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Semiotics: A Japan Primer

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Semiotics has long been established as a vital tool in marketing & brand research around the world, no doubt. But for years it has often been a “no-go zone” for many insights professionals commissioning research in Japan. That is changing as Japan and its material culture and symbolism at large, is becoming more well-known and celebrated around the world. So what made so many hesitant to undertake a semiology study here in the past? Well, there are a multitude of reasons but consider just a few and you’ll get the point:

  • not enough researchers who understand Semiology and thus, know how to execute it at brand or product level.
  • how on earth to comprehend the symbolic culture of a nation with so much predetermined formality; where even to begin?
  • cross-cultural comparisons seem too difficult between Japan and the West because the sign systems come from a completely different history & value set; (code for “Let’s skip Semiotics this go round!”)

Luckily for ‘outsiders’, Japanese are also humans who live in the modern world; not around it or above it! There is no great mystery to understanding Japan, it just takes an open mind. Given that premise it is most definitely possible to undertake successful semiotic research here. We’d even argue that Semiotics is now more vital than ever in a culture that has a highly formalized tradition of branding based on heritage, quality and craftsmanship that existed over a thousand years before global brands arrived on these islands. That in the face of a global culture that is ever more marching towards a technological one. It becomes important to understand things like subtext and paradox that focus groups and run-of-the-mill research can’t always provide.

Consider this: You could run 100 focus groups asking Japanese females why they use skin whiteners. You would get 1,000 answers related to health & beauty… and if you’re lucky, somebody might mention the immense pressure to have beautiful white skin from ads both Western and Japanese. All of this would be extremely informative and insightful. Yet you’d still be no closer to the truth. But a semiotic study could uncover some deeper truths about Japanese civilization as well as the multimillion dollar answer you were looking for! Skin whitening is anchored in Japanese civilization, hierarchy and status and goes back about almost 1,500 years. Japanese women who left family farms and became court ladies or members of the nobility used the symbol of white skin to define status above those women who worked in the fields and had more tanned skin. This tradition continued throughout history when geisha & maiko culture rose to prominence up until Western brands took hold here. So the conclusion reached from a semiological perspective is that: if you took away all the advertising and all the branding, skin whitening would still stand alone here as a cultural constant regardless. You’d have to take away some of the bedrock values of Japanese civilization in order to see whitening disappear. Advertising, marketing, the impact of Western values and brands are essentially incidental. Now in addition to a focus group, the dynamic shifts to something much more throughout-provoking and valuable than the original question. This information can help you change the conversation if you’re a researcher or a beauty brand.

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So with all that established, here are some tips to make Semiotics research go as smoothly as possible in the Land of the Rising Sun!

  1. Couple it with cultural insights and ethnography where possible: if you can understand the people and their (im)material culture firsthand, it becomes easier to decode symbolism and the Japanese approach to brands
  2. There’s no substitute for working with folks who are immersed in the culture here. If you skip out on this part, you might end up with a fancy report that sounds good to you… but lacks nuance and leads your brand/product/objective in the wrong direction completely. Happens all the time here!
  3. Make sure you always ask tons of ‘dumb questions’ and engage the researcher as much as you can. This is likely to uncover an entire universe of ‘unknown unknowns’ about Japanese branding you never thought possible!
  4. ‘Myths’ and ‘Meaning-making’ to explore how Japanese society believes in things like the media and advertising are more to difficult to ponder in respondent-driven methodologies… but can be explored in serious detail with Semiotics and fervent client discussions and debates!
  5. Know the limits of Semiotics: Not all of Japanese culture is symbolic and much of it predates language/signs etc. Some facets of the Japanese psyche and its modes of communication are said to be primal or even telepathic! Fascinating stuff!

For the final point above, this is more for Anthropology, ethnography and cultural insights methodologies. And we are well-prepared to delve into that whole chestnut as well! But here’s to putting Semiotics on your list of methodologies that are ripe for exploration in Japan!

by Jeffrey Brouse

Japanese Youth & Methodologies: A Tale of Two Worlds

img-0136I was chatting with our resident trends researcher, Alyssa-San, the other day about Japanese Youth in their 20s and how they respond to different kinds of methodologies. Being a 20-something native Japanese herself, in addition to being an insights professional, she had some unique perspectives with regard to some recent projects we’d run.

First off, it’s important to say that the 20-something Youth segment is still the most important consumer segment in Japan. This is not an easy conclusion to come by when Japan’s aging society and demographic shift is so perceptible in all aspects of daily life. But it’s the nature of family, youth culture and how Japanese parents live vicariously through their children that make this segment so important. They are young, hip, have the most freedom and everybody wants to be like them… we want to know what they are wearing, listening to, eating and drinking… and where they are at all times! And of course what social media they are using! All the attention is on them and yet, they can be extremely elusive, hard to interview in research settings… and famously standoffish.

For example, we recently ran some ethnographic research related to fast food and youths aged 20-29. One startling thing we found in relation to prior studies was the completely different feedback we received when changing the setting & age of the interviewer. In a focus group setting moderated by interviewers a generation beyond our youths, 20-somethings would say they were “less inclined to eat fast food” out of social pressures and health concerns. And that’s about all they said much to the clients’ chagrin! These are the same standard answers that 30+yos give us all the time; and lead us to conclude that fast food is on the decline. But when out and about doing ethnos with a 20-something interviewer who is more like them, these youths give polar-opposite answers. “We love fast food.” “We want it faster and cheaper.” “We don’t mind junking out once or twice a week because we’re healthy and don’t need to worry about that stuff.” “We’re not that old yet!” “What we’d really like in fast food restaurants is great wi-fi and coupons because we like hanging out with our friends late at night and saving some cash while we’re at it.” Amongst their own cohort, they don’t want to worry about hierarchy, status and the social pressures raining down from above. The same is true with quant questionnaires and the perceived hierarchy and stiff nature of questioning related to those! They often answer with what they perceive ‘older’ parental types might want to hear!

If you’re a food & beverage or restaurant brand the above insight can be ‘make-or-break’ critical and comes down to the researcher, methodology as well as the setting.  Of course it’s largely dependent on research objectives as well. But one thing Alyssa and I are finding out; it’s getting a lot more fun talking to Japanese youths these days… and a lot less like pulling teeth!

by Jeffrey Brouse & Alyssa Nakata

Coming To Japan? Visuals to Inspire!

If you’re headed to Japan, then turn up your browser & your volume and check out this visual masterpiece! Then you’ll know why we love doing research here and ultimately, calling this place home! (Video is courtesy of Armadas Japan, amazing stuff).