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Japan faces crossroads for rebranding itself after Fukushima crisis

by Jochen Legewie

Special To The Japan Times

The Fukushima power plant crisis has clearly damaged Japan as a country brand. There has been an outpouring of sympathy for the victims and a widespread admiration for Japan’s perseverance, stoicism and orderly response, but the overwhelming perception overseas is negative: disbelief that such an accident could happen in such a high-tech nation, frustration with its crisis and information management, and outright fear of traveling to or making contact with its potentially contaminated products.

In June, the consultancy Interbrand published the first results of a survey it conducted in May on Japan’s brand perception in the United States, Britain and China. Overall, Japan’s image had fallen 12 points. But their perceptions of its “safety” and “reliability” — which are usually regarded as Japan-specific strengths — had fallen by an even greater margin.

Is this only a short-term phenomenon or will the Japan brand name suffer from the Fukushima crisis in the long run? To answer these questions, let us look at the world’s perception of Japan prior to March 2011.

The Anholt Nation Brand Index (NBI), named after Simon Anholt, the pioneer of nation branding, has consistently listed Japan as No. 5 in the world since 2008 (in 2010 it was behind the U.S., Germany, France and the Britain).

Likewise, the Country Brand Index (CBI) , run by Future Brand and BBC, ranked Japan No. 6 in 2010 behind Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Switzerland.

Japan gets top global marks for advanced technology from the CBI and in exports from the NBI. It also ranks high — around 8th to 10th place — in other areas, such as culture/heritage, tourism, people or quality of life.

Japan’s only perceived weak spots have traditionally been its value system and its governance, where it regularly fails to breach the global top 15 in either survey.

Obviously, the world’s perception of Japan is stronger than many naysayers think. But notice also that Japan’s perceived weakness in governance is dangerous.

While governance is usually regarded primarily as a domestic issue, the way the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co. have been handling the Fukushima crisis was clearly not — it directly impacted other nations. Hence Japan’s perceived shortcomings in dealing with the crisis have great potential to negatively affect its standing abroad over time.

Second, Japan’s image as a producer of safe, perfect and reliable products had already been eroded by the food industry’s labeling scandals, Sony’s battery problems and Toyota’s massive vehicle recalls before March 11.

Nations earn brand identity by delivering a specific quality product consistently over time — such as cheese, chocolate and watches for Switzerland; fashion and food for Italy; or cars and dark bread for Germany. Fukushima is now drawing into question the most positive perceptions of Japanese quality — the trait upon which much of its brand strength was built.

So how should Japan safeguard, strengthen or even rebuild its brand image? Many observers point to the need for a “national control tower” to coordinate and bundle Japan’s branding activities.

South Korea established such an institution in January 2009 — the Presidential Council on Nation Branding. Under the slogan “Korea, A Loving Embrace,” the South Korean government aims to position the country as a contributing nation with respected people and global corporations and a caring society that promotes togetherness.

Japan has never undertaken such an ambitious program. Instead, it limited nation -branding activities to small isolated measures, such as the creation of a Japan Brand Working Group in 2004 and the Japan Brand Development Assistance Program of the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency the same year. Its tourism campaign, Yokoso Japan (“Welcome to Japan”), even committed the marketing crime of not using the language of the consumer. This ensured that it wouldn’t mean very much abroad, where nobody understand the meaning of “yokoso.”

Probably the closest that Japan’s public agencies have come to a coordinated image transfer abroad was when they started a focused campaign to export pop culture.

In July 2010, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the Cultural Affairs Agency and the tourism agency successfully joined hands at the Japan Expo Paris to leverage their nation’s soft power at an exhibition that drew more than 160,000 people. It is this area — soft power — where Japan’s best opportunities for branding lie.

Even its girlie bands, such as the immensely popular AKB48, are doing more than its politicians to boost its image abroad — especially in Asia.

But Japan as a brand needs more. Japan and its people need to decide on a clear and simple national vision and stick to it. This vision has been missing since the bubble economy imploded 20 years ago. And it is no exaggeration to say that there has never been a better time to remake that vision.

Despite its rather high brand rankings in 2010, Japan’s global presence has been slowly declining. The Fukushima accident put Japan back in the world’s eye — albeit in a tragic way. Now Japan’s politicians and business leaders have unique chance to reposition the nation. But a simple rebuilding of a pre-March 11 manufacturing superpower will neither be sufficient nor an option with giant neighbor China now occupying the slot.

One keyword in this rebranding exercise will be quality. So far, Japan’s brand image has been driven by perfection in its products, and sometimes its services. In the future, quality of life from a more comprehensive standpoint — even one including governance — might mark Japan’s path to a new identity.

Today, the quality of life in Tokyo is probably higher than in most — if not all — of Asia’s largest cities, whether that be in terms of safety, air quality, public transportation or number of three-star restaurants. Expanding and exporting these strengths will do Japan good in a world where half of the population is already living in urban areas. And it would certainly ensure that its brand remains attractive both here and abroad.

Jochen Legewie is president of German communications consultancy CNC Japan K.K. (See his blog: www.cncblogs.jp)