The Rise of Cynicism in Japan: Evidence From a 10-year study – Part I 1

By Kazuteru Tasaki and Apolline Coat

If it is possible to attribute a dominant mood to an era, ‘cynical’ might be the most suitable adjective to describe Japan in the 21st century. This is the conclusion drawn after ten years of social values tracking by RISKYBRAND Inc, in Tokyo. This conclusion has been reached by measuring the pulse of 4’000 Japanese consumers yearly since 2008.

Previously in the series we have looked at:

Now we look at how brands can adapt to this paradigm.

Don’t be nice, be different

“Empathy” has long been a central element of brand messaging in Japan. Rooted in the country’s harmony-loving mentality, unassertive communication – featuring cute animals or characters, vague positive words such as shiawase (happiness), mirai (future), shakai-no-tame (for the society) – has long characterized Japanese advertising.

Less-easily moved, critical consumers will increasingly perceive these empathy generators as overused clichés designed to trick them. They are adopting a ‘seen-it-all’ attitude towards brands, thinking, “what makes you really different?” As individualistic values rise, being ‘different’ is increasingly seen as positive. This is shown in the growing popularity of entrepreneurs – although still very low compared to the west – and influencers that start to disrupt Japan’s hegemonic salaryman model and self-effacing culture.

Beef up rationale and storytelling

Cynical-minded consumers are weary of traditional sales pitches, and question the claims presented to them. Catchy comparative promotional lines – such as “the lightest ever” or “the absolute performance” – will be interpreted with suspicion. To be credible, marketers must back their claims with evidences such as solid statistics, testimonials, product demonstrations and most importantly, a storyline that the consumer can relate to.

People could get cynical with celebrity-endorsement, too. Japanese advertising has long been unique in its heavy usage of celebrities. This once had a real influential power in a conformist culture welcoming them as relevant opinion leaders. Jaded consumers are expected to increasingly question the authenticity of celebrity endorsement, calling for a more product-focused communication.

Have a brand purpose grounded in reality

By allowing brands to reconnect with consumers, disenchanted with politics and in search of authenticity, brand purpose can appear as a remedy to consumer cynicism. Companies that demonstrate that their business can be profitable, while bringing something that really matters to people, will likely prosper.

However, marketers should refrain from inventing a purpose disconnected from consumer reality. Not all businesses can cast themselves as heroes tackling big society issues and critical consumers will severely punish corporations that they deem hypocritical or opportunistic.

Embrace the new luxury

While widening income gap fosters the emergence of a new class of wealthy, luxury consumption is under deep transformation. As people’s desire to ‘fit in’ decreases, conspicuous consumption loses importance as a social integrator. Moreover, in a context where most people can afford ‘expensive ‘items, sophisticated consumers will increasingly look for alternative forms of luxury that money can’t buy.

Brands need to fundamentally rethink their approach by shifting their narrative from social status assertion to a more subjective definition of luxury. Cynical consumers will show greater concern for the probity and soulfulness of what they buy, beyond quality and status. Storytelling that focuses on the face behind the creation, artists or origin will help injecting a sense of sincerity and realness to their offering.

Although the need for individual differentiation and social contribution seem contradictory, brands that emphasize provenance will be able to win both.

By Kazuteru Tasaki and Apolline Coat, RISKYBRAND Inc