Christmas, as redefined by Japan's brand marketers

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By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on December 4, 2006

Christmas, as redefined by Japan's brand marketers

Christmas in Japan is an unusual experience, and one that marketers can benefit from if they understand the culture, the history, and the attitudes of consumers, according to Evo Research, which offered The Wise Marketer some timely advice.

Christmas in Japan can be a lonely time for those Westerners who are unable to return home to their families, roast dinners, log fires and presents under the tree. This is because Christmas in Japan is barely recognisable to Westerners.

Not surprisingly, it is not a national holiday, so there are suited people going on their daily commute as usual, and very little understanding of why Christmas is celebrated in the west, with surprisingly few Japanese consumers even guessing the links with Christianity. According to Neil Cantle of Evo Research, some think that perhaps Jesus died on that day, and others are left wondering if it is Santa's birthday. In Japan, then, Christmas can be very much a collage of imagery, with department store marketers borrowing from every western holiday theme; One even displayed the Virgin Mary on a broomstick, and another depicted Santa Claus on a cross.

Christmas in Japan Christmas was first introduced to Japan in the 16th century by a missionary named St Francis Xavier, but was later outlawed. After eventually re-surfacing in the 1930s, it has only really started to become popular in the past few decades. It is easy to imagine that Christmas is simply misunderstood by the Japanese, who are always keen to embrace new cultures and their celebrations. But a Japanese Christmas can be well understood in the context of marketing and brands.

In Japan, Christmas Eve is generally considered to be more important than Christmas Day. Christmas Eve feels more like Valentines Day, with young couples usually enjoying a romantic evening together. So hotels and restaurants are packed out with young couples, and many also take a trip together to the countryside to visit Onsen (public hot springs). It is also a booming period for so-called 'Love Hotels' (cheap hotels offering one-night stays or even 2-hour stops).

And the theme park industry is another one that gets a welcome boost from couples enjoying a day out at Tokyo Disneyland or Odaiba (a town by the river which has romantic city views of Tokyo).

Gift giving People also exchange their gifts on Christmas Eve. And of course there is the usual pressure to buy a more expensive gift than ever for loved ones or friends. Cute cuddly toys may feature heavily at theme parks, but luxury goods (such as jewellery and designer brands like Louis Vuitton) are the order of the day for gift-givers.

Most interestingly, parents will give presents to their children, but not the reverse. The thinking being this custom is that Santa Claus can only give gifts to those who believe in him, so when you grow up and stop believing in him, you also stop receiving presents.

Christmas dinner The brand with the strongest association with Christmas is, believe it or not, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). At Christmas, just about every married worker stops at a KFC on the commute home in order to share a bucket of chicken with his family. Although it could be argued that it is far from being a traditional Christmas dinner, it is certainly an extremely widespread custom. The roots of this tradition are simple enough: It comes from a clever campaign when KFC realised there was a slight resemblance between its Colonel Sanders and Santa Claus. Due to the Japanese love of 'kawaii' (meaning "cute"), the campaign succeeded, and now at least one Colonel Sanders mannequin is dressed as Santa Claus in every branch at Christmas time.

Christmas cake The Japanese are cake lovers and Christmas would not be complete with it. The fluffy Christmas Cake, decorated with cream and strawberries, is another icon of Christmas in Japan. The roots of the tradition came from a well-measured marketing campaign by the sweet manufacturer, Fujiya (a Japanese equivalent of Cadbury's). Fujiya realised that cake was a traditional part of Christmas in other countries, so the company decided to make one itself - featuring Santa's colours of red and white (the same colours employed by Coca Cola in its 1930s popularisation of the Santa Claus image). Fujiya came up with a sponge cake covered in cream and then added a few strawberries, and that Christmas Cake was so popular that it became a firm tradition.

The marketing of Christmas Japanese department stores also cash in on Christmas. Decorations, trees (all artificial, as there is no real Christmas tree trade), and lights are dragged out, along with a multitude of retail special offers. Another phenomenon of Christmas in Japan is 'fukubukuro' ("bags of happiness"), in which customers pay the equivalent of about £100 for a sealed bag containing mystery items, usually worth more than the amount paid.

So, according to Cantle, brands and marketing can shape our view of what Christmas is: "In the UK, Christmas traditions are already in place so brands will aim to feed into emotions and feeling associated with those traditions. Roses [chocolates] and Radio Times [a TV guide] will emphasize the emotions associated with the custom of the family spending time together watching TV and eating chocolates. But in Japan, Christmas is a more recent phenomenon and brands can be more active in defining Christmas traditions in the same way that Coca Cola was able to do in the west."

Neil Cantle is an international researcher for Evo Research & Consulting in the UK, and lived and worked in Japan for four years.

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