One of the most intriguing things about the market research industry in Japan is just how small it is, compared with that in other advanced economies.
Outsiders who are exposed to research carried out by firms in this market often comment on the rather straightforward, data-driven nature of the work that tends to be done here.
The generation of clean, precise information as opposed to insights seems to be the emphasis in Japan. Further, the idea of tapping consumer-based measurements to make management decisions is not one that has really caught on.
Most clients we work with want to address an issue connected with return on investment in Japan. Thus, the foreign manager could find the lack of empathy for consumer research frustrating.
Managers need to work out how to realise the best results for the significant investments they need to make in the area of marketing and research. For them, marketing research is an established and important part of addressing the issue.
It is important to realise that the way work is done in Japan fits the needs of the Japanese—not foreign—manager.
The decision-making culture in Japan is completely different to that in Europe and the US. While I would need much more space to introduce—let alone discuss—these differences, when it comes to research I have realised that Japanese managers are loathe to make decisions based on a single source of information.
While Westerners will happily design research programmes that tick the boxes on all the important management decision-making unknowns, this is not something that sits well with Japanese. In fact, this type of research tends to make them extremely nervous.
Rather, Japanese seem to prefer to incorporate so-called definitive pieces of information into an understanding of the bigger picture—an approach with which I have a lot of sympathy.
In order to be successful, however, and to exert the level of control expected by the head office, a foreign manager should not be content to let research be merely advisory.
Indeed, research may be the only objective touchstone available when faced with colleagues and agencies pushing their agreed agenda on what works in Japan.
Maximising communication and having as many parties and points of view as possible involved in the process is a way to ensure that a foreign process does not feel imposed.
I have seen Western-style research programmes work superbly well in helping to uncover and define opportunities as well as deliver improved bottom-line business results in Japan. But you can’t go in cold.
Local management needs to be taken on the journey with you, and real change will only come once the ideas and processes have been accepted all the way down to the bottom.
The best advice is not to cut corners. Go through the whole process, use reliable research techniques tempered with your own wisdom and that of your research partner. Be prepared to educate and explain what is happening and how research helps.
Finally, I have never seen research implemented successfully in Japan where the most senior managers in the client firm did not get out front and centre to support it.
The best outcome is to arrive at a point where decisions are routinely taken with reference to the consumer. However, this will never happen without strong leadership.
Doing robust research is the first requirement. But creating a positive, evidence-based, decision-making culture is just as important.