With Naomi Osaka, brands can build Japan’s future as a global marketing force

Japanese brands today need a face that will resonate both locally and globally – something that Nissin, Citizen and Yonex recognised early on in signing Naomi Osaka – writes Yusuke Sonoda of Hakuhodo

Osaka chose Japan over America

Over the weekend, Naomi Osaka became the first Japanese tennis player to score a grand slam at the US Open championship. She beat tennis powerhouse Serena Williams in a match that was riddled with controversial calls from Williams as well as the referee.

Amid jeers from the crowd during the ceremony afterwards, Osaka maintained her composure and grace – emerging to become a true winner in more ways than one. This victory however may indicate a bigger shift that is about to happen in terms of how Japanese brands approach their marketing and communications.

Born in Japan to a Haitian-American father and Hokkaido-native Japanese mother, Osaka’s family moved to the United States when she was three years old to settle and start a life in Florida. Having been raised in America, Osaka barely speaks any Japanese. Having dual-citizenship of the US and Japan, she had the option of choosing which country to represent in the professional tennis career. She chose Japan.

For the average Japanese citizen, an individual is considered to be a fellow native if that person looks Japanese, grew up in the country and most importantly speaks the language. Osaka meets none of these criteria.

This scenario has produced questions like ‘Is Naomi Osaka Japanese?’ Or ‘Is she Japanese enough?’ And ultimately takes us to bigger questions like ‘What makes one Japanese?’ And ‘Who decides if one makes the cut or not?’

Netizen comments such as “I wonder if I can support her because I can’t really consider her as Japanese” or the more telling “She is more like Naomi Campbell rather than Naomi Osaka” shows that the traditional national stereotypes are being challenged by the emergence of multicultural Japanese natives gaining prominence on the global stage.

The traditional definitions are being challenged and are no longer fully applicable. This is a critical time in a country that has always been defined as mono-cultural, mono-racial and mono-linguistic. Being ranked a poor 157th out of 159 countries in relation to diversity, the country now must deal with change and evolution.

Gone are the days when Japanese brands had a much simpler choice: Market to the Japanese consumer through a celebrity endorser who is Japanese or a foreigner (usually Caucasian); the Japanese ambassador being used for familiarity – a face that one can relate to – or a foreign ambassador (Hugh Jackman for Toyota, for example) for aspiration, luxury and international prestige.

Companies have been comfortable with striking a balance between locally relevant versus global appeal, or mass appeal versus premium. Each had its pros and cons, but it generally worked in the past. Times have changed, as Osaka’s emergence proves.

While those two options used to work when Japan’s economy was healthy and its market had buying power, now the landscape has altered a great deal. The country’s annual economic growth has not been above 5 per cent for nearly 30 years. Meanwhile, the population of Japan reached its peak in 2010 and has been decreasing ever since. Companies have no choice but to expand overseas in order to guarantee their survival. The number of Japanese firms with offices abroad more than doubled between 2005 and 2017. The trend is already there.

So this forces Japanese brands to reconsider their traditional approach to marketing and communications. To ensure greater cost efficiency and consistency, Japanese brands today need a face that will resonate both locally and globally. Nissin, Citizen and Yonex recognised this early on when they signed Osaka to represent them.

She is one of the rare high-profile individuals with a global-Japanese background. She excels internationally and has the potential to makes waves at home and abroad. Yu Darvish, an Iranian-American-Japanese baseball star is another such example. This new wave of achievers will only grow in number over time. And this will subsequently open up opportunities for those Japanese brands with global ambitions..

It will help evolve the national identity while also giving Japanese brands an important place on the world stage. After all, history has shown that diversity and inclusivity are good for business.

As for the Japanese people, we will all slowly realise that that our national identity does not begin and end with our place of birth, our looks or our language. We will come to know that we do not get to dictate the terms of what makes a person ‘Japanese enough’.

The mono-cultural and mono-racial society of Japan may have worked in the past, when there was no real need for diversity. However, we have moved on to a different and better society today. Embracing Osaka and cultural diversity will pave the way to a stronger Japan in the future, not to mention the global marketing potential for brands.

So how important is Naomi Osaka? Well, she represents the future of Japan.

Sonoda sees a new future coming for Japanese brands and their marketing

Yusuke Sonoda is executive strategy director at Hakuhodo in Vietnam


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