Or, how to pull off marketing communications in times like these
“Breaking borders. Connecting dots.” That’s what two young men in Shibuya, Tokyo aim to do. Many encounter barriers when they enter the Japanese market, when they rebrand, or even just launch a new product because it means the marketing, public relations and advertising functions need to closely collaborate.
This is when you need integrated communication and thoughtful design, say Kotaro Asano, communication expert, and Mio Sasaki, art director. They’re set out to provide exactly that.
Catching up for the first time since working alongside Kotaro at international PR agency MSL Japan, I asked the co-founders why they launched during a pandemic, about their advice for those considering going independent, and their “octopus model” of service.
In other words, we “talked shop.” Check it out below.
(For the Japanese, click here)
In the two years since the outbreak of the pandemic, what kind of changes have you seen in communications activities in Japan?
Kotaro: There has been some change. For example, press conferences and media roundtables have gone online, large-scale events have been canceled and channels you’d normally use to reach consumers have been cut off. So we’ve had to rework some of your tactics and approaches.
On the other hand, the basics haven’t changed. You still need to think about how to create and maintain relationships with customers and consumers. So in that sense, much of my work has stayed the same.
Have you felt the need to learn new skills?
Kotaro: Yes, but not because of the pandemic. Communications professionals need to be able to look at the whole picture: sales, marketing, business development, etc.; not just PR.
Since working in an agency, I’ve realized that the marketing, advertising, PR, branding, inside sales and other functions are very “siloed.” As a result, in Japan, there aren’t many agencies that can holistically discuss and create the best strategy from the wide range of choices, at the right time, to provide the best service.
Advertising, PR, digital marketing and other functions tend to make decisions independently and pitch their own ideas. Many times I’ve personally witnessed this leading to underachieving or missing the mark.
That’s why Mio and I decided to tackle marketing communication from a bird’s eye view so that we can create lean and effective strategies and ensure they are properly implemented. To support that, we update our knowledge and skills flexibly and often.
Sometimes one agency will take the lead that doesn’t have the general expertise, or the client will try to coordinate each agency themselves internally despite lack of experience.
This can lead to problems and make it very easy to miss business goals.
I borrowed this graphic from your website. Honestly, it looks kind of like an octopus. Do you mind if I call it the “octopus model”?
Mio: “Octopus model,” what an interesting way to put it. That’s fair.
Lately, I hear a lot about how hiring experienced talent is difficult due to the labor shortage. Some might rush through the hiring process when they do find someone, but we offer a solution to this: instead, they can rely on us to work with them, as their team member.
With a pro on the team, it’s much easier to take advantage of the strengths of each agency in order to reach business goals cost-effectively.
What are the 3 most important points to forming a good relationship with a client?
Mio: This is a really basic skill, but I think the most important thing is to communicate at the right points with your client. The next most important is to listen closely to your client’s views and goals and present your expert opinion based on those. Lastly, is that you need to produce results.
Roselle: Before communicating for your client, you need to be effectively communicating with your client.
I think we’re all nodding at this.
Please share a highlight of your work this past year. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
We developed the rebranding plan for a flower shop that has been in business for over 30 years. This included redeveloping their logo, communication tools, the shop, website and more to broaden their appeal to consumers in their 20s and 30s who lived in the area.
They requested that we maintain their brand image and vision while also updating other aspects of their brand ― and at the same time appealing to new customers while maintaining a sense of familiarity among their established customers. It was quite a challenge.
First off, we made sure to understand all of our client’s desires but also assessed them through our own experience. By spending most of our time listening to our client we learned a lot about their vision, their priorities, what was going well and not so well with their business.
Thus, we were able to identify what to prioritize and move from there.
This led us to “top technique that always amazes” for the brand image, which we then wove through each element. Thanks to this, we were able to preserve their relationship with existing customers.
With this new brand image, we completely recreated their website, logo, etc., and were able to maintain the trust of existing customers while also helping acquire new customers. In fact, the launch was so successful that 80% of their new customers became repeat customers.
Roselle: It’s common sense that you need to retain existing customers because of their “customer lifetime value” (CLV), to borrow a bit of marketing speak.
It sounds like that need, and the need for new business informed your strategy.
Do you have any advice for companies or brands looking to enter the Japanese market or improve their communications there?
Kotaro: It’s critical to partner with someone who knows the local market because it is not easy to overcome the fallout from mismanaged communication arising from failed positioning, branding or messaging. A launch is the best time to use your resources effectively by leveraging a local expert, who can then help you continue to communicate well in the market.
You should avoid partnering with people who may seem like they know the market but turn out to be complete beginners. It’s a common case. Even if their background is impressive, they may not have had any major responsibilities in the projects they listed ― they were just on the team.
To avoid this pitfall, make sure to do reference checks with their former clients and services (whose projects they led), and ask the specifics of their achievements.
What kind of trends are you watching in the communications space? Why?
Mio: This might not be what you’re looking for, but honestly I’m just on the look out all the time. For example, I’ll check the newspaper, online news, magazines, social media, investment information, and long-tail content such as Pinterest in addition to gathering information from those around me. This includes those in Japan and abroad.
Please offer some advice to those who are thinking of starting their own communications business.
Kotaro: Not to emphasize the obvious, but it’s crucial to partner with good companies, products and clients. At each opportunity, you should get down in the trenches with your clients and teammates to ensure the success of each project. This will really guide your career.
Mio: You can only do so much by yourself. That’s why to achieve something big you need to find a partner(s), set a goal together, and move towards it step by step. To make this possible, of course, you need to be able to form business relationships and communicate well with your partners. Then, the rest will fall into place.
Roselle: Thank you very much for sharing your insights. I’m excited to see what’s coming for you and your company.
Wonderhoods Cofounder / Producer Kotaro Asano
Serving on the teams of many global companies at a foreign-affiliated public relations agency, Kotaro has a wealth of experience in communications: from media relations to Japan-entry press conferences to strategic planning of PR activities aimed at increasing sales and awareness.
Several years ago, he went independent to support clients in both PR and marketing. After supporting multiple B2B clients (IT, manufacturing, materials) and producing TV ads and digital video ads, he co-founded Wonderhoods K.K. in 2021, where he holistically supports the marketing communications of global companies in Japan.
Wonderhoods Co-founder / Art Director Mio Sasaki
Mio studied design in the United States then worked as a designer / art director at a design company in Japan handling everything from product design to branding. He values “building work relationships where you can be open about your strengths and weaknesses.” By contributing his years of experience solving a range of business problems via branding and art direction, Mio hopes to help people all over the world.