Apple's Japan Strategy: A Japanese Perspective, Part I

Apple has been doing business in Japan for over a decade and Steve Jobs has now visited Japan several times. During this yearis keynote address, I think he committed what is a very large "no-no" in Japanese marketing: direct product comparison. In the West, we are very accustomed to companies running marketing campaigns that directly compare their products to their competitorsi product. Iim not so sure about the rest of Asia, but in Japan this is something that is simply not done. It is part of the culture and a kind of gentlemanis agreement.

This may come as a surprise since Japanese companies are famous for their marketing worldwide. In the home market though, you will almost never see a TV or print ad that directly mentions a competitor or its products. In some cases, if a company wants to compare their company to some rivals, they will use an alias. For example, if Epson wants to compare the print speed on their inkjet printers, they will show a graph with their companyis name, "Company C," and "Company H." The word "Company" will be in Japanese Kanji and the letter will appear in English. Of course, we all know C means Canon and H means HP. But it is this indirect manner to marketing, which is important.

Iive also listened to my co-workersi comments on Steve Jobsi keynote. They tend to overlook the black shirts and blue jeans that the CEO prefers for his speeches (this time he wore a suit), but they felt that the portion of his speech regarding the new PowerBook was bad.

First they cited the direct comparison to Sony. This is something a Japanese CEO would never do. The second point is a bit harder to explain. In Japan, companies are regarded in the media and by the population based on their "level." I use the word level, but I suppose we could say "prestige." This is a concept that is intrinsic to Japanese culture, and may be hard for many Westerners to understand. Companies can build or raise their prestige level, but there are some companies that, in the minds of Japanese, will always be in the itop level.i Many of these companies were built-up during the period following World War II. Their founders are regarded as heroes that had a lot of charisma and guts. A short list would include: Sony, Matsushita (Panasonic), Honda, and Toyota. This keynote speech was given to a pro-Macintosh audience, however only the highlights were reported in the mass-media. Slamming Sony, I think, is a definite faux pas in the minds of many Japanese people. I know he said how Apple LOVED Sony (perhaps so that they will finally buy Apple?) but that portion wasnit widely reported.

The third comment my co-workers made was the comparison of the new PowerBook and the Vaio. One "otaku" (nerd) in my office said, "You canit compare one PowerBook to one Sony Vaio unless the models are at the same price point and address the same market. It is like me holding up an iBook and my Vaio and claiming that all Apple portables weigh the same as a Sumo wrestler."

My feeling is that Apple should research its second biggest market in the world a bit more. Japanese computer users loved the old Duo series due to the small size and light weight. (They donit even mind tiny keyboards made for gnomes.) I think that Apple forgot that over 90% of Japanese business people commute to work by train or bicycle. Despite the PowerBook and iBook product linesi great looks and feature sets, I can sometimes understand why the Vaio has replaced the PowerBook as the "mobile computer to get" in Japan. My company (3,000 employees) is a good example. They just replaced almost the entire work forcesi 6 year old Mitsubishi portables with a very UGLY IBM portable. Most likely it had to do with price, but Iim sure that IBMis reputation for service and Lotus Notes had something to do with it. On the other hand, most of the savvy young businessmen (Japan is about 50 years behind the US in equal rights) bought a Vaio for their own use. I asked my manager if I could upgrade my beige G3 to a new G4 or PowerBook G4. He said, "I will have our research subsidiary purchase it for you." Our research subsidiary was 90% Macintosh 9 years ago, and so they still have many loyal Mac addicts.

You must be wondering if I think the new iMacs will do well in Japan? In the past, every color Apple created was well received by young Japanese and female computer users in Japan. As most of you know, Japan is the land of "kawai" (cuteness). Iim not sure if the new iMacs are kawai or not. One way to MAKE them kawai is to make TV and print ads that have a kawai female TV personality NEXT to the iMac. THIS is the way computer (actually, all) marketing is done in Japan. Apple ads feature machines (good) and B&W pictures of people that 99% of consumers here donit know. With no ad copy, and just a tiny Apple mark.

It seems that Appleis marketing towards the Japanese follows the same approach as the US strategy. BUT, what works in one culture doesnit always work in another. Since this is a LARGE market I think they should take the time to create local advertisements that appeal to consumers here. For example, when my Japanese wife and I watched Appleis commercials last year, I thought "Wow, cool! Steve Jobs is my hero. Make mental note to fire Jeff." On the other hand my wife said "Chotto hen." Chotto means "a little" and "hen" means "strange." This is her polite way of saying, "This ad doesnit appeal to Japanese people." Just so you know, she has been a Mac user since the PowerPC 6100 (and is perhaps the worldis greatest iSNOODi player.) She said, "iMovie is great, and many Japanese families have digital cameras. But they donit go dancing and sun bathing on the beach, or go to cocktail parties."

So why do they buy video cameras? She said the number one reason was to "record their childrenis Sports Day." Sports Day is like a field day or field trip in America but the families are invited, and the children compete in various games, which they have practiced for two months. They also do performances. It is VERY important to parents to attend this yearly event. If you attend a Sports Day you will see 80% of the parents with a video camera or a 35mm camera.

Taking a break from iSNOODi, she said "If I were the iCEO of Apple, I would have a commercial that begins with a scene of many kids enjoying their Sports Day. Then I would pull back the camera, show a JAPANESE family editing their video with iMovie, and say something about how easy it is. Then show the family with grandma and grandpa watching the video on TV. You would have lines of parents demanding that iMac thing with each digital camera sold." Good idea I think. She has many more and would be willing to share them with Apple Japan between her busy schedule of SNOOD, The Sims, and POST-PET. Her final advice was, "Where is the Hello Kitty Pink model? Or the Yellow Pikachu model?"

Part 2 looks at issues involved with Appleis retail strategy in Japan.

Carlos Camacho is Editor-in-Chief of the web site iDevGames ( which is devoted to the design and development of Macintosh games.