How to Add Strategy to Market Research in Japan

How to Add Strategy to Market Research in Japan

Market research, as we all know, is equal parts art and science. And yet, many big brands overlook the art part of the equation when entering a new market or launching a new product. They want all the bells and whistles of qualitative or quantitative research, the technology, and the methodologies they’re familiar with. They want to hit the ground running as soon as possible. The trouble with that approach is that it fails to take strategy (the art) into account. Market research strategies like those we’ll uncover in this article can make or break a brand or product launch – particularly when it comes to new markets. 

Market Research Strategies Every Brand Should Embrace 

Carter Group has been working in Japan for decades. In that time, we’ve come to understand that not only is the Japanese market very different from that of the USA or Europe, but conducting research also requires a different approach. Things we would take for granted in the States (such as using focus groups to determine consumer sentiment around a product) simply don’t work as well in the Japanese market. The same can be said for the Chinese market, the Australian market, or the South American markets, for example. And this leads us to our first point about how to add strategy to market research:

Be Open-minded

Be open-minded

In a recent article, we discussed the ways that the Japanese market differs from the US or European markets, especially when it comes to things like skincare. The things we take for granted in the States just don’t work as well (or at all) in Japan. 

For example, in a visualization exercise we conducted in Japan, we planned to ask respondents to picture a bar setting and then characterize different patrons in terms of brands they might associate them with. (Perhaps the guy sitting at the bar in a dark coat and drinking a glass of amber liquid is Glen Fiddich, for example.) This exercise turned out to be impossible in Japan, as Japan simply doesn’t have the same kinds of bars that we’d see in the USA or Europe. Our participants couldn’t picture themselves in that kind of setting. Once we realized this, we changed the setting, throwing out what we took for granted about a simple exercise and working with our team to find a more familiar setting. Instead, we asked people to imagine themselves in what’s called an izakaya – a typical eating and drinking spot in Japan. 

This is just one example of how something we take for granted in our home countries doesn’t make sense in a foreign market. Although the conceptual idea may work, we had to think about the setting to get the desired results carefully.

Use Local Expertise

Use local expertise

We recommend when conducting research, using local partner expertise to ensure you’re really understanding the market. You can’t take for granted that what works in your home country, or the country you’re used to operating in, will work in Japan, China, Vietnam, Australia, or Argentina. In fact, it might even be difficult to pinpoint exactly why some things don’t translate into that particular market.

How to Add Strategy to Market Research in Japan

Japan, for example, is what we call a ‘high-context culture,’ where a lot of communication is non-verbal. That means a lot of what is communicated is in what people don’t say rather than what they do. For some outsiders, that can be hard to interpret. As someone who’s lived in Japan for over 20 years, even I find it hard to interpret. The way to overcome this is to have strong relationships with people who are local and native – those who can help you to interpret what you’re seeing. Because although you might be seeing the same thing as your Japanese counterpart, the two of you may arrive at very different conclusions.

That’s not to say that working with a local research partner means having no input of your own. We find that the best insights come from a collaboration of foreign perspectives and local perspectives. With a great synthesis of viewpoints, you can reach transcendent insights and make real progress.

Ask a lot of Questions

Ask a lot of questions

In a market like Japan, especially, there is a lot that goes unsaid. Often, people won’t open up about or volunteer information unless you ask them directly and specifically. On top of this, processes might be different, people’s interpretations are different, people’s lives are different, and people’s homes are different. It’s important to ask a lot of questions and be open-minded about the answers you’ll receive in return. This applies to conducting research but also to finding local partners to work with.  Take advantage of local expertise and ask your network about who are the best partners to work with instead of just broadcasting for a quote. Your local colleagues and connections will have opinions about the best partners to work with and who has expertise in certain areas, for example. This can be much more valuable than casting the net for quotes and simply choosing the cheapest one.

Get Outside of the Research Facility

Get Outside of the Research Facility

Immersing yourself in the local culture, in local experiences, and within local homes and settings is an incredibly important market research strategy that’s often overlooked by brands and even researchers in foreign markets. 

Several years ago, our team was approached by a cleaning product brand hoping to launch in Japan. Although their products are tried and tested and a firm favorite in the US market, homes in Japan are very different. They’re smaller, the bathrooms are smaller, and the ways that people use their bathrooms differ greatly. Our suggestion, during the very short visit to Tokyo by a team from the brand, was to organize visits to three homes. Here, in an informal setting, the brand executives were able to see how homes and bathrooms in Japan are dissimilar to European or US homes, the issues around space, how concerns such as mold differ, and how different products are used to tackle these issues. This visit meant that, before attempting to launch a product in the market, the brand better understood how its products might be perceived and used in a different setting.

Surveys are Great

Surveys are Great, but…

Surveys are an important tool in research, but they’re not the be-all and end-all when it comes to research. One of our market research strategies for entering new markets is to do more immersive exploration initially. When you know nothing (and it’s important to approach a new market with the idea that you know nothing), you may not even be sure what questions to ask or how. Qualitative and quantitative research is only as valuable as the questions asked. To understand a new market, you must first immerse yourself in that setting to garner what’s important to the consumer, how they make decisions, and how to ask questions that will yield real insights. 

When you ask a Japanese person how likely they are to purchase something, they will answer that question quite differently to Americans, Australians, or even Chinese people. So, rather than rushing to implement the same survey you’ve been using in other projects, take the time to assess the concepts, understand how the dynamics are different in the new market, and build your survey to suit.

Embrace Trial and Error

Embrace Trial and Error

Finally, as important as it is not to go in guns blazing and full of existing ideas, it is equally important to be prepared to try, fail, and try again. Launching a product or introducing a brand to a new market is fraught with risk – there’s no getting around that. But by using the market research strategies outlined above and accepting that some trial and error might be necessary to hone your message, you are better prepared you will be to make your launch a success.

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