding, they don’t have the depth of understanding to make it happen in practice. They are very literal and practical people who find it difficult to relate to the abstract westernisations needed to support an emotional brand concept,’ he says.

Sony is the exception, not the rule. ‘In Japan, it’s seen as a Western company. In the West, it’s a beacon of Japan. But by embracing manufacturing, software and content, it can represent the best of both East and West – as a prototype for future Japanese businesses,’ Williamson maintains.

Japanese innovations involve ‘taking the seed of an idea from someone else’ and implementing it thoroughly, says Hudspeth. Changes are incremental and breakthrough creative thinking is often thin on the ground. This has led to a preference for in-house design and a relatively underdeveloped consultancy sector.

But companies are increasingly aware of the value of a fresh perspective. In the past, product design has been the UK’s most lucrative export, but specialist expertise is now sought in areas like digital, environmental and retail design. According to Priestman, the requirements will depend on the particular company.

‘If they’re marketing to different cultures, the Japanese will look for outside help. Only a few of our projects are aimed at their domestic market,’ he says.

Priestman feels this may be starting to change with the burgeoning youth culture. Events like Jam: Tokyo-London enhance the cool quota.

Hudspeth adds, ‘[Social] barriers are coming down for the first time. Business realises it can’t rely on traditional approaches if it is to survive and succeed.’

Set against this, however, are an ageing population and the fact that Japan tends to show one face to the world and another to its private self. The banking system still worries financial analysts and the government has yet to achieve a ‘consensus’ for reform, William-son says. But UK consultancies looking at the Japanese market should act now. ‘In five years’ time, it will be too late,’ he adds.

‘Britishness is not necessarily an attractive differentiator; being genuinely international is,’ cautions the Trade Partners UK/ DBA report. At least the football will help the small talk.

Raising your profile in Japan

Enter a respected Japanese or international design competition, like the Japan Industrial Design Promotion Organisation’s G Mark Award

Become a ‘Japan friendly’ company by giving a Japanese design graduate a UK placement

Collaborate with others already working with Japanese clients

Participate in a Japanese-related roadshow, seminar or exhibition

Develop local contacts, either through an agent or UK trade promotion

Make yourself known to major Japanese ad agencies like Dentsu and Hakuhodo with the aim of gaining sub-contracted design work

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