An interview with Prof. Tomoko Kawakami of Waseda Business School on the current state of marketing in Japan.

It’s with great pleasure that I introduce Prof. Tomoko Kawakami of the Waseda Business School to our global audience. Prof. Kawakami is a leading scholar of innovation and marketing in Japan. In addition to her work at Waseda University, she is an affiliate professor at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington and a visiting scholar at the INSEAD Blue Ocean Strategy Institute in France.

Prof. Kawakami’s interests are expansive. She is currently working on a crowdsourcing project in France, researching digital transformation in the retail industry, studying the potential of AI in creative marketing and exploring sustainable product development for the circular economy.

Prof. Kawakami has also been a key supporter of cloud-based marketing automation in Japan. Our collaboration began in 2017 when she spoke at Marketo’s annual customer event. She has since invited me to serve as adjunct lecturer in B2B marketing at Waseda, which also happens to be my alma mater.

Prof. Kawakami definitely has more interests than time, so I’m so very grateful that she has agreed to join us for this interview.

Yasu: Thank you so much for joining us today. Before we delve into the current state of marketing in Japan, could you please tell us about your background? What inspired your interest in marketing?

Prof. Kawakami: Certainly. I joined Minolta Camera (currently Konica Minolta) straight out of college. I had the opportunity to work in new product development and launch the company’s new copier to the global market. This experience inspired my interest in marketing and, with child in tow, led me to pursue an MBA and then a doctorate with a specialization in innovation and marketing.

Through my corporate experience and research, I’ve learned that Japanese companies have great technology but are not very good at marketing it. While CMOs have a tough time in any company, they tend to struggle even more in Japanese companies-if they exist at all. Only around 10 percent of Japanese companies have CMOs. As a result, Japanese marketing tends to be very sales-driven and fragmented.

In order for Japanese companies to build global brands and remain competitive, they need to implement another layer of marketing. Promotional marketing is fine, but they also need to pursue more top-down, innovation-oriented marketing-spanning research, planning, development, production and sales-as a company-wide strategy. Most Japanese companies still have a way to go.

Where art thou CMO?

Yasu: Frankly, I vacillate between believing Japanese companies are different from global companies and thinking that they’re really not that different. It seems organizations have similar challenges globally. How exactly are Japanese companies unique or different, especially when it comes to marketing?

Prof. Kawakami: That’s a good point. Large organizations everywhere share a lot of the same issues. Many companies, especially in manufacturing, still push products the old fashioned way. In Japanese companies, however, the horizontal marketing function, or corporate marketing if you will, is especially weak. Again, a large majority of companies still don’t have CMOs.

Keep in mind Japan has a deep-rooted manufacturing, or “monozukuri,” mindset, where companies tend to believe that if they build good products, they will sell.

As a result, the “genba,” which could be translated as “shop floor,” “frontline” or “sales,” or even “business unit” wields a great deal of power internally. A lot of marketing in Japan is driven by the business unit. They have their own marketing teams that push out promotional content. The tail wags the dog, so to speak. This fragmented structure impedes strategic brand-building, especially globally.

Pass the Post-its, please

Yasu: But open innovation, design thinking and digital transformation, not to mention branding, have been around in Japan for a while. Isn’t this the kind of innovation-focused marketing you are talking about? Aren’t these initiatives bearing fruit?

Prof. Kawakami: Sure. There are companies that are hiring Chief Digital Officers to develop new online, data-driven businesses in partnership with tech startups. But again, from an organizational standpoint, CDOs, like CMOs, have a hard time securing buy-in from business units and subsidiaries. In short, the genba insist on doing their own thing.

As for design thinking, many executives participate in workshops. They observe and interview customers, and they make ample use of Post-its (laughs). But they tend to be overly methodical and analytical in their approach. They tend to be very left-brain. Or they do things their own way. Or they just quit after a few sessions. I don’t think the situation is that different globally.

Businesses need to be more holistic and human-centered. They need to be more right-brain when trying to understand customers.

Such a holistic understanding of customers is largely missing from Japanese companies. And because they lack innovation and brand leadership at the senior management level, company leaders tend to be out of touch with customers, and so they delegate decisions about innovation and marketing to the business units. This further strengthens the genba and impedes strategic brand-building.

The customer as hero

Yasu: What role can global cloud providers play in enabling Japanese innovation and more strategic marketing?

Prof. Kawakami: I think they have a huge role to play. In addition to introducing new concepts and innovative marketing automation solutions, they need to introduce cutting edge case studies from around the world. Japanese are always eager to learn what other companies are doing, though implementation is another matter.

Cloud companies can also educate and lead Japanese companies through their example. User communities are a perfect example of what Japanese companies need to build in order to learn more about their customers and co-develop totally new customer-centric products.

Cloud providers also do an incredible job of turning their customers into “heroes'' and promoting their successes at events and in the media. This form of co-marketing is so persuasive and impactful. This is the kind of marketing Japanese companies need to do more of. They need to rely less on ad agencies and collaborate more closely with their customers (laughs).

Yasu: On the flipside, what are Japanese companies’ strengths in terms of their ability to innovate and market? What potential do you see? What are the opportunities?

Prof. Kawakami: There is so much great technology in Japanese companies. They just need to do a better job of engaging customers and communicating the value of their products in a strategic way. There needs to be more top-down leadership, not just bottom-up activity from the genba.

And it’s imperative that Japanese companies think globally. Japan’s population will shrink to three-fourths to its current size in the coming decades. Japanese companies can learn a lot from Korean and Scandinavian companies whose domestic markets are so small that they have no choice but to be global.

I also believe that Japanese SMBs are truly remarkable. Many of them are global leaders in key components. They are closer to their customers and their decision-making process is more top-down. Their success depends largely on their leaders. While they may lack resources, they can now leverage cloud-based IT solutions to do more with less.

In addition, as mentioned, I believe Japan has an opportunity to lead the world in sustainability. Japan has the most 100 and 200 year-old companies in the world! They’ve experienced the downside of rapid growth. They’ve survived natural disasters. Japanese companies need to codify and market their vision of a more sustainable world. I believe they can, but they need the help of global innovators and communicators.

Owning the genba

Yasu: Finally, what advice would you give to cloud providers that want to sell to Japanese companies?

Prof. Kawakami: They need to continue doing what they do so well. Selling at a high level to economic buyers is of course important. But it’s also important that they engage executives on the frontlines, the genba, and get them on their side. Make them heroes. Help them promote their successes internally, as well as to the market.

If frontline executives believe in your product, are ambitious and have passion, they will go above and beyond their call of duty and be an advocate for you with senior management.

Although the genba may give their own CMOs and CDOs a headache, they can be invaluable to global cloud companies looking to close deals.