Are you focusing on the right time of year for your customers?
by Melissa Francis
In Japan, business is heavily dictated by the changing seasons; a concept that is relatively undercut in the West. Leading cultural insight agency Tokyoesque consider how businesses could employ Japanese marketing tactics to increase profitability and customer loyalty.
Why are seasonal goods so crucial in Japan?
Research has shown that Japanese consumers tend to be attracted by products and experiences that are only available for a limited time. This includes goods related to popular culture franchises produced as part of a promotion for an upcoming or current media release. But one of the key examples that is relevant across all demographics is seasonal goods. As a nation that experiences four very distinct seasons, the shift from one to the next is a concept so entrenched within Japanese culture. It can be seen in the titles of classic films by director Yasujiro Ozu (Early Spring, The End of Autumn) to traditional matsuri (festivals) held throughout the year. From a commercial standpoint, brands often choose to align their offerings with the seasons to boost almost guaranteed interest and customer loyalty, as well as a boost in short-term sales.
Consumers expect brands to offer something that cannot be obtained any other time of the year. This is not only limited to physical goods, but also events or experiences that connect people with the intrigue of the season. Essentially, consumers want something that, on the one hand, feels familiar but that is different enough to encourage them to make a purchase. More than anything else, it’s important that these goods are worth sharing with others as this will allow them to deepen bonds and express their love of the season together. Given the massive influence of Instagram and Twitter in Japan, these are two key platforms through which to observe the way consumers interact with seasonal goods and to see what kinds of semiotic cues they use.
Spring, the sakura season
Spring in Japan is strongly associated with being the season when people ‘meet and say goodbye’ to one another. This is because the new school year begins in April and so it is a time for celebrating fresh beginnings. Brands tend to capitalise on this fact by releasing relevant goods that can help consumers move onto the next step in their lives. The phrase sakura saku is used when someone achieves something they have been striving for (such as passing entrance exams).
Each year, there is a report called the sakura zensen (cherry blossom frontline). This lets people know when the cherry blossoms will be in bloom, so they can plan when to do hanami (see them in large open public spaces). Blossoming starts as early as January in Okinawa, all the way through to May in Hokkaido. In Tokyo, this usually takes place from around mid-March. Sakura season is a time when families and friends come together to enjoy the beautiful Spring scenery, so there’s also a tendency towards purchasing limited-time sakura-inspired goods to celebrate the occasion.
Seasonality is a multi-sector affair, but the food and beverages sector is especially rife with new and innovative sakura-flavoured items. Of all FMCG sectors, beverages have one of the fastest new product turnaround rates, with many new flavour combinations and collaborations being released every month. Figures show, however, that total revenue from soft drinks in Japan has been declining steadily since 2016, which means brands will need to be more impactful if they want to create a lasting impression with a strong campaign.
Global brands create unique offerings for the Japanese market
Even the most prolific global food and drink chains, including the likes of Burger King, McDonald’s and Dominos are consistently coming up with new recipes specific to the Japanese market (see Burger King’s coloured burgers). These brands know that in order to stand out from local competition, they have to offer items that will satisfy Japanese consumers’ innate attraction towards innovation and novelty. Running with seasonal themes creates an ideal opportunity space in which to do this.
Both local and foreign coffee shop chains (particularly Tully’s and Starbucks) are known for embracing the concept of limited-time seasonality when it comes to their cake and hot drink selections. For instance, Starbucks Japan has created this lineup this year consisting of a ‘Sakuraful’ cherry blossom flavoured frappuccino and tumblers featuring a sakura pattern. During the Spring season, hotel patissiers and specialist shops make a point to craft new and trendy desserts that include either sakura, the more perennial matcha, or fruits such as strawberries as key ingredients. Customers visiting these locations are often happy to join a long queue to try out a new or limited-time item.
How to make the most of seasonal trends
If your business is looking for a way to connect with Japanese consumers, aligning your brand with selected features and aspects typically associated with a certain season (or an occasion such as Christmas or Valentines Day) can make your campaign more memorable as a foreign company. But any messages and visuals produced will need to demonstrate a solid understanding of what the season means to locals, or you risk losing traction.
Tokyoesque can work with your business to generate consumer insights from a cultural perspective that are relevant to your product or service. Discover how doing this could give you greater credibility in Japan today.