What’s a Powerful Strategy for Marketing Sustainability in Japan Post-Covid?
By Maxim Tvorun-Dunn
As the current pandemic continues to restructure how we consume media and which methods are working best for marketers, this article examines how Japanese companies have attempted to adapt their communications around the climate crisis in this ever-changing environment, and highlight how they’re responding to the issue of sustainability in Japan.
Overview of sustainability in Japan
Sustainability in Japan is full of contradictions; touted internationally for their efforts in the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreements, the country generates massive levels of plastic waste and is largely reliant on outdated coal power.
As Japanese consumers grow more educated and global climate awareness efforts become more prevalent, sustainability marketing offers an appealing solution to combat the potential dissonance created when enjoying a product whose manufacturing practices may affect the environment. Ecological communication however is a double-edged sword: connecting with an educated audience means facing more critical consumers and bringing attention to a sensitive issue.
What was sustainability marketing in Japan before Covid?
In the past, effective marketing using sustainability in Japan has relied on turning climate education into engaging activities. For instance, in 2019, a Mitsubishi-Electric owned gallery in Ginza held an interactive exhibition for children called Denki Island, which turned sustainability education into enjoyable and light minigames while communicating Mitsubishi’s efforts to parents.
Other examples include the unique architecture of the Maishima Incineration Plant, whose flamboyant façade and nearby placement by Universal Studios Osaka encourages visitors to learn about the plant’s innovations. The attention-grabbing design in a way functions as a form of transparency marketing, actively making its presence and function in Osaka’s waste-management programme known to the public.
Another particularly unique example can be found in a Tokyo plant, dubbed the ‘Gomi Pit’, which opened a pop-up café replete with a romantic view of their industrial rubbish dump!
By turning sustainability communication into engaging activities in architecturally imposing locations, companies can successfully impart their message and maintain narratives within a controlled space where potential backlash from highly critical viewers is overshadowed by the spectacle itself.
Adapting to digital displays of sustainability in Japan
Such control of presentation is significantly harder when it comes to digital environments. While in-person experiences remain individually effective, lower foot-traffic across the board means digital adaptations are a must. However, with immediate access to information and the ability to instantly share content, the very critical viewers, who sustainability marketing hopes to sway, become an overt risk.
Failed attempts can be seen in recent reactions to “Carbon Offset” programmes, wherein companies whose production methods have an effect on global CO2 output promise to plant a number of trees in order to offset this. In practice, however, readers and journalists have noted that these programmes result in little actual environmental impact.
Likely seeing a gap in successful sustainability communication avenues, in October 2020, The Japan Times launched their “Sustainable Japan by The Japan Times” page, providing a space for businesses and individuals to brandish their environmental endeavours. While this approach offers an appealing space for PR firms, examples like a luxury hotel experience in a traditional castle which costs ¥1,000,000 per stay present rather questionable progress in terms of improved sustainability in Japan.
While this website is also filled with examples of quality efforts in sustainability and a B2B focused room for successful inter-industry cooperation and communication, the current curation may turn away public readers.
How to successfully promote brand sustainability in Japan
While it is simply good form for corporations to maintain their own sustainability pages on their website, few Japanese readers are likely to engage with these unless actively searching for information on their environmental impacts. As with the example of criticism towards those “Carbon Offset” programmes, calling attention to efforts where few are practically in place is a dangerous strategy; especially when lacking the physical spectacle of offline experiences.
Those who wish to bring sustainability marketing to the digital forefront should prioritise finding a replacement for the narrative control and interaction provided through physical events. With this goal in mind, marketers should seek to generate images, videos, or digital experiences whose immediate impression may outweigh the effect of their presentation under negative contexts such as sharing by critical fans.
Thankfully for marketers, social media backlash is somewhat less prevalent in Japan than in Europe or the US; but even so potential trust and profits can be lost if effective narrative control is not maintained in the response to politically delicate communication. While the perfect digital sustainable marketing program has yet to be found, the goals are clear: effective sustainability marketing should first and foremost offer an enjoyable and engaging experience to the viewer with bells and whistles enough to subtly impart the progressive rhetoric.
Such overshadowing serves the triple purpose of avoiding drawing attention to a sensitive matter, maintaining narrative in the face of criticism, and most importantly making sure the consumer has an enjoyable brand experience.
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