Marketing Lessons From My Visit To Japan: Part 2

A Rube Goldberg Machine Beneath the Tsutenkaku Tower

We spent the afternoon in a lively Osaka neighborhood, Shinsekai, shopping, eating and people watching. The streets spider out from the central Tsutenkaku Tower in what I thought resembled a giant octopus. A fitting design because of the many Takoyaki restaurants in the area showcasing giant octopus signs overhead. But the layout of the streets made it hard for us to keep our bearings as we followed google maps back towards a train station. So we continued to wonder, captivated by the sights.

We turned down one alley called the “Weekend Priceless Market,” instantly delighted by the tiny shops with many handmade housewares, from rice bowls to woven cloths and clothing that boasted ingenuity and simple elegance from the land of origami, sensu (fan folding) and elaborate kimono obi bows. One shop even had a hand made Rube Goldberg machine with its own paper Glico running man who spun with the marble down one track, and row of mahjong tiles that cascade to a triumphant ending. That machine was the only worthy entertainment, in the entire trip, that allowed my husband and I to shop undisturbed by bored teenagers as long as we wanted.

But the free entertainment wasn’t the only thing I will remember for years to come. What struck me most about the shopping experience, was that with every purchase we made, the shopkeepers offered us a free gift. At the pottery shop, after I’d finished paying for my bundle of sake cups and rice bowls, she pointed to a basket full of little origami hashioki (chopstick rests) indicating that I should take five, one for each of our family members (all of whom she’d gotten to interact with because of the aforementioned Rube Goldberg machine, which she kindly reset over and over again for each of the kids to try several times).

At the animal print branded store down the alley a bit more, I spotted a lavender tulle skirt with slightly flared seams. I’d been wanting a skirt like this for decades. While paying for the item, my son wandered into the back of the shop to find me, and when the shop keeper saw him after handing me back my credit card and my bag, she smiled and went to a little closet in the back where she grabbed a whole bag of candies and gave it to him for free.

These simple acts of the Shinsekai shopkeepers reminded me of the importance of a free gift for solidifying a purchase. Which leads me to my first lesson for today’s blog…

Lesson 1: Give Something Extra

As illustrated in the story above, if you want to make your customers happy that they have purchased from you, there is no tactic better than giving away something extra with the purchase. Many e-commerce companies are also using this tactic to encourage a purchase, or to encourage reaching a threshold amount in your cart in order to receive the promised “free gift.”

But you can also use the “give something extra” principle in the form of bonuses that you add on to your sales page, increasing the perceived value of the item you are selling. According to Robert Cialdini, in his masterful book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, this principle also works because of our brain’s innate desire to reciprocate. When we are given something for free, we feel indebted to the giver and want to give something in return like our loyalty, a donation, or a purchase.

A Smile Is Worth A Thousand Amazon Packages

We were squished in tight on the JR train from Namba Station in Osaka, bound for Kobe. We had bought snacks in the station, but without seats, eating on the train, which is barely acceptable in Japan, was out of the question. So instead I spent the first half of the 45 minute journey watching Japanese ads on loop on the in-train screens. The ads were silent, so they all had writing on the screen accompanying each scene in the ad. But I had no idea what the ads were about of course, because the written words were all in Japanese. The only words I recognized came at the end of the ads when the brand’s logo would flash. By this point in my two week stay in Japan, most of these brands I recognized. 

Three of these ads are worth sharing about. One was by Amazon, another by Pfizer, and the third by the JR railway company who controlled the train I was riding. All three of these ads captured me because of the way the characters communicated their emotions so clearly on their faces.

The JR ad showed an animated mother frantically trying to reach her train on time. She faced a sea of people in long lines to buy tickets. But then, a special train pass magically appeared above her and her face quickly changed from worried and scared to relaxed and happy. She blissfully used her new card at the gate and walked effortlessly toward her train. The ad ended with her sipping a drink and relaxing on the train.

The next ad started out with a little Japanese girl, about 4 years old, getting ready for school. When her mother put her small backpack on her and placed a bright yellow hat on her head, her little face erupted in a smile. The next scene showed two elementary school boys gathered around the living room with their mother playing some kind of board game and laughing hysterically. The ad ended with a father on a bicycle with his small child tucked in the seat behind him and waving. Then the father waved and both broke into a huge smile as the camera panned up over a small town landscape with the sun setting.

The third ad was for Amazon. Though I watched the same ad three times, I kept missing the beginning of the ad. I could tell it was trying to tell a story, one that involved a young woman trying to catch a glimpse of a man on the other side of the street, but the racing cars and trucks between them made it impossible. Whatever the story was, it ended with the young woman harriedly arriving at an apartment hallway and then stopping and breaking into what looked like a knowing smile as the camera panned towards the pile of Amazon packages outside the door.

The looks of distress and the looks of pure pleasure on the faces of the actors in these ads made me feel those same emotions. And the strong emotions kept me hooked, watching and enjoying them over and over. These ads communicated to me emotionally, the second lesson for today’s blog.

Lesson 2: Connect With Your Audience Emotionally

The often repeated marketing adage goes like this; “People buy for emotional reasons and then justify with logic.” So what makes an ad the most successful is its ability to connect on an emotional level with the audience and make them feel something. There are basic emotions that most ads try to convey which are fear, pain and desire. Depending on what you are selling, you will lean more strongly towards one of these three when creating your ad.

The single most important thing is to not skip over the need to connect emotionally. Many marketers focus on the features and the benefits of the product they are selling and create an add that stays on the surface level. In order to create marketing that actually works, no matter the level of attention your audience gives it (think about me in Japan getting nothing from these ads except the emotionally message), you need to dig deeper into the emotions related to your product and create an ad that speaks with emotional language.

Next week I’ll share more marketing lessons from my trip to Japan as I continue to explore the basic principles of marketing that work accross all cultures and in every language. 

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Hi! I’m Annie Aaroe, a b2b email marketing strategist. To find out more about story-driven, conversion email copy and strategy that’s tailored for e-com apps and SaaS brands, visit my website,, or shoot me an email at

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