A couple of years ago, I sat behind the ‘magic mirror’ of a Japanese focus group as they went through a conventional round of concept testing. A confectionary company was assuaging consumers’ guilt at indulging in sweets by emphasising that they used only free range eggs, milk from ‘happy cows,’ and fair-trade vanilla beans.
This quirky messaging jarred spectacularly with the Japanese audience. ‘It might not be good for the waistline, but it’s certainly good for your conscience’ was a line met with facial expressions akin to scrunched-up paper; and group after group, from housewives to teenagers, stared awkwardly at the concept boards.
Finally, one respondent broke the silence with: “Well, if I were a starving African father who has trouble feeding his family, I would love to know that this company participates in fair trade… But I am just a Japanese man living in Tokyo, and so this doesn’t concern me. I just want to know that I am getting the best possible quality at the lowest possible price.” This seemed a harsh and rather disheartening evaluation, but to my surprise it was met with strong nods of agreement.
Something jarred. This brand has been a rip-roaring success around the world for its stance on taking social action, and yet in Japan it hit a wall: hard. What could have gone so wrong?
The West – Products as an object of suspicion
In the West, we tend to despise large companies: the bigger they are, the more we suspect their motives and actions. Such consumers see themselves as the only ones keeping these behemoths from threatening their societies’ integrity. Guilt at their colonial past and their high-spending present makes Western society quick to seek and condemn any hint of hypocrisy or malfeasance: behind every good product is bound to be a tale of ruthless exploitation of human and natural resources. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been the corporate response to this: talk all the time about what you are doing to make the planet a better place, and why you care. And so almost every large company has a CSR program to its name.
Japan – Products as an ultimate good
Japan stands in absolute contrast to this. From the post-war recovery onwards, large corporates have been the engine that transformed Japan into an economic miracle. They are seen as a powerful and whole-hearted force for social good, eschewing high margins in order to function in the interests of the Japanese people. Companies are the providers of stable, lifetime jobs and are evaluated by their most important consumer touch-point: the product itself. Advertising focuses almost entirely on this product output: its high quality provides almost a halo effect, denoting superior ingredients, exacting standards, wise expenditure and fair treatment of staff.
As a result, when an international company like our confectionary friends embarks on an ethical backstory, this leads to bemusement amongst Japanese consumers. For them CSR is a distraction from everyone ‘doing their bit’ for society. The traditional concept of good business in Japan is enshrined in the expression Sampo-Yoshi or ‘good in three directions’: good for the buyer, the seller and the community.
The path paved with good intentions…
Japanese consumers do not see themselves as moral arbiters, and they do not seek authenticity and approval as saviours who keep companies on an ethical path. The preaching common amongst virtue-signaling celebrities is anathema: in fact, to say someone is displaying ‘high level consciousness’ (ishiki ga takai) is to insult them, to suggest that they are boasting about being better than others. What I saw in that room that day merely reflected the honest confusion of individuals unused to weighing up a product on its backstory.
It is this attitude that international companies surely need to weigh up. Facts not feelings, accuracy not attitudes: and let the product speak for itself.