adapting a product or service to Japan

The Japanese market has a tremendous appetite for product and service concepts from abroad.  This is particularly true recently, as Japanese consumers have become sophisticated world travelers who want to experience at home some of the things they have seen overseas.

However, as many failed businesses have discovered, it’s not easy to bring a foreign product or service to the Japanese market.  Just because something is popular in New York or London or Paris doesn’t mean that it can be transferred without changes to Japan.  Japanese consumers are notoriously finicky, and anything that doesn’t meet their standards simply will not sell.  Some things may be tolerated while  on a foreign holiday, but would not be when back at home and in a Japanese environment.  And their tastes are extremely particular.  However, if you give Japanese consumers what they are looking for, you are likely to have a hit on your hands.

Aspects to adapt

There are a variety of aspects that companies will need to adapt when bringing a foreign product or service to the Japanese market.

Legal issues and customary business practices.   Of course, any time business is done in another country, it’s necessary to comply with the local laws and business practices.  In the case of Japan, these can be particularly complex and even idiosyncratic.  Often the requirements of the Japanese environment require fundamental changes in basic aspects of a product or service, which many companies find unsettling and want to resist. But ignoring these can doom your product or service before it’s even launched.

Flavors and features.   A Japanese friend of mine who is an expert in marketing seems to be doomed to work for American firms who aren’t willing to adapt to the Japanese market.  First it was a housewares manufacturer that was unwilling to make products in the small sizes preferred by Japanese.  Now it’s a food manufacturer that seems reluctant to create flavors suited to Japanese tastes, and insists on trying to sell the same flavor assortment it does in the U.S.  My unfortunate friend seems resigned to working for companies that won’t break out of being bit players in the Japanese market.   Doing careful market research – and taking the results seriously – is the way to avoid this kind of situation.

Accessories.   Recently I bought a PDA in the U.S., my first time buying one.  I eagerly opened the box to survey the contents, and then became somewhat agitated because everything didn’t seem to be there that should.  Where was the pouch for the PDA to live in while it sat in my purse or briefcase.  I was convinced there should be one, and became increasingly frustrated looking for it until I remembered, this was a product being purchased in the U.S., and I was mistakenly applying Japanese-style expectations.  While any piece of electronics sold in Japan, particularly a small one, would always have a pouch to accompany it, the same is not true in the U.S.  This is the kind of thing that would need to be on the top of the list for adaptations should the manufacturer of my PDA attempt to sell anything in Japan.  This is just one example of something that might not occur to someone from the U.S., but would appear to be a glaring omission from the Japanese perspective.  Given the Japanese penchant for extensive accoutrements to everything, there are similar examples in nearly every type of product.

Packaging.   When I was a college student learning about Japan, I enjoyed eating Japanese cookies and crackers that could be purchased at nearby Japanese grocery.  But I always wondered, why did each piece need to be wrapped separately?  Surely that was just a waste of packaging.  Then I lived in Japan, and experienced how the contents of a box of crackers sent from the US immediately lost its crispness in the Tokyo humidity.  I spent my days on the go riding the train around town, and was glad to have small pre-wrapped goodies that I could easily slip into my bag.  And I watched Japanese schoolchildren dole out a small box of candies – the kind that one American child would gobble down themselves — among their friends, each one receiving a single piece.  Although it seemed superfluous in the U.S., the packaging made sense in the Japanese context.  This is just one example of how different standards apply in Japan – standards that the product adapter ignores at their peril.

Positioning.  Companies may become very attached to the positioning that their product or service has in their home market.  However, in order for a foreign product to succeed in Japan, it may need to adopt a different positioning – often because a domestic product is already taking up the position that the foreign product usually occupies in its home market.  Yet this change of positioning when viewed positively can be a way to exploit a part of the market that domestic brands have not captured.  For example, in Japan Domino’s pizza is an upscale product, sporting gourmet toppings and priced at the higher end of the scale for takeout foods.  This positioning was what was required to carve out a place for itself in the Japanese market.  Another product that found itself selling to a different customer than in the U.S. was an American high-fiber cereal, used to targeting older consumers in its home market.  In Japan it discovered that it had a better chance of success by pitching itself toward young female consumers, a segment of the population that often does not get enough dietary fiber.

Your Japanese partners

Usually in the course of bringing something to the foreign manufacturer or franchisee will be working closely with some Japanese individuals.   These may be the employees of their overseas operations, or the staff of a joint venture partner, distributor, or franchisee.   The quality of your relationship with them will be the determining factor in the success of your adaptation to the Japanese market.

Typically, Japanese partners will want to err on the side of adapting to what’s typical for the Japanese market.  As discussed above, this is extremely important – a make-or-break factor in whether you will succeed in Japan.  Your partners are your key window into the Japanese mindset and how to make sure your offering will be accepted by Japanese consumers.  But at the same time, it’s important to resist the temptation to have your product or service become too Japanese.  It’s necessary to retain some foreign flavor in order to be offering something that is distinct from what the consumer can get from domestic alternatives.  It’s also important to maintain international brand consistency.

You’ll need to engage in many healthy discussions, characterized by mutual respect, in order to sort out just what needs to be adapted to Japan and what should be retained.  It’s not an easy process, but it’s an important one.


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