Marketing Lessons From My Visit To Japan: Part 4
In my last article I wrote about Japanese efficiency and specifically their love of forming lines. I wrote about the clarity and comfort that comes from knowing what comes next, from orderliness and easy progress in a group to reach a common goal. But today I want to unpack something that, as I continue to reflect on my time in Japan, I’ve realized is even more essential to the impact this country had on me. I’m seeking to uncover the cultural groundwork that feeds what I experienced so profoundly. Japanese efficiency works, and it is astounding. But I don’t think this efficiency is built on a concept of benefiting the individual, though that was my ultimate takeaway for copywriters. It seems more likely that the systems are built around the collective benefit. Embedded in Japanese cultural norms is a basic reverence for the people around you.
I was so struck by what I encountered of the normal Japanese way of life. Specifically by their consideration of others and the lengths they will go to help you if you need it. I had numerous Japanese people pop up out of nowhere in our time of need to point us in the right direction. They seemed unbothered by a request for help, and would drop whatever they were doing to assist, even for an entire hour or half a mile out of their way, until the problem was solved. The different levels of bowing to one another, depending on the situation, can’t help but make you pause and consider the other person in the present moment.
But I was also impacted by simple things. Like their conscientiousness on the subway. Every Japanese person I saw would uncross their legs, move their backpacks to the front of their bodies and sometimes even stand without holding on to anything, when the train got very crowded. No one talks on their cell phones, or eats a meal, or even gets loud with their friends (this last one was less true for young people, drunk people, and more rural areas). Every commercial interaction, no matter how small, ends with a slight bow and a two handed presentation of the receipt. Every single one, even if you just buy a bottle of water at the corner store. Wherever we went I was struck by the quiet concentration, the keeping to yourselves, and the formality of every interaction. It seems no interaction is calloused, nothing is thrown away. There is intention, even if it’s ingrained by one’s upbringing into habit, with every part of the day.
In just two weeks, these common interactions and being in the presence of this very different (from what I am used to as an American) way of conducting society, touched me deeply. It gave me a sense of belonging, a different sense of time and space, of the moment, every moment, but especially those that involve others, really holding something more.
So how does all of that relate to marketing?
Well, in most cases, I don’t think it does. But I think it could… and I even think it should, and that’s what I’m here to write about today.
I envision a world where marketing is a force for good, a force for connecting people, a source of telling cultural stories that build each other up and create an economy of makers and thinkers and dreamers. But there is a different force at work, and most marketing, even my own, falls under a different sort of category. The impetus in this other kind of marketing is purely profit, and when short-term profit, “the quick buck” is blindly sought after, then the fastest way to get there is a race to the bottom. We put out marketing messages that deceive and cajole. We are misleading in our messages if we have to be, because we know what works. We easily draw on fears. preying on people’s weakest, darkest thoughts, and poking at their insecurities. Even if this kind of approach only works long enough to get the sale, which if you look at the diet and weight loss industry alone, obviously that’s exactly what’s going on, if there’s profit, it’s worth it.
But is it really worth it? What world are we building here?
To draw out this argument let me pull from something I only touched on in my experience of Japanese culture, which is the presence, the reverence, and the centralized interaction with nature in everyday life. I don’t have a ton of knowledge on this topic, mostly just what I’ve been told in passing by those who know more, and what I experienced personally in my two week stay in Japan. But one image that will always stay with me is the layout of the little Japanese house that we rented for three days in Kyoto. In the center of the house was a small roofless garden. The house was built around the garden on three sides, with the neighbor’s wall making up the fourth side of the small rectangular garden. Three rooms in the house opened into the garden with sliding glass doors or large picture windows. We could also see a part of this garden from the second floor window of the master bedroom. A booklet that accompanied the rental explained this was a traditional part of Japanese architecture as a way of reminding us of the importance of nature in our everyday lives. When we took at train through the country, it seemed every house had a carefully curated garden on one or two sides of their house. The other way I saw the Japanese reverence for nature was in the food, which was all carefully and freshly prepared, even down to the pre-packaged meals sold in the corner stores. Not everything available to eat in Japan is necessarily “healthy.” but there is a level of quality that’s standard everywhere. I believe this in part comes from their reverence for natural food sources; the sea, the fields, the farms and the weather.
The Japanese reverence for both nature and other people, is ingrained into everyday life. Though I don’t want to romanticize or generalize about an entire group made up of millions of people over thousands of years, I suspect both the earth and societies around the world would be better off if we all had more of this reverence in our daily lives.
Which brings me back to marketing. I think that we marketers have much to learn from the Japanese forms of respect and conscientiousness. As copywriters, we are trained to empathize deeply with our audience, to understand their motivations, their secret thoughts, even their subconscious thoughts. But do we bring along with us in this search for understanding, a reverence for that which we discover? Are we mindful of how our actions (words) will affect the other people, beyond simply the outcome we are looking for, and does that knowledge affect how we conduct ourselves as marketers?
But this is not simply a call to integrity and moral ethics in our marketing, this is actually about becoming better marketers. I really think that by incorporating a sense of reverence for the people around us, and consistently evaluating our actions based on how they will affect the other, and limiting even the smallest discomforts and inconveniences, we gain access to a deeper world in our prospects, something that every person craves, and seeks out on a daily basis. I’m talking about connection to the group, to the people around you. If you are lucky enough to have a healthy relationship with a significant other, or a roommate, or your children, then you can form these types of meaningful, thoughtful connections on a daily basis. But not everyone has that, and certainly no one has that perfectly. But we can widen our sphere of connection by incorporating reverence for all life into our marketing. Marketing is always aimed at having an impact, but if that impact can be positive, then we have touched the world around us in a way that has massive implications.
And if we sell some good products along the way, even better.
Hi! I’m Annie Aaroe, a b2b marketing strategist. To find out more about story-driven, conversion copy and strategy that’s tailored for tech and SaaS brands, visit my website, aaroewriting.com, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.