Cultural beliefs run deep in Japan

In a country known for its complex cultural sensitivies, brands that take the time and effort to understand ‘why’ will ultimately win, says Richard Hwang

I’m sure many of you have heard the old idiom: Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. The original was actually ‘moccasins’, not shoes, in Judge Softly, a poem written by Mary T Lathrap in 1895. Over the course of a hundred plus years, this has gone through many variations but, at the core, it’s about empathy and the importance of understanding and sharing someone else’s experiences and emotions.

Embracing other people’s thoughts and actions without prejudice and judgment from your own preconceptions is easier said than done. It’s hard enough with our immediate family, but if we apply this against a backdrop of a different country and culture, the difficulty multiplies exponentially.

In Japan, the playbook of culture has some elements that are thousands of years old

As the third biggest economy in the world, Japan is an attractive market for international brands. Many enter with an ethnocentric perspective where they apply the same success model without much cultural adaptation. While this may work in the short-term, it’s not sustainable. Understandably these brands don’t want to lose their brand propositions, but by the time they figure out that they need to balance their offering to the unmet gaps of the customers, the damage is often already done.

Healthcare brands are no exception. At Hall & Partners Japan, we’ve come across brands that tried the ethnocentric model but without success.

Take pain management. We know the what: Japanese patients use fewer pain meds than comparable patients elsewhere, and doctors prescribe fewer. Global makers of pain treatments have struggled to get underneath this fact and explain why their global marketing strategies don’t take hold.

What’s the missing piece? It’s something that’s all around us but hiding in plain sight: culture. The ‘rules of the game’ that people in a society play every day to make their lives meaningful. Its effects are easy to spot in a million behaviours, but the playbook itself is tricky to pin down – an exercise in pattern – recognition. In a place like Japan, the playbook of culture has some elements that are thousands of years old, and others that were laid down in the 21st century. They interact in intricate ways.

Gaman 我慢 “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity”

When we want to know why patients, doctors or caregivers are behaving a certain way, we look for elements of the cultural playbook that they’re manifesting. Ethnographic, observational, in-context methods are the go-to approaches, with lots of attention to the semiotic environment that constantly sends out messages about what matters.

When it comes to pain relief, there at least two cultural principles to consider. One is Gaman, a concept rooted in Zen Buddhism. It means ‘perseverance’ but in reality it connotes a way of life, a willingness to deny your own wishes for the greater cause of fitting harmoniously into a group. The older generation feels that having Gaman shows maturity and strength; the younger, perhaps not so much – culture does change over time. Gaman helps Japanese people put up with internal, organic pain, so they don’t bother others with their complaints. But seeking pain relief for something like a sore shoulder is okay, and that’s where the other cultural principle comes into play: risk aversion. If they do seek pain relief, they’ll look for the product that has minimal side effects.

Understanding how culture shapes attitudes to pain therapy is crucial from both healthcare practitioner and patient perspectives

Bufferin became successful in Japan by navigating through these cross-cutting cultural codes: it took aim at the kinds of pain people are willing to treat, and then spoke to their concern about side effects by offering an appealing tagline, created by Targis, an Omnicom company: Half of Bufferin is made from kindness. This has helped it grow to become one of Japan’s top-of-mind pain relievers.

Understanding how cultural precepts like these can shape attitudes is crucial. Making the effort may be hard to justify in terms of immediate ROI, but failing to do so pretty much guarantees that your marketing strategy will crash and burn or, at best, limp along aimlessly. Digging into the complexities of culture is what the business world does when it needs to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Richard Hwang
Richard Hwang
Hall & Partners

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