executive impact

Helping firms to enter and expand in Japan

12 Comments
By Lucy Alexander for BCCJ ACUMEN

Global retail chains have famously failed to flourish on Japanese soil. Billions of yen have been spent by corporations such as Boots, Tesco, Carrefour and Walmart in largely futile attempts to crack the Japanese market. What are they doing wrong?

One woman, Noriko Silvester, sees it as her mission to help foreign firms appeal to the notoriously fickle Japanese consumer. Clients of Candlewick, Silvester’s PR, marketing and brand consultancy, range from Ikea to the New Zealand beef and avocado industries to Garrard, jewellers for the British royal family.

“Foreign companies coming into Japan must consider that Japanese companies have supply chains that have worked together for hundreds of years”, Silvester told BCCJ ACUMEN. It is also very hard to compete in a saturated market that entices consumers with new seasonal variants every few weeks.

“Japanese retail is superb”, she said. “You have to offer something different”.

The task may be daunting, but Silvester’s 18-strong all-female team has proved so successful in the 11 years since Candlewick’s launch that the firm is about to upgrade to larger premises near Omotesando Hills.

Silvester said one of her recipes for success is to employ working mothers.

“When you have a small company you have to be very efficient”, she said. “Working mothers are very good at fitting a lot of work into a short space of time, because they have to leave on time”.

By contrast, men — who, in Japan, are not expected to get home to make dinner — suffer from mission creep.

“Something I observed when I became an employer”, she said, “was that men can sometimes stop working and stop thinking for extended periods of time. And that is not great for productivity in a small company”.

Silvester, who has a 15-year-old son, attributes part of her success to the support of her husband. “I had an advantage because I married an Englishman”, she said. “I have to contribute to the family finances, and we split the house chores equally”.

She began her career as a trainee bilingual secretary on leaving school in Tokyo. When one of her bosses asked her to help the sales team by making cold calls in English, she was inspired.

“After that, I felt that I didn’t want to spend my career arranging lunches for other people”, she said.

In 1986, aged 25, she left the position to work as a sales agent for a cosmetics firm, travelling the country for eight years and establishing regional salons.

“I spent a lot of time crying in hotel rooms”, she said, “but I proved I could build businesses up from scratch”.

After eight years, she left to work in recruitment. One client was British high street pharmacy chain Boots, which in 1997 launched its ill-fated mission to crack the Japan market. Struggling to find her client a good sales trainer for its skincare range, she applied for the job herself, and got it. Three years later, shortly after she returned from maternity leave, Boots abruptly closed its doors.

According to Silvester, the firm made two crucial errors: they failed to anticipate how long it would take to get their own-brand medicines approved in Japan, and they wrongly positioned themselves as a luxury brand.

“They chose the best locations, but that meant they were seen as premium stores, and they couldn’t compete with convenience stores where you can buy over-the-counter medicines along with a newspaper”.

Finding another job quickly, as a brand manager for a Swiss skincare firm, Silvester left her one-year-old son in Tokyo to travel to Switzerland. “After a year, the shareholders decided to stop overseas expansion”, she said. “I was very shocked that this would happen again”.

She vowed that, in future, she would control her own life. In 2002, she became a freelance marketing consultant with one cosmetics client. Business thrived, and within a year she had founded Candlewick with the aim of “connecting global brands to the local market”.

“No matter how thoroughly foreign brands research Japan, the Japanese mentality and habits are very difficult for foreigners to understand”, she said.

Silvester now intends to double the size of her business. Her staff, who have young children, leave the office before 5 p.m., only working late in preparation for a big event. Family-friendly working hours are, she said, “the key to happiness”.

According to Silvester, life is getting easier in Japan for women who wish to work after having children. “My message to young women is to keep your ideal lifestyle in mind and don’t give up trying. Many more husbands are supporting their children now. So as the generations change, Japan will get better”.

Whether it will become more accessible for foreign firms remains to be seen.

Her Typical Day

5:50 a.m. Wake up 6 a.m. Breakfast: steamed sweet potato with butter, tea; sometimes a boiled egg and yoghurt 7:15 a.m. Go to work (reading newspapers on the way) 8:15 a.m. Start work at office; planning and creative thinking 9 a.m. Appointment with business consultant 10 a.m. Brainstorming for new client 12:30 p.m. Lunch, sometimes with media representatives 2 p.m. Client meetings 4 p.m. Team meetings 6:30 p.m. Leave office 7:15 p.m. Workout 8 p.m. Dinner 9:30pm Relax and spend time with family 11:30 p.m. Go to bed

Custom Media publishes BCCJ ACUMEN for the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.


12 Comments
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“When you have a small company you have to be very efficient”, she said. “Working mothers are very good at fitting a lot of work into a short space of time, because they have to leave on time”.

By contrast, men — who, in Japan, are not expected to get home to make dinner — suffer from mission creep

“Something I observed when I became an employer”, she said, “was that men can sometimes stop working and stop thinking for extended periods of time. And that is not great for productivity in a small company”.

Silvester, who has a 15-year-old son, attributes part of her success to the support of her husband. “I had an advantage because I married an Englishman”, she said. “I have to contribute to the family finances, and we split the house chores equally”.

Maybe the J-government should hire this firm. Then they would no have to be lowering their goal of women in senior positions from 30% to 7.5%.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

Japan would be much better off if Abe could appoint a number of bright, level-headed and nationally minded women like Noriko Silvester to his cabinet.

This gives me hope. Well done Mrs. Silvester.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

It is difficult for many foreign companies to understand what is going on in Japan, but obviously not for ALL of them. And many Japanese women had maybe 1 or 2 or more Japanese boyfriends who were not the best supporters in the world, and if then by coincidence the English man offers her a different kind of behavior: I guess ur personal experience would make you say that, especially in an interview where it is not as easy as one might think to choose your own words carefully.

I think she refers to the factors that made her successful but might not apply for everyone.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

“Working mothers are very good at fitting a lot of work into a short space of time, because they have to leave on time”. By contrast, men — who, in Japan, are not expected to get home to make dinner — suffer from mission creep.

I think she nailed it.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

Silvester’s 18-strong all-female team has proved so successful..

“Something I observed when I became an employer”, she said, “was that men can sometimes stop working and stop thinking for extended periods of time.

I've always thought the most persuasive argument for woman's equality in the workplace was that women represent half the population and if you don't have input and perspective from 50% of society, your business is bound to suffer.

However, it seems that Noriko Silvester is trying to debunk this idea by becoming very successful despite the fact that she deliberately excludes 50% of the population from her own workforce, albeit men rather than women. If we're going to stamp out gender discrimintation, we shouldn't accept it when it's directed at men just as we wouldn't accept it when it's directed at women.

She may have made some poor hiring choices in the past but it's no excuse to engage in gender discrimination which strips half the population of economic opportunities to be employed. I hope Ms Silvester changes her way of thinking or that her business fails and is replaced by a more inclusive competitor.

0 ( +4 / -4 )

I hope Ms Silvester changes her way of thinking or that her business fails and is replaced by a more inclusive competitor.

I respectfully disagree. She is consulting to consumer brands. Most purchasing decisions for such brands are made by women. Therefore, it makes sense to hire mostly women. Women are generally more attuned to consumer trends. I'd do the same if I was in her shoes.

And, if I need to hire soldiers, who need to be able to light heavy objects and fight, I'm going to hire men.

We can't keep pretending both genders are the same but with just different genitalia.

As for her comment that women are more efficient workers, I also see her point. But, I think that if men had the luxury of making the same lifestyle choices, they would also behave in a similar manner. The men don't go home early because the can't - otherwise people will assume they are being lazy.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Though I have little interest in marketing i wonder if some of the unsuccessful foreign companies were just overthinking the market. This seems to be a common feature of foreigners in Japan. They tend to think there must be some hidden and profound explanation when in reality what you see in mostly what you get. It is about learning to see utterly superficially.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

@Dylan Robertson

Women are generally more attuned to consumer trends. I'd do the same if I was in her shoes.

Wouldn't it be better to evaluate the skills of each individual man and woman without indulging in prejudicial stereotypes and sweeping generalisation based on their gender? I don't think anyone would dispute that there's an element of truth to what you are saying, but it doesn't justify drawing the conclusion that women are inherently better at certain jobs or 'thinking' than men or vice versa. If being attuned to consumer trends (or lifting heavy things in the military) is the most important aspect of the job (which I'm not sure it is with PR consultants) one would expect a company to say something like 'we look to hire those who are most attuned to consumer trends', and not come out with a ridiculous generalisation such as "men can sometimes stop working and stop thinking for extended periods of time".

There are tens of millions of men in Japan and the law of large numbers guarantees that if we looked hard enough, we could find 18 men who know much more about consumer trends and could do a much better job than any of the women who are currently in the role. Unfortunately it doesn't seem like these men would even be considered even if they came forward.

Gender discrimination and sweeping generalisations should never be justified. They're incredibly corrosive, especially in Japan where where certain occupations such as doctors and salesmen are still considered 'male' jobs while nurses and receptionists are considered 'female' jobs. Let's not add PR/marketing/brand consultants to this list.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I did some work for Boots when they tried to enter Japan. All their products were very expensive and very "meh" in interest value. Just common creams and lotions you could similarly get at any discount store. The only thing that sold like hotcakes was a little caramel-coloured bear with a Boots ribbon. When they shut up shop finally there was a black market for these bears. They became enormous status symbols for professional women in Aoyama and Harajuku. You'd see them even years later on desks in high-level corporate offices. Naturally Boots just stopped selling them.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

MoonrakerDec. 07, 2015 - 03:00PM JST

Though I have little interest in marketing i wonder if some of the unsuccessful foreign companies were just overthinking the market.

Totally agree.... A Japanese supermarket is a 7-11 on a bigger scale.

Japanese shop for the moment and not the week.

However I would like to add the cultural arrogance that many enter the market. A tin of baked beans might be familiar to an American or a Brit, but without a small note of how they should be enjoyed, they're not only puzzling to a Japanese, but to a Pole.

Shame really because I'm sure Japanese would enjoy a tin of Heinz 57.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Can you bring back Dunkin' Doughnuts?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

@M3M3M3 There is nothing bad with all men or all women teams, what we should wait is only that free competence put everyone in their place. If any team is succesful, it is not important how many men or women form it, it is not even our business, the only thing that matters is the this team somehow achieve to be succesful, thats all. Let natural selection do its job.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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