Business Technology

What can UK SMEs learn from the second Japanese business generation?

7 min read

06 July 2015

Japanese forex trading platform Z.com Trade recently launched in London. Its CEO, Tomitaka Ishimura, discusses what sets Japanese businesses apart – from considering customer service a given, to holding onto their heritage while localising enough to appeal to new markets.

From Rolls-Royce to Burberry, Twinings Tea to Cath Kidston, there is no shortage of UK brands that have captured the hearts and imaginations of audiences across Asia.

Equally, we’re experiencing a large boom in the number of Asian brands – particularly electronics manufacturers, such as Huawei, LG and Samsung – looking to rival Western companies here in the UK, similar to the earlier successes seen by the likes of Toyota, Panasonic, Nintendo and Canon in the 80s.

However, alongside a renewed enthusiasm for gadgets and gizmos from the Far East, there is another emerging market rising to the forefront of Britain’s consumer and business consciousness – a second wave of fresh and flexible Japanese brands, like Uniqlo, Muji and Rakuten who have focused on delivering a philosophy as much as a product.

But what is it that these companies offer the UK that’s different from home-grown businesses and why should they be welcomed? As relative newcomers to these shores ourselves, it’s something we considered carefully ahead of Z.com Trade’s London launch, so here are three of our own observations:

(1) “The customer is king” doesn’t cut it

In Japan, there is no tipping culture at all – in fact, you’re likely to insult someone by leaving a few coins on the table, or have them run after you to return your forgotten change. And why? Because impeccable customer service and hospitality – or omotenashi in Japanese – is not something that should need to be rewarded. In the Japanese’s eyes, it’s a given.

This perfectly encapsulates a pivotal characteristic of modern Japanese brands – nothing is more important than customer satisfaction, both in terms of the product they offer and the way they engage, and they will dedicate hours to perfecting the art. And as the number of channels where people can share their opinions and experiences of brands rapidly multiplies, this attention to detail won’t go amiss.

That is not to say that there aren’t some fantastic examples of British brands with outstanding customer services – ASOS’ returns solution and Lush’s careful selection of enthusiastic shop floor staff demonstrate this. But, when it comes to giving customers the VIP treatment, the Japanese would argue that there should be no ulterior motive, regardless of how much money a customer spends or where they shop – perhaps something UK brands could look to replicate.

(2) Visions of the future

Patience is a virtue – and Japanese corporations have it by the bucket load, which is why so many have been passed down through multiple generations and why even the youngest, smallest ventures will prioritise long-term profitability over rushed but immediate results.

Their commitment to the future is not to be confused with rigidness – newer Japanese brands in particular are quick to react to changes or opportunities in the market. Rakuten, for example, acquired the Kobo e-book reader and Wuaki.tv video on-demand service when it saw growing interest in the two types of product, and was also one of the leading investors in Pinterest in 2012.

However, what’s important to note is that Japanese brands will take their time to gradually and continuously improve their product or service, building long-standing relationships with their customers and taking all feedback on board to ensure that they have something unique to offer, created in collaboration with the people who are going to use it. For UK businesses looking to achieve longevity, remember that it’s not necessarily the first to market that gains loyalty – slow and steady can often win the race.

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(3) Embracing roots and heritage

Finally, while it may seem obvious, many modern Japanese brands wear their cultural badge with pride. They do localise themselves to a certain extent, but by choosing to hold on to their heritage and retain a distinctly Japanese identity, they inherently challenge perceptions of the status quo and provide diversity in the market.

For example, when we launched Z.com Trade in the UK, we partnered with a popular Japanese band to create an all-singing, all-dancing music video to announce our arrival. It would be an unusual launch approach for a UK company, particularly those working in finance, but in our native Japan, where our ‘typical’ traders are often normal members of the public, we would always tackle challenges with an approach that catered to a far wider audience than just those working as financial professionals. We didn’t want to conform to preconceptions of the industry – we wanted to offer something different.

Equally, when UK companies enter a foreign market, while they should adapt their product or services to suit consumer needs – Starbucks is a great Western example – being proud of their British heritage is one of the strongest ways they can distinguish themselves, adding an almost exotic value and giving customers real choice.

The world is getting smaller every day and international success stories are now emerging from all four corners to the globe. But we shouldn’t be intimidated by these ventures coming to our borders and rather enjoy the unique philosophies foreign businesses can bring through expansion. At the end of the day, the more experiences and ideas our businesses can share with one another, the quicker the world will progress and grow to new heights of innovation.

Image: Shutterstock

Tomitaka Ishimura is CEO of Japanese forex trading platform, Z.com Trade.