Getting in touch with markets and making yourself and your story understood by businesses on the other side of the planet is one of the major challenges for Japanese companies. Therefore, Aalto International Japan, a Japanese branding consulting firm, and Storymaker, a German communications agency are now cooperating to support Japanese companies in Europe – with a Japanese and a European perspective combined. Mariko Fukui, CEO and founder of Aalto, and Bjoern Eichstaedt, Managing Partner of Storymaker, explain about the backstory of their cooperation and what they want to achieve for Japanese companies in the future.
Mariko, Bjoern, you both have made it your mission to help technology-based Japanese companies improve their communication in Europe. How did you become interested in this?
Bjoern: I had been working at Storymaker, a PR and communication agency with a focus on technology-driven companies, for almost ten years when I embarked on our Japan business. It was the result of my personal interest in Japan. What started as a love for Japanese anime and video games in my childhood gradually turned into a live-long fascination with this island. When I spend my honeymoon there in 2010, I first started to notice the abundance of interesting Japanese companies, most of which offered brilliant technology, but were completely unknown to me. On subsequent holidays, I started writing down the names of promising businesses, only to find that the overwhelming majority already had a presence in Europe – in some cases even in Germany. And yet, I had never heard of them. That was when I realized: There is a big communication challenge here between Japan and Europe. And I wanted to do something about it.
Mariko: Aalto is working with Japanese clients to build their global brand strategy and strengthen their international communication, mainly working on global-scale projects for re-branding and brand integration. I have always believed in the power and possibilities of technology companies. My father was in the field of science and technology himself, so I grew up in an environment where I was surrounded by technology, and this topic was talked about constantly. . Then came the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which caused massive destruction in the region – our house completely collapsed, and we lost our home. I don’t know where we would have been without the immense support from the people around us, who helped my family get through this difficult time. I wanted to give back and made it my life’s mission to make the world a better place, and I felt like technology would be one of the key factors in achieving this. And through my experiences living in Germany and attending business school in France, I strongly believed that there are lots of things to be done for Japanese companies. I decided that my contribution to driving the success of technology companies would be from a communication perspective: Creating a brand presence in the world and – helping technology companies which develop great technology for society.
How did you build up your business from there?
Bjoern: Getting started certainly wasn’t easy. I began by prowling through my network for anyone remotely related to Japan. That was in 2012. The result: One Japanese PR manager who worked as an expat for a Japanese agency. We started talking, discussing my plans and becoming friends in the process. Our first Japan project, a big press conference for sanitary giant TOTO, in large part came about thanks to him. Next was our first project for Panasonic. Both were somehow successful, but I realized that getting the headquarters in Japan involved would be essential for initiating a real change in the communication approach. So I went on my first business trip to Japan in 2013 and slowly, painstakingly, built my network – one meeting at a time. On the way, I gained valuable insights into the way Japanese companies and media operate. I have kept this up until now – 2019 marked my 40th trip to Japan.
Mariko: Although I came at this issue from a different perspective, I can certainly relate to some of the struggles Bjoern is describing. After university I started my career at a PR agency in Hakuhodo group as a PR planner. Then I joined a Japanese venture company which had just launched the first overseas office in Singapore. My responsibilities included strategic planning and overseas business development. In Singapore I went cold-calling up to at least 100 companies in a day, doing walk-in sales and trying everything to develop a client base. There were times where I couldn’t get a single appointment in a day. I experienced first-hand how difficult it is to develop a business in a market where no one knows who you are. And I asked myself: “How would I approach that differently? What could be done better?” As a result, I founded my own boutique PR agency, Aalto, to support technology companies with their global brand communication strategy. So far, we have realized projects in 31 countries, with a focus on the European market.
Why do you think Japanese companies struggle with communication in Europe?
Mariko: Perhaps the biggest challenge is that many Japanese companies don’t realize how important communication is to the overall business success. They tend to focus strongly on sales activities when entering a market. This is of course a sensible step, but success will be limited without a communication strategy to go with it. Imagine you are the head of purchasing and you get a call from a company you have never heard of. When you do your research, you realize that the last news is from a year ago, there is no social media presence, and the website lacks essential information. Would you consider working with this company? The specs and the quality of the product is not enough when there is no effective way to communicate it to potential customers and the market. Often, these companies don’t realize that a first impression has already been formed before the first meeting ever happens.
Bjoern: And even if they want to communicate, there is the struggle of how to do it. The communication landscape in Japan is well organized, but it is also tailor-made for the Japanese market alone. What works perfectly in the local market cannot simply be reproduced in Europe, where both the culture and the market conditions differ strongly from Japan. For example, Japanese companies often feel uncomfortable loudly announcing their presence when entering a market. Within Japan, a new company will make themselves known through organized activities like business card exchange events or nomikai. This does not work in Europe, and communication is often less standardized. This can make it very challenging for Japanese companies to gain attention in Europe.
How do you think your cooperation can mend this?
Mariko: Although we develop brand strategies on a global level, we have seen that Europe is becoming more and more important for Japanese companies. Having a partner there with a deep understanding of the conditions in Europe, as well as the particular needs of our Japanese clients, has proven to be extremely important. Time and time again, we have seen European agencies struggle with the Japanese business mentality. With Storymaker, this is not the case, and we are sure that we found a reliable partner for the future.
Bjoern: Aalto and Storymaker have some things in common: both support Japanese companies in their communication towards Europe, and both have a strong focus on technology and B2B. But we are coming at this same issue from two different perspectives: a Japanese one and a European one. We are convinced that bringing both together will result in even better solutions for our customers and will help them to tell their story to the European markets.