I travel to Japan frequently for business (read My Japanese Approach to Social Media Strategy for some background), so it is fascinating to see the unique developments in digital and social media marketing there. I know that many of my clients are Japanese-owned or sell to the Japanese market directly through a subsidiary or indirectly through a distributor, so I occasionally want to share my experiences in Japan with you. I believe it will give you a perspective as to where your company is on the digital transformation curve for marketing. This is an interview I did with one of the leaders in B2B marketing in Japan, Yutaka Hamaguchi of Bigbeat, that was originally published on their blog that I am publishing here with their permission.
Japanese businesses are in the midst of a crisis. The media reports of recent success of some SAAS businesses in Japan due to their strong marketing efforts have shown the value of marketing for B2B companies. Unfortunately, marketing as a distinct department never existed in most Japanese companies. Now that Japanese companies are trying to play catch-up in B2B marketing, they are finding that the talents to help them spearhead their B2B marketing initiatives simply do not exist. How did Japanese businesses find themselves in this problem and what are the potential solutions for companies looking to do B2B marketing in Japan?
It has been exciting to see the growth of B2B Marketing in Japan since the launch of the first event for B2B marketers in Japan, BigbeatLIVE (Disclaimer: I am an advisor for Bigbeat). BigbeatLIVE was launched by the B2B marketing agency called Bigbeat to call attention to the fact that not only was marketing not considered a strategic initiative in Japanese B2B companies, but that marketing was a critical function that can and should help guide company strategies.
In order to better understand this B2B marketing crisis, I had the chance to interview the founder and CEO of Bigbeat, Yutaka Hamaguchi.
Neal: Hi Yutaka! It has been nearly 2 ½ years since our joint seminar on B2B social media marketing in Tokyo! How are Japanese B2B companies faring recently in their marketing efforts?
Yutaka: Outside of Japan you probably know of the early successes of Japanese consumer electronic manufacturing companies, most notably Sony and Panasonic. You might not often hear of similar successes in Japanese B2B Industries. Recently, though, we’ve seen a growth of startups that have successfully fought against their huge domestic enterprise competitors such as NEC and Fujitsu to become leaders in their field. I’m talking about companies like Cybozu, which is known as Kintone in the United States, as well as companies such as SmartHR and Sansan, both of whom took advantage of the fact that LinkedIn is not yet strong in Japanese business circles to build robust platforms for talent management and business networking. The press have talked much about their successes in recent days.
Neal: It sounds like B2B marketing has been effective for these companies, then, no?
Yutaka: For these few successful companies, you are correct. Unfortunately, marketing as a distinct department really never existed in Japanese companies. Marketing as a function, however, has always existed, but it has always been managed across different departments. For many B2B marketers, they see that their function is one of merely sales promotion, often working under or inside a sales department. Product management however has traditionally been handled directly by R&D or manufacturing departments, so product marketers don’t exist here. It is in this environment in which B2B marketers have had to be very creative internally in order to lead their companies. Many of these successful B2B marketers have spoken about their struggles in depth at our BigbeatLIVE events (read this article if you are unfamiliar with our BigbeatLIVE events).
Neal: It sounds like B2B marketers in Japan don’t have the ability to keep up with the latest advances in marketing technology then?
Yutaka: Exactly. Without a distinct marketing budget they can only to lobby internally for money to invest. But even if they do acquire budget, they often are not successful due to their peculiar circumstance. Perhaps this is why the importing of the latest B2B marketing technologies from outside of Japan is not always properly and successfully implemented here. Marketing automation, or MA as it is widely known here in Japan, is one such example. A few years ago, there was a boom in companies trying to implement MA for successful B2B marketing, but their implementation was so poor, that it left a stigma on MA solutions that continues even until today. Combine this with the fact that LinkedIn is a B2B marketing platform is not yet strong here in Japan, and you see the challenges that faced B2B marketers here compared to their counterparts in North America or Europe.
Neal: I hear that Japan’s population is aging. Does that also effect things negatively?
Yutaka: Absolutely! The Japanese government is slowly allowing more professionals from outside countries to obtain work visas, the declining Japanese population means that finding experienced B2B marketers who speak Japanese and have worked inside a Japanese company becomes a challenge. Combine that with the fact that most B2B marketers have never been given the ability to truly manage B2B marketing initiatives inside their company, and you can see the crisis that Japanese businesses are currently facing.
Neal: I am curious if the tragic suicide of a young employee at Japan’s largest ad agency has changed how companies work as well?
Yutaka: After that suicide all agencies and marketers realized that there was a need for true work reform in Japan. While this reform is good for Japan, it does mean that there are fewer potential work hours due to companies not even being able to offer as much paid overtime anymore. This puts a further pressure on the labor shortage.
Neal: How has Bigbeat experienced this crisis? Don’t you face the same issue as a B2B marketing agency?
Yutaka: Bigbeat knows about this crisis firsthand, because our specialty is in working with foreign equity technology companies from North American and European countries that are looking to sell products and services to B2B customers in Japan. These are organizations that do have a marketing department here as they are fashioned off of their Global headquarters. So if there are companies that are in dire need of B2B marketers, it will show in these foreign equity companies. These are the same companies that over the last several months have confided in Bigbeat that they were looking for experienced marketers either to revamp their marketing efforts in Japan in Asia or launch them in the region. This is why we have invested and built an international department, hiring a few American marketers who also speak fluent Japanese, to further help our customers and lead them out of the crisis.
On a side note, we interviewed a number of these foreign equity B2B marketing executives in our post on the unique B2B marketing challenges for foreign companies in Japan if you wanted to learn more about this unique challenge they have.
Neal: So what are the possible solutions to help companies coming from overseas as well as here in Japan to overcome this lack of truly experienced B2B marketers in the workforce?
Yutaka: When we speak with our clients, we tell them that there are three different solutions, each one requiring a different amount of time and investment:
1. Educate. B2B marketers need to continually up their game and learn what is possible in the B2B marketing world around them. This means not only reading books and blog posts and attending BigbeatLIVE events (you can register for our next one here), but also actually attending conferences overseas where B2B marketers congregate. we covered some of these in our blog post the 8 things a modern B2B marketer needs to do today to be successful.
2. Reorganize. Perhaps the marketers you need are already in your company but they don’t have the power to implement their initiatives. If you already have marketers that aren’t in a marketing organization, the first step would actually two would be to create a unique marketing department reporting directly to the CEO where B2B marketing strategies can be formed and implemented strategically going forward.
3. Collaborate. Bigbeat’s focus, as you can see in our launch of the BigbeatLIVE event, has really been in helping companies large and small with their B2B marketing. We do this in a number of ways, such as helping companies localize their branding, teaching them best practices in B2B marketing here in Japan (such as the importance of paper branding in Japan), and helping them plan and manage lead generation events ranging from Expert Roundtables to broader industry conferences and even customer seminars. Some have even launched their global customer events here in Japan with our help. Read our advice on how to successfully manage B2B events in Japan here.
As you can imagine, the shortage of B2B marketers in Japan is only going to worsen as those companies that can pay higher salaries and offer greater freedom in a better working environment will attract the best B2B marketers here. If you’re looking for immediate help, you owe yourself a chance to reach out to Bigbeat and see what advice they might have for you. Even if you don’t need Bigbeat’s advice, you should definitely plan on joining hundreds of other B2B marketers at the next BigbeatLIVE in Tokyo, which will be on Friday, August 2. I will be there and hope to see you there too! Register for the event here: https://bigbeat.live/
Does your company do business in Japan? Will I see you at BigbeatLIVE? Let’s talk!