The World: Insider's view - Japan

A consumer-centric ideology has helped Japanese business to flourish. But as customer demand evolves, so must the vision of companies not wishing to be left behind, Hiroshi Tanaka says.

What do Campaign readers think about Japan? At a time when the images of other Asian countries have come into sharp focus, I suspect that Japan has become a bit of a blur to Western eyes.

From our annual global HABIT survey of consumers in 31 cities worldwide conducted since 2000, we at Hakuhodo know that Japan's reputation still tops that of other countries by a significant margin. We also know that Japanese consumer goods are still widely perceived as offering superior quality and durability.

But what's the real story behind the numbers? I believe the answer lies in the way Japanese companies are fanatical about increasing customer satisfaction.

You can see the fruits of Japanese consumer-centric attitudes in mass-produced hybrid cars and the wide range of goods on sale in Tokyo's multitude of convenience stores.

You can see it, too, in the ubiquity of decentralised banking services (even available at those convenience stores), and in the ease of accessing box-office, parcel-delivery and bill-paying services. You even see it in the richness of Japan's alpine ski offerings. You'd be hard-pressed to find anything else like it in the world.

And all because of Japan's unwritten law that business must put the customer first. Companies are even willing to pursue this beyond the profit threshold. As a result, Japan not only has one of the most advanced governmental infrastructures, but also one of the most highly evolved public ones.

While just 12.9 per cent of Japanese people think the government, local authorities and bureaucrats are responsible for the country's financial wealth, our research shows 38.9 per cent think that business and industry deserve the thanks.

Over the past decade, many Japanese companies underwent painful restructuring. Finally our economy seems to have turned the corner. Now, however, it's clear companies can no longer focus only on customer satisfaction. To ensure success, businesses must now deliver additional satisfaction to customers.

Hakuhodo research has compared the social roles people believe companies should play compared with the social roles they believe companies actually play. The results reveal discrepancies in areas such as "compassion towards families/others" (66.8 per cent v 46.5 per cent) and "equal focus on the environment" (79 per cent v 60.6 per cent).

It's clear Japanese companies, having addressed the issue of customer satisfaction, must now respond to expectations of them to behave responsibly towards society and the environment. It is a trend which presents an array of new-business opportunities for agencies.

Hiroshi Tanaka is the general manager of Hakuhodo's research and development division, and is based in Tokyo.

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