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10 tips: How to do B2B with Asia

Do you know what nominication is? Or the unspoken hierarchy you should respect? Natalie Meyer reveals 10 tips to cracking the Asian B2B market

Exporting to Asia can be a minefield: it’s a kaleidoscope of different markets with varied cultures and expectations. Once you think you’ve settled the practical aspects of entry into a market, these cultural differences need to be taken into account. When dealing B2B in particular, human relationship is key. As someone who advises European businesses on how to successfully expand to Japan, here is my list of top recommendations to avoid any mishaps and capitalise on opportunities in Asia, particularly in Japan:

1. Remember there are different communication norms

The most effective means of communication differ in each country across Asia. In Japan, however, it’s no exaggeration to say that communication is certainly not always straightforward. “No” can actually mean “yes” and vice versa depending on the context. Be prepared to read between the lines.

2. Localise and globalise

Instead of trying to use the same marketing messages for a pan-Asian audience as a blanket solution, tailor branding with concepts that work on a targeted, local level. It might seem obvious, but surprisingly many marketers tend to ignore this advice. At the same time, maintain your uniqueness in the region and use your Western perspective to generate appeal when appropriate.

Many European brands carry with them a sense of heritage, quality and authenticity, so use these whenever the opportunity arises. But at the same time, remember traditional traits that work for a European audience may be off-putting for Asian customers. For example, European perfumes can often have too strong a smell for Asian noses. Aim to strike a balance between localisation and globalisation.

3. Consider language barriers

Many Japanese companies are concerned about language barriers when it comes to dealing with western companies. Even if the workers can speak English, a lot of the paperwork and bureaucracy will still have to be done in Japanese – and it is the same in countries like China and South Korea. Prepare a in-house translator or outsource this work, but don’t just translate literally: Make sure the message contains the correct tone as well as the correct literal meaning.  

4. Look at existing competitors

One of the main challenges of entering a foreign market is going up against existing competitors in the industry. Take time to familiarise yourself with the industry in Japan and analyse existing competitors. This can help brands figure out what would work well in the market. For example, if there is an angle to what you do that hasn’t quite been used by competitors yet – as long as it is localised. Trade fairs and exhibitions are good places to get to grips with the competitor landscape – even if you are not yet ready to host a stand. JETRO hosts many of these.

5. Focus on relationship building

In Japan, relationships are heavily prioritised. In the west, it’s not uncommon for companies to meet for the first time and sign a business contract on the spot. On the other hand, this rarely happens in Japan. Though it can take time and effort to build a trusting business relationship, it will be worth it as time spent with potential customers during the lead-up can directly correlate with how much business they want to do with you.

6. Connect outside of work

Building on the previous point, there’s an important Japanese term nominication, which literally translates to ‘drinking communication’. In other words, Japanese relationships are heavily connected to socialising – usually with alcohol. Often this can be a tool to build relationships needed to break into the industry. Remember that when you’re in Japan, clink your glasses no higher than your seniors’ or clients’; it’s a way of showing respect.

7. Respect the existing hierarchy

Japan and many other Asian countries pay respect to those who:

1) Are older.

2) Have worked at the company for a long time.

3) Are in higher positions.

All of these aspects tend to be directly correlated. Remember to show respect to those in that position – things like seating arrangements in a meeting can be a demonstration of unspoken power dynamics.

8. Investigate macro trends

It’s important to look at the trends in your industry for these markets. For example, smart cities and wellness in the workplace is a major topic of interest in Japan right now, so introduce these topics into your presentations and marketing materials, even if they might not be directly related to the service or product you are offering.  Always consider what is trending in your industry in the markets you want to target – the fintech, education and energy are key sectors currently undergoing disruption in Japan – and how can you make the most of this.

9. Seek local partnerships

Look for local partners who understand both sides of the equation and can explain to you why things are happening in certain ways. You will require people on your side in meetings who can 'read the room' for you.

10. Different cultures have different tastes

Finally, remember that what works well in western countries may not be equally as successful in Asia. First, test the market to see how your message will resonate. Numbers don’t always tell the full story, so it’s also crucial to dig deeper into the thoughts, feelings and motivations of potential customers and business partners.

Above all, businesses should remain curious and possess a willingness to understand business from a multicultural perspective – from here, the opportunities will follow!

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