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17 MAR. 2017

How Brands Find the Way to Our Hard-Wired Brains: Semiotics for Strategic Communication

Yukino Yamamoto

Managing Director, Asia

Have you ever had an experience looking for a product in a foreign country, assuming you will find it easily but ending up confused and frustrated? Or perhaps you’ve found the product but there is a certain doubt in your mind if this product would work quite as well?

This is largely a common phenomenon. As mentioned in our previous semiotics article, we unconsciously form our perceptions and make sense of things through repeated exposure to deep-rooted cultural and category codes. For example, if your brain is programmed to think that detergent brands should have vibrantly colored packaging and dynamic images, would you trust a pastel colored, plain packaging without even being able to read the description?

In this article, we will look into how femininity is expressed in the Sanitary Napkin category in Japan, and explain why different signs and codes need to be called upon to communicate brand’s intended meaning in each market. This type of cultural understanding is particularly important for international brands as it allows them to be more strategic in their brand communications, and accurately pinpoint opportunities that lead the way forward. 

Sanitary Napkin Category in Japan

The feminine hygiene market in Japan accounts for approximately USD 900 million (2015). Although the overall market volume in Japan is becoming more difficult to capture year by year, the demand for the premium and high value added product lines that cater to the changing lifestyles of consumers such as working women is increasing.

Given this market situation, the strong players such as KAO, Uni-Charm, P&G and Daio are constantly launching new sub-brands and product brands to seize the market share. Hence, the category is quite developed and competitive; however there is a major conundrum for consumers: it presents a quite homogeneous universe centered around the values on Skin comfort, Fit and Worry-free, and for most consumers it is hard to distinguish from one product to another.

The challenge is then how to find a meaningful innovation angle that can trigger a genuine interest.

For this purpose, we will firstly look into femininity codes in Japan to understand the historically relevant expressions, take a look at how the category communication is evolving in relation to this societal change, and illustrate how brands can stay on top by continuously engaging with their consumers. 

The Roots of Femininity Expression in Japan

The old stereotypes of women in Japan – subservient, courteous, and modest – are outdated. As a society evolves and new generations kick in, the characteristics of women and the surrounding cultural values diversify and set a new course.

However, those old values regarded as stereotypes have deep historical and cultural roots which will, to varying degrees, continue to influence and shape the societal perception of women and thus how femininity is communicated, accepted and interpreted.

In Japan, historically women did hold considerable power as a type of “shaman” – which would have led to an entirely different perception of women and femininity today had it continued. This phenomenon was vanquished, however, when Confucianism and Samurai culture stressed the absolute superiority of men over women. A sentence from Tale of Genji, the most famous and popular novel written in 11th century in Japan, illustrates well the societal view towards women at that time: "If they [women] were not fundamentally evil, they would not have been born women at all”. This perspective partly informed how women behave in modern times, and explains to a certain extent why femininity in Japan is strongly characterized as amiable, allowing for a smooth blend into the male-dominated society without much friction.

To provide a simple visual illustration to this notion, we type the word femininity into Google search in Japanese and French respectively and compare the top images generated. From the above cultural insight, to some degree, now we are able to make sense of the choices of images in communicating a certain concept in different cultural contexts. 

Femininity expression in Japan

Femininity expression in France

Category Communication Audit

Generally speaking, communication in the sanitary napkin category in Japan revolves around gentle and smooth expressions of femininity for ensuring relevance, mostly through contentment and happiness shown from smiling faces and relaxed body postures.

  • Dominant: Using lots of pastel colors, soft facial expressions and relaxed postures to project lightness, and comfort. The open spaces and dynamic movements depict a worry-free, liberated impression.
  • Emerging: Moving away from the traditional femininity codes that symbolize perfectly sound and happy women, and shifting towards portraying the realness and strength of independent women. Colors and tones used are cleaner and simpler which heightens the idea of truthfulness. 

Emerging category communication

Capturing the Emerging Trends

Usually, the shift in the trends of signs and expressions is a reflection of societal and cultural change, and signifies a seismic shift in the evolution of values. 

Shifting trends in femininity in Japan

ELIS (2016: For all women moving forward each day)

In addition to this emerging communication angle, we witness products and services that offer superior functionality (e.g., extra long lasting) that are diverting from the use of conventional femininity codes on packaging design and that more neutral, medical-like codes are gaining popularity.

Moreover, we see a growing demand for premium organic sanitary napkins and sanitary cloth napkins. The values people seek are slightly shifting or widening, shown by the need for more functional credibility to support their professional lifestyles and a desire to use a product that does not contain any chemicals to embrace a truly healthier lifestyle. 

Mainstream packaging designs in the sanitary napkin category in Japan

New packaging designs in the sanitary napkin category in Japan

Conclusion: What Semiotics Offer to Brands

When international brands enter new markets where there are strong local competitors and quite unique local specific needs like Japan, it is important to pay particular attention to the cultural context where meaning is often derived.

About 30 years ago when P&G decided to enter this category in Japan with a now famous Whisper brand, the start was also not an easy one. Strong local players like KAO dominated the category and as one of the only international brands, P&G struggled to connect with local consumers who had established needs different from what P&G saw back home. Following was years of investment in consumer research with a team that truly understands local cultural nuances.

What happens when one does not have the financial resources and human capital like P&G for conducting iterative research?

Semiotics allows us to comprehend cultural nuances in a clear, concise and logical manner. It enables us to understand the local contextual elements that lead to more impactful associations. It is also a complementary tool to other consumer-based research, allowing brands to identify and develop innovative yet culturally acceptable brand actions – especially important in areas that require local knowledge, where marketers often struggle to make sense of things. Do you want to be more strategic, know what to communicate, and understand how and why we do it in the way we do? Through the lens of semiotics, you might find the answers.  

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