Commentary / Japan

How is your brand relationship?

by Ross Rowbury

I have not always worked in the communications industry. I started my career in a totally different industry: finance.

When I first moved to the world of marketing and communications some two decades ago I was always confused, even annoyed, at the way people in the industry would refer to the “personality” of the brand or how people saw their “relationship” with the brand. At the time it seemed quite silly that a brand could actually have a personality and I could have a relationship with my favorite fizzy drink.

Over time I have come to understand, and even accept, that brands do have personalities. I venture to say that we would all agree that the personality of a brand such as Red Bull is very different from, say, Mitsuya Cider. Many of you may even agree that the personality of the Toyota brand is different from that of Mercedes-Benz. Some of you may even agree that a Mercedes-Benz has a different brand personality from a BMW. I have come to understand this.

But what about relationships with brands? I happen to like the brand Hugo Boss. I like their clothes. But I would describe my affinity for the brand as a relationship with the brand? I probably would not. But the reality is that when we measure how people interact with brands it does begin to seem like a bit of a relationship.

Think about a brand that you really like. If that brand were to suffer a crisis, being flamed on social media for instance, would you rush to defend it? Or would you be indifferent. The difference in those two reactions is the relationship you have with that brand.

Edelman conducts annually what is called the Earned Brand Survey.

This survey plots the strength of consumer relationship with the brand from 0 to 100 over five progressive segments; indifferent, interested, involved, invested and committed. At the indifferent stage the brand has very little differentiation and people do not generally trust it. At the interested stage consumers perceive differentiation and may go out of their way to purchase the product. They usually trust the brand to make good products at a fair price.

Of course, where every brand wants to be is in the “committed” segment. This is where people feel the brand defines them or their lifestyle. More importantly, committed consumers stick by and defend a brand even if they are disappointed. They have faith that the brand will correct its mistakes. In today’s world where any brand can be the subject of a crisis, this level of commitment is hugely important. Yet, only about 4 percent of consumers in Japan have this degree of commitment to the brands they like.

When we look at the average position of brands in Japan on the scale of 0 to 100, we see a score of 32, or somewhere just to the left of middle of the “involved” segment, with 29 percent of consumers seeing their relationships with brands as “interested” and 36 percent as “involved.”

As a comparison, China’s score is 52, the United States a strong 40. Only France, Germany and the Netherlands rank below Japan in the countries surveyed. This means that compared with the rest of the world, Japanese consumers have a somewhat transactional relationship with brands. This is probably what results in the fast cycle boom and bust or fads around the new product cycle; the sakura frappuccino, the various seasonal beers and other such phenomenon. Because the relationship is essentially transactional the consumer has to be constantly tantalized with new and exciting products.

An American Express survey last year surveyed the propensity of consumers to take their business elsewhere after one bad experience. In the U.S. 33 percent of consumers said they would go elsewhere. In the United Kingdom one bad experience would turn away about 37 percent of consumers. In Italy, 32 percent. In Japan, a whopping 56 percent of consumers said they would go elsewhere, the highest in the world by a large margin. Once again, evidence perhaps of the frail nature of the relationships consumers have with brands in Japan.

In the Earned Brand Survey we also look at what drives scores. What are the things that drive indifferent consumers to become interested and involved. Or more importantly what drives them from being invested consumers to committed consumers?

Given the previous two decades of deflation it is not surprising that a significant driver from indifferent through to involved is competitive pricing. Key drivers from interested to involved and then up to invested are quality and innovation. There are no striking surprises here and it validates the commonly held image of the Japanese consumer as being very focused on quality and value.

Digging into the data further we see some more interesting drivers. At the higher end, a key driver of moving the relationship from involved to invested is that the product or service is made or provided by real people instead of robots or machines. While automation and AI are generally seen as positives in Japan, possibly due to the tight labor market and aging population, the human element retains strong value in driving a closer relationship with consumers.

Another highly ranking driver is that the products are made entirely in Japan. At the very least, making sure your product or service has some specific element of tailoring to the Japanese market seems to be very important.

The strongest driver to take the consumer relationship from invested up to the committed level is that the brand maintains an ongoing conversation with the consumer by inviting and facilitating interactions with it. This means that it is important to be seen to taking your brand or product to the people. Inviting them in and soliciting their feedback and opinions. In Japan, where people are more reticent to be forthcoming with opinions, providing a forum to allow this to take place seems to be very important in building a solid relationship with your customers and stakeholders.

So, how’s your relationship?

Ross Rowbury is president and CEO of the PR agency Edelman Japan. He advises senior business executives on issues ranging from corporate branding to media strategy and internal and external communications strategy.

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