The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


Double-edged Sword

By Jared Campion

As I write this, many of my Facebook friends are pouring icy water over their heads. This online campaign for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) research was started by mistake, went viral, and brought in over $100 million in one month.

This is one of the widest-reaching social media phenomena to date, as it touched people across the world. In Japan, people from members of the general public to celebrities and company directors accepted the challenge.

Chances are that your company is not a charity, and people are not going to pour buckets of icy water over their heads and send you money. Still, the ice bucket challenge shows us two things:

1. Japanese are just as likely as others to share interesting content through social media.

Recently there have been some good examples of viral marketing in Japan. One campaign by Suntory had high school girls running around pulling ninja moves, and many viewers did not realize it was an advertisement—until the last few seconds.

I am interested in seeing how well the video promoted the company’s drinks. Suntory disabled commenting on the video, so it is hard to gauge people’s reactions.

Making a video go viral is no small task. While it’s best to connect the benefit of the product with the video content, if possible, sometimes it is easier to leverage an already viral video to get publicity—which brings us back to the ice bucket challenge.

Several brands have “baptized” their products in ice, including Samsung, with its waterproof smartphone. The company challenged Apple’s iPhone to the same dare; nice dig. This leveraged the popularity of the challenge in a way that showed Samsung’s sense of humor.

However, leveraging buzz from a charity also could be frowned on, which leads to my second point.

2. Viral campaigns on social media always draw some degree of negative backlash.

A friend of mine who directs Japanese TV shows once told me that a new TV program had been canceled after it received fewer than 10 complaints about a character littering in an episode. The show was then seen as risky, and the producers would have preferred no feedback to negative comments.

Companies in Japan want to avoid a damaging “social media firestorm” at all costs. However, I think part of social media marketing is understanding that you cannot please everyone.

Around the world, marketing teams and company directors closely monitor the effects of their activities.

They should be especially concerned if theirs is a leading brand in the industry, as they have much to lose. But it seems that in Japan, the conservative nature of business is leading to weakened social media content.
As the famous marketer David Ogilvy said, “You cannot bore people into buying.”

Creating interesting social media content is not a simple task for large companies. Last year we saw Oreo post a picture with the caption “you can still dunk in the dark” minutes after the lights unexpectedly went out at the Super Bowl game, which caused great publicity buzz.

The campaign was assembled on the spot, and all leaders had to sign off on the idea right away. Plus, the timing had to be executed perfectly.

In social media marketing, what holds the message is not the billboard’s screws and bolts, but the people. You cannot pay them to spread your message; they have to want to share it. So it had better be something new. The greatest challenge lies in making content worth sharing.

For creative, nimble organizations, social media offers the chance to gain a huge number of customers, without a huge budget.


Jared Campion does direct marketing consulting for startup companies, and is senior digital marketing headhunter at Robert Leonard Consulting.