Guest Article: Designing for Export to Japan
By David Tonge @ The Division
Designing for Export to Japan
In the light of Brexit, many UK based companies are exploring Japan as a potential export market.
I have been working inside and outside of Japan for over 25 years. With my design company The Division and our Tokyo partners we help companies to navigate, design and communicate better for the Japanese market. And conversely help Japanese companies to export their unique Japanese identity to overseas markets.
Our work covers a broad spectrum including the design of consumer electronics, automotive and health and beauty products. Our clients include Brother, Dell, Denso, Kohler, Nissan, Panasonic, Shark, Shiseido, Sunstar, Toto and Zojirushi among many others. Our work for these brands has been successful from a business viewpoint as well as winning many coveted global design awards.
The Japanese market
Japan is a sophisticated and demanding market where consumers are excited by design and brands, but at the same time have little brand loyalty if a better designed and more innovative product comes along.
The Japanese are information hungry and often know more about the product you are selling than you, but the ingrained perception of foreign products is that they are not designed for Japanese culture or consumers lifestyles. Additionally, the expectation of product quality is without doubt the most demanding of anywhere.
Despite these challenges, the potential rewards for those who invest are great in a country where consumer savings are one of the highest per head in the world and for some categories up to $200 is considered an impulse purchase. Hence, many foreign manufacturers including from the UK are jostling for a slice of the action.
From the outside many view Japan as a place where people live in minimal Zen-like apartments, wear kimonos and eat sushi. Of course, some of this is true, but cultural stereotypes rarely reflect the real picture. If you want to avoid falling foul of these stereotypes you simply have to be on the ground to understand what everyday life looks like for Japanese people and how this effects their expectations and purchasing, with the ultimate goal of guiding why, how and what you should design and export.
After 25 years working in Japan I have many experiences to draw upon, here are just a few:
Space is a premium
Dell Computer – many years ago I worked with Dell to help them design PC’s for the Japanese market. Initially they wanted to sell the PC tower they were shipping globally. This did not sell at all in Japan and the reason was very simple – the American scaled PC occupied 1/3 of a Japanese cubicle desk leaving no space to work! As a result we had to completely re-design and engineer a Japan market compact PC tower which occupied very little desk space. From that point onwards they successfully gained market share.
Physical space is a premium in Japan whether designing for the office, home or handbag. You must create compact, lightweight products which fit the Japanese lifestyle or your product will flop. Everything in Japan is reduced in scale – even a paperback novel is reduced to A6 format and will come in 2-3 volumes to aid with your handbag and commuting space.
A user experience failure
Boots the chemist – a household name in the UK, known for its well designed and consistent user experience elevating drugs beyond mere commodity. It was felt in the early 2000’s that this branded experience, like other retail exports such as Body Shop, would thrive in brand conscious Japan.
While not my project its a great example. If Boots had looked carefully they would have seen that Japanese consumers like a bargain, who doesn’t ?, so when buying these commodity items they prefer the bargain environment found in local chemists such as Matsumoto Kiyoshi, where products with handwritten price tags are thrown in wired bins at the store entrance to attract bargain hunters. Sadly, the result for Boots was a quick and expensive market withdrawal and the lesson – ‘just because it works here, it won’t necessarily work there.’
Some of the common complaints about foreign products by Japanese consumers are: ‘too noisy’, ‘too powerful’, ‘too heavy’, ‘too big’ and so on.
We saw this first hand when working on an oral care product. During in home user studies we heard from elderly consumers that while they owned an electric toothbrush manufactured by either Philips or Braun, they only used them for special occasions such as before a party or meeting friends. The reason for this was the common perception of foreign branded products as being too powerful and therefore hard on Japanese gums!
What an important finding for a company planning to design and market an electric toothbrush for Japan, affecting: product positioning, market investment, product specification and avoiding potential failure.
We can go on with these kind of insights but in summary the most important ‘must do’ actions for those wanting to successfully design and export to Japan are:
- Gain a deep understanding of the consumer and market (facts tell)
- Create a culturally appropriate product and service proposition (stories sell)
- Use Design to differentiate and communicate who you are (design differentiates)
Don’t assume you can sell in Japan what you sell elsewhere by simply changing the language.
Our design and cultural interpretation skills are totally unique among designers in the UK. Working with research partners, we draw upon our breadth of design experience, our belief in creativity, and in the power of design to develop successful products and services for the Japanese market.
If you are planning to design and export to Japan and want to avoid a Dell, fatal Boots or sore gum experience! please get in touch so I can talk you through the process.
Contact David Tonge at: David@the-division.com
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Copyright @ The Division UK Ltd 2021
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