Gaining the Competitive Edge for a Successful International Branding In Japan

International branding, Starbucks in Japan, branding strategy, glocalization, global brand image, local preferences, SMEs in Japan, Japanese market, branding challenges, brand recognition, branding importance, global expansion

Businesses with an eye toward global expansion continue to find Japan’s market appealing for international branding in Japan.

With Japan being the third largest economy in the world and a population of over 120 million, it is a desirable market for international companies looking to expand into emerging economies and establish their brand presence.

Unfortunately, brands looking to break into the Japanese market need assistance matching local brands’ success in international branding in Japan. Due to Japan’s unique business culture, foreign companies often need local representation or guidance to effectively navigate and position their brand in the competitive Japanese market.

Looking at the commonalities shared by successful foreign brands in Japan can greatly assist in informing your own brand’s strategy. However, the exact strategy a given brand will take for Japan will always be slightly different due to industry and business size. This aspect of International Branding in Japan requires careful consideration and a customized approach for each brand.

Starbucks has perfected the “glocalization” strategy over the years, which entails incorporating local elements into the overall global brand image.

Branding goes beyond a catchy logo or slogan. It’s the perceived emotional corporate image as a whole. For SMEs in Japan, this means articulating a unique, compelling, and authentic narrative that tells their story, values and promises to customers.

Evolving Consumer Expectations

One key reason for this is the evolution of the Japanese consumer. They are now more digitally savvy, discerning, and focused on value and quality than ever before. Consequently, they seek brands that resonate with their values and provide a unique, meaningful, consistent experience.

Standing Out in a Crowded Market

Branding enables SMEs to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Japan, known for its technological prowess, has numerous enterprises vying for consumer attention. A strong brand helps SMEs distinguish themselves from their competition, making them easily recognizable to potential customers. This recognition, in turn, can foster customer loyalty and drive long-term success.

The Power of First Impressionst

Additionally, with globalization and the rise of digital platforms, SMEs in Japan have opportunities to extend their reach beyond national boundaries. A strong brand makes a memorable first impression invaluable in these larger markets.

Strengthening Internal Culture

Branding also has a significant impact on a company’s internal culture. A well-defined brand directs employees about what the business stands for and how to represent it. A clear brand can reinforce these values for SMEs in Japan, where teamwork and dedication are deeply ingrained in the corporate culture, fostering a cohesive, motivated workforce.

Enhancing Credibility and Trust

Moreover, branding enhances credibility and trust. A well-built brand signifies reliability and longevity in Japan, where trust is crucial to business interactions. This is especially critical for SMEs as they establish their reputation and build relationships with customers, suppliers, and partners.

Overcoming Branding Challenges

However, SMEs face specific challenges in branding, including resource limitations, lack of expertise, and the risk of being overshadowed by larger, more established companies. They must focus on authentic storytelling, customer engagement, and continuous innovation to overcome these hurdles. Japan’s government also supports SMEs through various programs, helping them develop their brands and achieve their business goals.

The Starbucks Success Story in Japan

A stellar example of successful international branding in Japan is Starbucks, a globally renowned coffee company. After opening the first store in Japan in 1996, the first store outside North America, Starbucks had 1,630 locations across Japan (as of October 2022), emphasizing its success in penetrating this unique market. This is despite the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But why is it so successful? Not only in Japan but also in other countries?

Starbucks’ triumph lies in its ability to adapt and localize its offerings while maintaining its global brand image. They balanced being an American brand and adapted to the Japanese market.

Worldwide, Starbucks is known for its premium coffee experience, a strong emphasis on customer service, and a comfortable, inviting “third place” atmosphere – a space that is neither work nor home. These values translate across borders and resonate with customers globally.

Starbucks has taken additional steps in Japan to ensure its brand aligns with local sensibilities. For instance, it has integrated local architectural aesthetics and cultural elements into its store designs called “concept stores.” It offers Japan-exclusive items that reflect local taste preferences and seasonally-inspired themes, such as cherry blossom-themed merchandise, beverages during spring, and even its cups. This balance of global brand identity and local adaptation has contributed significantly to Starbucks’ success in Japan and is an inspiring example of effective international branding in Japan.

Another aspect of their successful branding is the training of their baristas. To ensure that their baristas in Japan are well-versed in all things Starbucks, the company mandates a two-month training program.

Partners (baristas) receive a product manual and a mentor for the training’s customer service component. Partners-in-training must pass both a practical and theoretical exam before being considered for certification.

Green and black aprons are the two most common choices for baristas, which may surprise you. This is due to the globally implemented Coffee Master Program, which states that only “Coffee Masters” can wear black aprons while working as baristas. Becoming one requires passing a rigorous annual examination on coffee beans.

You can find these black aprons all over the world, including one out of every twelve baristas in Japan who have earned the Coffee Master certification.

What We Can Learn About Local Branding from Starbucks

Global companies can learn much from Starbucks’s approach to international branding in Japan. If you ever find yourself in Japan, you might want to visit one of the many Starbucks locations as part of a “branding exploration.”

Make your visit to the shop about more than just picking up some of your favorite beverages as you enter. Make it more of a trip of observation instead. Take note of the little things that set this Starbucks apart from the others you may have visited in the United States or elsewhere.

Take note of Starbucks’ global brand identity pillars:
– The instantly recognizable green logo
– The refreshing scent of freshly brewed coffee
– The welcoming faces of the baristas
The focus should then be shifted to those features that are truly Japanese. Perhaps it’s the seasonal cherry blossom merchandise, the unique drinks made with matcha, or the store’s design that nods to local architectural styles.

Starbucks has perfected the “glocalization” strategy over the years, which entails incorporating local elements into the overall global brand image. It’s an effective method of brand building that other companies can use as a model when entering competitive markets like Japan. Businesses can create a globally consistent and locally appealing brand by being mindful of their global brand identity while also considering local preferences and cultural nuances. This equilibrium may be the key to building a strong international brand in Japan.

"Otsumami" - a bite size snack:

Global businesses looking to succeed in Japan should focus on creating a strong, authentic brand that resonates with the evolved Japanese consumer.

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