Ultra-attentive client communications is the key to project success

Or, how to pull off marketing communications in times like these

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

“Breaking borders. Connecting dots.” That’s what two young men in Shibuya, Tokyo aim to do. Many encounter barriers when they enter the Japanese market, when they rebrand, or even just launch a new product because it means the marketing, public relations and advertising functions need to closely collaborate.

This is when you need integrated communication and thoughtful design, say Kotaro Asano, communication expert, and Mio Sasaki, art director. They’re set out to provide exactly that.

Catching up for the first time since working alongside Kotaro at international PR agency MSL Japan, I asked the co-founders why they launched during a pandemic, about their advice for those considering going independent, and their “octopus model” of service.

In other words, we “talked shop.” Check it out below. 

(For the Japanese, click here)

In the two years since the outbreak of the pandemic, what kind of changes have you seen in communications activities in Japan?

Kotaro: There has been some change. For example, press conferences and media roundtables have gone online, large-scale events have been canceled and channels you’d normally use to reach consumers have been cut off. So we’ve had to rework some of your tactics and approaches.
On the other hand, the basics haven’t changed. You still need to think about how to create and maintain relationships with customers and consumers. So in that sense, much of my work has stayed the same.

Have you felt the need to learn new skills?

Kotaro: Yes, but not because of the pandemic. Communications professionals need to be able to look at the whole picture: sales, marketing, business development, etc.; not just PR.

Since working in an agency, I’ve realized that the marketing, advertising, PR, branding, inside sales and other functions are very “siloed.” As a result, in Japan, there aren’t many agencies that can holistically discuss and create the best strategy from the wide range of choices, at the right time, to provide the best service.

Advertising, PR, digital marketing and other functions tend to make decisions independently and pitch their own ideas. Many times I’ve personally witnessed this leading to underachieving or missing the mark.

That’s why Mio and I decided to tackle marketing communication from a bird’s eye view so that we can create lean and effective strategies and ensure they are properly implemented. To support that, we update our knowledge and skills flexibly and often.

Roselle: Definitely.

Sometimes one agency will take the lead that doesn’t have the general expertise, or the client will try to coordinate each agency themselves internally despite lack of experience.

This can lead to problems and make it very easy to miss business goals.

I borrowed this graphic from your website. Honestly, it looks kind of like an octopus. Do you mind if I call it the “octopus model”?

Mio: “Octopus model,” what an interesting way to put it. That’s fair.

Lately, I hear a lot about how hiring experienced talent is difficult due to the labor shortage. Some might rush through the hiring process when they do find someone, but we offer a solution to this: instead, they can rely on us to work with them, as their team member.

With a pro on the team, it’s much easier to take advantage of the strengths of each agency in order to reach business goals cost-effectively.

What are the 3 most important points to forming a good relationship with a client?

Mio: This is a really basic skill, but I think the most important thing is to communicate at the right points with your client. The next most important is to listen closely to your client’s views and goals and present your expert opinion based on those. Lastly, is that you need to produce results.

Roselle: Before communicating for your client, you need to be effectively communicating with your client.

I think we’re all nodding at this.

Please share a highlight of your work this past year. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

We developed the rebranding plan for a flower shop that has been in business for over 30 years. This included redeveloping their logo, communication tools, the shop, website and more to broaden their appeal to consumers in their 20s and 30s who lived in the area.

They requested that we maintain their brand image and vision while also updating other aspects of their brand ― and at the same time appealing to new customers while maintaining a sense of familiarity among their established customers. It was quite a challenge.

First off, we made sure to understand all of our client’s desires but also assessed them through our own experience. By spending most of our time listening to our client we learned a lot about their vision, their priorities, what was going well and not so well with their business. 

Thus, we were able to identify what to prioritize and move from there.

This led us to “top technique that always amazes” for the brand image, which we then wove through each element. Thanks to this, we were able to preserve their relationship with existing customers.

With this new brand image, we completely recreated their website, logo, etc., and were able to maintain the trust of existing customers while also helping acquire new customers. In fact, the launch was so successful that 80% of their new customers became repeat customers.

Roselle: It’s common sense that you need to retain existing customers because of their “customer lifetime value” (CLV), to borrow a bit of marketing speak.

It sounds like that need, and the need for new business informed your strategy.

Do you have any advice for companies or brands looking to enter the Japanese market or improve their communications there?

Kotaro: It’s critical to partner with someone who knows the local market because it is not easy to overcome the fallout from mismanaged communication arising from failed positioning, branding or messaging. A launch is the best time to use your resources effectively by leveraging a local expert, who can then help you continue to communicate well in the market.

You should avoid partnering with people who may seem like they know the market but turn out to be complete beginners. It’s a common case. Even if their background is impressive, they may not have had any major responsibilities in the projects they listed ― they were just on the team.

To avoid this pitfall, make sure to do reference checks with their former clients and services (whose projects they led), and ask the specifics of their achievements.

Photo by Maranda Vandergriff on Unsplash

Mio: This might not be what you’re looking for, but honestly I’m just on the look out all the time. For example, I’ll check the newspaper, online news, magazines, social media, investment information, and long-tail content such as Pinterest in addition to gathering information from those around me. This includes those in Japan and abroad.

Please offer some advice to those who are thinking of starting their own communications business.

Kotaro: Not to emphasize the obvious, but it’s crucial to partner with good companies, products and clients. At each opportunity, you should get down in the trenches with your clients and teammates to ensure the success of each project. This will really guide your career.

Mio: You can only do so much by yourself. That’s why to achieve something big you need to find a partner(s), set a goal together, and move towards it step by step. To make this possible, of course, you need to be able to form business relationships and communicate well with your partners. Then, the rest will fall into place.

Roselle: Thank you very much for sharing your insights. I’m excited to see what’s coming for you and your company.

■ https://wonderhoods.com/pr-marketing/en

Contact: https://wonderhoods.com/contact/en


Wonderhoods Cofounder / Producer Kotaro Asano

Serving on the teams of many global companies at a foreign-affiliated public relations agency, Kotaro has a wealth of experience in communications: from media relations to Japan-entry press conferences to strategic planning of PR activities aimed at increasing sales and awareness.

Several years ago, he went independent to support clients in both PR and marketing. After supporting multiple B2B clients (IT, manufacturing, materials) and producing TV ads and digital video ads, he co-founded Wonderhoods K.K. in 2021, where he holistically supports the marketing communications of global companies in Japan.

Wonderhoods Co-founder / Art Director Mio Sasaki

Mio studied design in the United States then worked as a designer / art director at a design company in Japan handling everything from product design to branding. He values “building work relationships where you can be open about your strengths and weaknesses.” By contributing his years of experience solving a range of business problems via branding and art direction, Mio hopes to help people all over the world.



Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash



これに解決策を打ち出そうとしているのがコミュニケーション専門家の浅野 光太郎やアートディレクターの佐々木 澪。

MSL Japanで広報代理店の現場を一緒してから転職を経て初めて話した浅野さんやその共同創業者佐々木さんは、コロナ禍で起業困難な時期になにゆえに創業したのか、企業の担当者や独立を考えている広報担当者へおくるアドバイス、私が勝手に「タコ型」と呼んでいる案件の管理方法などについて色々聞きいわゆる「shop talk」をさせてもらった。










[ロゼル] そうですよね。または「広告代理店主導型」だったり、それぞれの代理店の取り組みを企業内で整合しようとし、うまくいかなくなったりする場合もありますね。






[ロゼル] クライアントとのためにコミュニケーションをする前に、クライアントとのコミュニケーションができていることが大前提、ということですね。






[ロゼル] マーケティング用語になりますが、いわゆる「顧客生涯価値」を考えるとやはり既存顧客に疎外感を与えてはなりませんね。既存維持と新規獲得を両立できたことが、きっと成功につながりましたね。





Photo by Maranda Vandergriff on Unsplash






[ロゼル] いろいろシェアしていただき、ありがとうございます。今後のご活躍に注目したいと思います。


■ お問い合わせ https://wonderhoods.com/contact


Wonderhoods 共同創業者 浅野 光太郎

外資系広報代理店で多数のグローバル企業を担当してきた浅野さん。日本参入時のメディアリレーションズや記者会見から、売上と認知拡大を目的としたPR活動の戦略立案まで、濃厚な経験を積んできた。数年前にPRとマーケティングの両軸でクライアントを支援したいと考えて独立。複数のB2Bクライアント(IT、製造、素材)を支援、同時にTVCM[b]やWebCMなどをプロデュースした後、2021年にアートディレクターの友人と共同でWONDERHOODS K.K.を創業した。WONDERHOODSでは、グローバル企業の日本におけるマーケティング・コミュニケーションを包括的にサポートするという。

Wonderhoods 共同創業者 佐々木 澪

米国でデザインを学び、帰国後は商品デザインからブランディングまでを行うデザイン会社でデザイナー/アートディレクターとして活躍してきた佐々木さん。仕事をする上で一番大切にしていることは『強みも弱みも話せる関係づくり』。ブランディングやアートディレクションによってあらゆる企業の問題の解決に奔走し培ってきた経験を通し、もっと世界中の人の役に立ちたいと考えWONDERHOODS K.K.を友人の浅野さんと創業。

Why it’s not good enough to apologize and move on

“He just put his foot in his mouth ― don’t get upset.” “Don’t judge the forest for the trees.”

Twitter user

Anyone can have a slip of the tongue or fail to predict how someone could misinterpret your words. You might try to assure the offended person that you didn’t mean it that way. But deep down, you know that they’ve been hurt.

In a close relationship, our friends and family are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt because we have a long-term relationship that can assure them of our sincere desire not to hurt them.

But when it comes to public figures, we have no such relationship, and as such, no “benefit of the doubt.” Indeed, a public figure with a long record of ethical and conscientious behavior may ride out the storm more quickly. This type of social capital that is built up carefully over years and has managed to reach the public to leave enough of an impression.

How are we to be forgiven for our bad comments?

The degree to which the public can and will forgive public figures for their reprehensible comments or deeds seems to depend on a combination of their record up to then, their immediate reaction, and their commitment to addressing the cause of the uproar.

Rarely does a misstep or slip of the tongue garner sustained domestic or international attention, but when it does, one can be sure that proper and thorough crisis communications countermeasures should be taken.

Here are six principles, shortened for practical purposes, for an effective apology as outlined by Kešetović, Toth, and Korajlić (2014):

  1. You have to recognize what has been done.
  2. Others should also be given the opportunity to criticize the made mistakes, avoiding the preventive apologies.
  3. An apology is not enough but the responsibility has to be accepted as well, avoiding the childish excuses.
  4. The public has the right to know what actually happened.
  5. An apology should be supported by the efforts to improve things.
  6. Finally, the subservience and shame need to be shown as secondary equivalent to repentance.
Kešetović, Želimir & Toth, Ivan & Korajlić, Nedžad. (2014). Apology as crisis communication strategy-importance of cultural context. 38. 171-178. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292068291_Apology_as_crisis_communication_strategy-importance_of_cultural_context 

These principles are presented as universal, but certainly the format and custom of an apology is highly dependent on the local culture.

You may have heard that Japan is a country that highly values apologies. Yet, it would be wrong to think that a Japanese-style apology would satisfy a Western audience.

Much of Japanese culture contains predetermined formats for social exchange. The words we use when we start a business relationship, meet people for the first time, have inconvenienced someone, express an opposing opinion, or even just email someone are, to a large extent, usually limited to formats. And this is satisfactory in the Japanese context.

At times, individuality of expression might even be derided. I remember when one non-Japanese coworker used an inventive metaphor to describe her new job at her resignation speech some Japanese coworkers snickered. I thought it was creative and memorable ― I still remember it to this day.

But I digress. Apologies, which are expected in Japan for a range of things that Western cultures wouldn’t consider necessary (ex: arriving on time when your friend has arrived early, forcing them to wait for you), have become another formality (形骸化).

Kovacs asked the Japanese public what elements they expected at an “apology press conference.” The results show that the top three items required, ranked in terms of importance, there were:

  1. Explain what happened in detail
  2. Talk about next steps
  3. Use polite language (closely followed by “Talk about next steps”)

“Bowing,” “resignation of the person responsible,” “tears” and “saying ‘I’m terribly sorry'” all ranked lower.

Kovacs, Emese. (2016). Apologies to the media as a social function. Musashino University. https://repository.musashi.ac.jp/dspace/bitstream/11149/1800/10/03_Kovacs_text.pdf  (Japanese only)

These press conferences, for the most part, are clucked over, processed, and eventually forgotten in Japan.

It’s when a Japanese style of apology hits the international stage that it can really cause problems.

The case of Japan Olympic Committee Chairman Yoshiro Mori

As you may have heard, Japan Olympic Committee Chairman Yoshiro Mori met with domestic and international disdain earlier this week after comments about women in meetings exploded in social media and traditional media.

And bad news spreads fast. It earned him coverage from the BBC, The New York Times, Financial Times, Reuters, NPR, CNBC, AP News and a number of international media.

While I won’t take the time to translate his comments in full, which were recorded word-for-word on video camera, the gist and nub of his statements were that he thought women made meetings longer because they were unnecessarily competitive and spoke too long. He added that he was receiving pressure to increase women in meetings from MEXT, the Japanese ministry of education.

Reactions to his comments, both in Japan and internationally, ranged from vitriol and outrage to “I don’t understand what the problem is. Isn’t he right?” It’s a herculean task to explain to anyone who didn’t immediately see the sexism behind the remarks, so I’ll leave that to more energetic people.

Let’s address how he added fuel to the fire with a botched live apology “press conference.”

Just 20 minutes long (length is thought to indicate the apologizer’s willingness to be questioned and rebuked, AKA their level of sincerity),  Mori’s statement lasted 3 minutes while Q&A time was 17 minutes.

This conference unfortunately reinforced the impression that Mori was unrepentant and failed to satisfy the six principles of apology:

  1. You have to recognize what has been done.  

⇒ He read a prepared statement that he regrets and rescinds his statements, and apologizes for causing trouble. The meat of his apology focuses on causing trouble for people aiming to hold the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

2. Others should also be given the opportunity to criticize the made mistakes, avoiding the preventive apologies. 👎

⇒ Interrupts journalists. Is uncooperative in answering questions. When a journalist prefaces by saying he will ask “several questions,” Mori shoots back, “make it one.”

3. An apology is not enough but the responsibility has to be accepted as well, avoiding the childish excuses. 👎

⇒ Rejects the idea that he should resign and explains that he didn’t make statements at the Organizing Committee, but at JOC, and said that he made the offensive comments upon consideration. Says that foreign media are misrepresenting the fact that the comments were made at JOC, not the IOC, and that he made the comments as a closing greeting at the JOC (implying that this is an important distinction).

Mentions many irrelevant details, even explaining that people shouldn’t “worry too much about the figures (ratio of women on committee as recommended).” Explains that he was just repeating what was said to him about women in meetings in the other committees, though he didn’t have support for this assertion.

4. The public has the right to know what actually happened.   

⇒ Explained why and under what circumstances he made the statement very well, but doesn’t support that his rescinding of the statements was based on a genuine understanding of wrongdoing. Explains that he feels his statement was inappropriate and that it is wrong to distinguish between women and men, but also says that he heard many subcommittees complaining they are being inconvenienced by women who speak for too long. Avoids clarifying if he believes this.

In response to Mainichi Shimbun’s question if he believed women spoke for too long (blabbed), Mori responded, “I don’t listen to women lately, so I don’t know.”

5. An apology should be supported by the efforts to improve things. 👎

⇒ No mention of an acknowledgement of his own attitude or an effort to meet MEXT goals for female representation on the committee or reassure current female members that he doesn’t consider their behavior to be problematic.

6. Finally, the subservience and shame need to be shown as secondary equivalent to repentance.

⇒ Throughout the press conference, he showed a confidence that he was appropriate for his role, that his comments weren’t actually problematic, and that he had no need to report directly to the IOC or speak directly to foreign media about the incident. (even forces journalists to take their masks off when questioning him)

Note that the Japan Olympic Committee had already issued a carefully worded written statement, which had it had a chance to stand alone, may have more effectively quelled the flames.

It bears noting that this conference failed to satisfy all top three priorities discovered by Kovacs (2016), by failing to “describe next steps.” It also rings as insincere, earning it the title of 逆切れ会見 in Japan, or conference where he “snapped back angrily.” This response shows that the 6 principles above can ring true in an international stage, including Japan.

More importantly, the communications takeaway is that when authenticity and genuine repent cannot be guaranteed, a spokesperson should stay out of the limelight.

Ultimately, Mori contributed to a long-standing perception of Japan as a country that won’t make progress on gender equality, to add further to the PR problems of a troubled Tokyo 2020 games.