By Luke Denhart
It’s that time of year; the bumblebees begin buzzing about, the celandines start to sprout. The Hanami cherry viewing is a special event undertaken by the Japanese, one where they picnic and check out perhaps their most transient of trees, the cherry blossom, come in bloom to signal the beginning of spring. Hanami holds a cultural significance unique to Japan.
Yet western audiences are still not quite sure what Hanami even is – let alone its niche for marketing campaigns in Japan. Hopefully, shedding light on this cherished event and marketing strategies used by foreign companies in the past, Tokyoesque can set the stage for you. After a read, you can tap into the zeitgeist of Hanami, and implement its small window into your yearly marketing calendar.
So, what is a Hanami party?
Hanami (花見) literally translates to ‘blossom viewing’. Because of a historical lack of the influence of Easter, this Japanese substitute celebrates the early dawning of the spring season. The cherry blossoms, or Sakura (桜), remain one of the most iconic symbols imbued deeply in Japanese culture. A tradition spanning hundreds of years, the Japanese do not take this event lightly.
Domestic companies often utilise Hanami viewings to host welcome parties for their junior employees. Graduation ceremonies frequently use Hanami festivals for their grounds. Such is their dedication, people will camp out on their chosen picnicking spot for days beforehand to ensure their reservation is intact.
The cherry viewing season is accompanied with messages centred around the concept of aratana hajimari (新たな始まり) – ‘new beginnings’. The fresh spring air blows in a new start and a farewell to the old life. The Hanami phenomenon is more than just an annual party, it’s an emblematic celebration of life’s fragility and ever-changing nature. The ecstatic beauty found at Hanami festivals holds a dear place in the hearts of the Japanese.
But it is not just the natives. Studies show that tourism levels have gradually risen every year around the Hanami season. Kyoto hotels often find that April tends to be their busiest month of the year, with hotel occupancy jumping up by 95% between 2017-2018. The world is waiting, and Hanami is finding itself on the global peninsula. More and more curious foreigners are eager to experience the cherry viewing and, with the borders now finally open after the COVID-19 pandemic, this is the case now more than ever.
Popping The Cherry – More than just Japan’s seasonal marketing calendar
So, what does this mean for you? How can your business make leeway into the Japanese consumer market? Japan’s marketing calendar is already infamous for almost existing within its own domestic bubble. Many Japanese firms tend to stick entirely on their soil and target their specialised products at their unique consumer base. However, many international businesses have gone against the grain and found success amongst Japan’s consumer base by tapping into the Hanami allure.
Whether it is Halloween, Hatsuuri, or Christmas, Japan’s adoration for seasonal once-in-a-lifetime goods is ripe with marketing potential. Hanami’s commentary on the fleeting nature of life makes for an excellent marketing campaign for those who truly understand the Japanese consumer’s love for limited-edition merchandise.
Over the years, foreign companies such as Kit-Kat, Coca-Cola, Jack Daniels and more have found a way to implement Hanami-themed foods, beverages and other goods into their marketing calendars, becoming Japanese seasonal marketing success stories. Here is how they did it and what we can take away from the results.
Foreign Companies who have localised to the Hanami festival market
Despite its modest beginnings in the fields of Yorkshire, the Rowntree firm could have never predicted the serendipity they stumbled into by naming its product Kit-Kat. It just so happens the word Kit-Kat, and its localised Japanese name Kitto-Katto is almost phonetically identical to the phrase Kitto katsu (きっと勝つ) which means ‘surely win’.
Once the coincidence was noticed, the minds at Kit-Kat began to set the wheels in motion to turn the Kit-Kat bar into a cultural icon within the Japanese headspace. Soon enough, the Sakura Kit-Kat had begun blossoming annually and ingrained into the cultural zeitgeist. Japanese students make a majority of its domestic sales of Kit-Kat, with 50% of students receiving Kit-Kats as gifts during Hanami festivals.
The Kit-Kat slogan became synonymous with Hanami during graduation ceremonies. The implications of high school ending and upcoming university entry exams looming over create a vision of promise for the future. The cherry blossom Kit-Kat also uses its package space to let customers write a personal greeting and farewell. The Hanami seasonal edition is not just candy but a symbolic gift between parting friends.
By harnessing the Hanami season with limited-edition merchandise that makes use of the season’s message, Kit-Kat has edged its way as one of the most popular international chocolate brands in Japan. What’s more, the Hanami festival sees a steady incline with every passing year.
Of course, any brand can conjure up a cherry flavoured beverage, but Coca-Cola went above and beyond with the Hanami spirit. By decking out their drink with pink Sakura decor every springtime, Coca-Cola cemented itself as a quintessential edition to the Hanami bento lunchbox. The Coca-Cola invasion began by springing up inside the Japanese vending machine and soon rooted itself as one of the drinks of choice for the Hanami festival.
Coca-Cola decorates its bottles with pink sakura blossoms and hanami marketing slogans, even producing slimmer sized bottles for cherry viewing picnics specifically so that they’re easier to hold. Coca-Cola has consistently maintained its relevance with the youth in Japan, due in no small part to its willingness to experiment with fresh ideas, each as fleeting as every pink petal of Hanami.
Starbucks also threw their hat into the race by annually campaigning with their ‘It’s a blooming party!’ Hanami theme. Starbucks has a trend of seasonal limited-edition products, and Hanami has been no exception. With “Sakura Saita” (blooming cherry blossom) flavoured Milk Lattes, tumblers, mugs etc, Starbucks have brought out quaint and niche Hanami editions.
These acted as the perfect picnic companions for both entrance ceremonies and Hina Matsuri festivals. Like Coca-Cola, Starbucks has found a niche as a foreign powerhouse that pays attention to the Japanese consumers’ love of limited editions using Hanami’s uniqueness as a cause for celebration.
But it’s not just soft-beverages that are getting in on the Hanami craze. The growing popularity of work parties during Hanami galvanised many liquor brands to start investing in exclusive cherry viewing editions.
One such brand was Jack Daniels, which set off a successful, “It’s Jack” promotion during 2017. The following year saw Jack Daniels introduction of the ephemeral “Black Sakura” Japan-exclusive Jack Daniels box. Japanese consumers greatly appreciated Jack Daniels for tweaking their usually macho Tennessee image with the Sakura flower. By getting into the Hanami spirit, Jack Daniels not only helped sway the consumer’s opinion on whiskeys’ place during Hanami cherry viewings, but their “black blossom” boxes soon became highly coveted thanks to Jack Daniels’s concentrated effort.
What Can We Learn?
Merely studying Japanese marketing trends may not be enough. Getting a peek into the tactics of these international brands who make leeway into the niche market space in Japan is invaluable. Many of the methods by these companies demonstrate care and dedication to crack Japan’s usually iron-clad domestic market sphere and produce results.
The efforts of foreign brands to celebrate both the aesthetic euphonic surrounding Hanami season and its more metaphoric qualities do not go unnoticed. It has gotten to a point where the buzz is now bred around what the latest Coca-Cola Hanami-themed advertisement will be this year.
The Japanese consumer will always turn their head at a foreign company taking the time to invest and appreciate their culture, rather than putting profit over people. By showing that they are eager to build a relationship with their consumer by investing in the Japanese-centric Hanami festival, companies like Kit-Kat can build a solid foundation of rapport with their consumer base. If you follow the blueprints laid out by Jack Daniels and the like, so can you.
Build a Business with your Customers
The Hanami/sakura marketing phenomenon is a microcosm of foreign efforts to conquer the usually cold domestic market. It provides a window into the psyche of the Japanese customer; their love for the ephemeral edition, their desire to be heard, and their tradition of mutual respect. By just peeking into the commercial sphere, you can obtain insights on brand awareness and how to permanently get your brand associated with a niche to the Japanese customer.
Today we have shined the torch upon the Hanami party and how big-name outsider brands have transitioned in the eyes of Japanese consumers. Coming hot off the heels of Valentine’s Day and White Day the springtime Sakura season charms the world. We know that building a relationship with your consumers is not just leaving a lasting impression. It’s about having a pneumonic imprint so that you are always your customers’ choice. Spending persistently climbs upwards during Hanami. Any company looking to capitalise on the Japanese marketing calendar would be wise to turn their attention to the power of Hanami.
Luke Denhart is a professional Content Producer with a history in Copywriting, Editorials, SEO Marketing, and Web Development. An English graduate of the University of York, he operates both professional and independently within all spheres of the advertisement industry. With a tenacious eye for technology and culture, his goal is to supply content that can convey the esoteric to the everyman.
Interested in understanding more about how to create appeal among Japanese consumers with limited-time or seasonal offerings? Get in touch to discuss how your brand could boost visibility using a carefully considered marketing strategy.