From the moment Index Exchange announced our expansion into Japan back in April, I’ve been looking forward to discovering more about this unique market. Having never travelled to Asia before, I was a little nervous to enter a new territory of robots, manga and kawaiiness, but I left Tokyo with the utmost appreciation for their tradition-based culture and professional business conduct.
One thing resonated above all else: the need for complete cultural adaptation of everything we’ve done from a corporate marketing, communications and branding standpoint, which must be adjusted to succeed in this market.
It’s critical to adapt your corporate brand to resonate in certain markets, and Japan is one of those markets.
Since the nation’s culture and traditions are incorporated into nearly every element of how day-to-day business is conducted, incorporating elements of these traditions into one’s brand is crucial. Japan is an incredibly visual country, with bright, vibrant colours everywhere you look – from the neon signs in Shinjuku to the vivid red and black of the Sensō-ji. Unlike the West, where neutral, calming colours are the norm for most contemporary companies, Japan has a wide portfolio of colour palettes that communicate a wide breadth of specific meanings, such as red (strength), blue (fidelity), green (energy), purple (royalty) and pink (youth).
I visited the regional Japanese office of an American company which put these considerations into practice perfectly. The walls were made of bamboo and intricate origami matched to their corporate brand guideline colours.
Studying and understanding Japanese meeting etiquette before your trip is imperative.
Hierarchy, tradition and hospitality are paramount when doing business in Japan, and all three factors have a huge impact on decision-making and the effectiveness of business transactions. Coming from an industry that favours casual dress and spontaneous conversation, Westerners can often feel alarmed when witnessing this formality.
In Japan, it is common for individuals to remain in the same job for decades – some for their entire career. This is a very different trend than we see in the US, where most people switch jobs after 3 or 4 years. Because of the weighted importance on tenure, hierarchical elements exist in meetings. For example, the highest ranked employee sits furthest from the room’s door while the employee with the shortest tenure sits closest to the door.
Meeting promptness is also incredibly important. It was refreshing to see meetings start on time (being late is not an option, but alas, being early is frowned upon as well!) and to see the conversation stay focused and adhere to the agenda. While business cards have become less popular in recent years for Western cultures, they remain an important aspect of business etiquette in Japan. They are seen as an extension of one’s identity and each meeting starts with a trade of business cards, followed by a bow between every person in the meeting from opposite companies.
At the end of most meetings, there’s an exchange of gifts between both parties. This tradition has received a lot of attention from Western cultures, but many assume that any gift is appropriate. As you may have guessed, this is far from the case. For example, flowers such as lilies, lotus blossoms or camellias are used for funeral services and should therefore be avoided. During my time in Japan, I saw exchanges of biscuits, chocolates, sweets and small electronics.
I personally wish that more meetings in the US were run like Japanese meetings – very professional, hospitable, direct and to the point, with clear action items.
When you have the right team in place to lead your business into new territories, you have a higher chance of success.
While a strong team is vital for any team’s success, the importance of an adaptable, communicative and detail-oriented leadership team in a remote office cannot be emphasised strongly enough. Small details have a big impact in Tokyo, and having the right team to stay close to the pulse on these cultural sensitivities has helped us take great strides in a short amount of time.
Having established Index Exchange’s authenticity at a local level by ensuring we address colleagues properly, engage in appropriate meeting etiquette and localise our brand appropriately, we’ve been able to get to work on what matters most: understanding the Japanese programmatic ecosystem and how we can provide value to these customers.
Big thanks to Samir Chabab, Index Exchange’s Head of International, Marketing and Communications; Adele Wieser, Index Exchange’s Australian Country Manager; Will Doherty, Index Exchange’s Senior Vice President of Global Marketplace Development and Madoka Hull, Manager of Partner Development; who spent their week introducing me to this incredible city! They not only alleviated the majority of the stress that would typically come from a trip to a new Index Exchange market, but also made for some fun times at karaoke, the Robot Restaurant and exploring Harajuku!