Samsung and Greenpeace: symbolic legacy or virtual reality?

So hands up: who’s read about Greenpeace’s recent assault on Samsung over its commitment to renewable energy?

When I say ‘recent’, I’m referring to January 2018 ( – not February, March, October or November 2017). If the answer’s a no, this campaign is specifically connected to PyeongChang 2018’s claim to be running a Winter Games powered exclusively by renewable energy sources and zero carbon emissions.

Greenpeace has labelled Samsung a hypocrite because, as a TOP and with Samsung Fire and Marine Insurance as a Sustainability Partner of PyeongChang 2018, Samsung only sources 1% of its energy from renewable sources – with energy consumption increasing year on year. Greenpeace has been pushing the entire IT sector to improve their sustainability credentials for a number of years – on the basis that the huge leaps in technology innovation are still largely built at the expense of the environment.

Immediate reaction is possibly the ‘Oh why do Greenpeace have to spoil everything – I just want to enjoy the Games’. But that fades quickly.

Because while PyeongChang 2018 is actually doing a phenomenal job in sourcing all of its needs from wind power and aiming to reduce or offset more than 100% of GHG emissions, Samsung’s Fire and Marine Insurance business has opted to leave more of a ‘symbolic legacy’. 58 trees and 1410 shrubs precisely. They’re spread majestically over 1328m2 (that’s about a third of an acre, or just think big back garden) next to a school in Gangneung, ‘to enhance students’ environmental awareness by experiencing and exploring the benefits that nature can offer.’ I’m just luxuriating in the symbolism of it all.

In 2012 we posted a Red Thread titled LOCOG’s Sponsorship Mistake. The piece acknowledged a masterly LOCOG performance, with one (sponsorship) exception: the sale to Partners (including BP and EDF) of a Sustainability Partner sub-brand, precisely what POCOG has now done. The reasoning still holds: given the power of the Olympic brand, a Sustainability Partner sub-brand de facto carries the implicit endorsement of the OCOG and the IOC (who will have authorised this practice). Unless Organising Committees are going to create meaningful (and preferably externally validated) criteria for awarding (ie selling) this status, all this practice can possibly do is undermine the very real achievements of both OCOG and IOC.

LOCOG’s own debrief concluded that ‘The lack of definition of the Sustainability Partner designation created confusion among stakeholders, as well as the general public.’ It conceded, additionally, that this lack of definition made it ‘hard to counter’ campaign groups which ‘assumed the designation was an unjustified ‘award’ to the six companies that had simply bought the right to promote ‘greenwash’.

The IOC’s environmental intentions with Agenda 2020 are exemplary and POCOG go to the top of the IOC agenda 2020 roll call in delivering the first Winter Games to be awarded ISO 20121, for Sustainable Event Management. But the IOC really should (have) shut down this loophole.

Smartphones are a clear target: objects of some desire, production demands the extraction of minerals and precious metals, while smartphone recycling is minimal. Samsung is of course one of the largest manufacturers of smartphones worldwide. While Apple for example has committed to move to 100% renewable energy sources by 2020, Samsung can’t yet explain what it’s going to do with the 4.3m Galaxy handsets it had to recall in October 2016.

Samsung also enjoys an unchallenged existence as a brand with strong equity and stature in developed markets (thanks in part to its Olympic Partnership) but with manufacturing bases and headquarters in a country known for permissively close ties between its chaebols and its government. So in some senses, Samsung serves as a totem not just for the IT industry, but for South Korea (the 9th largest emitter of carbon dioxide globally). It’s also a representative of all businesses who generate large profits with low levels of environmental accountability.

Now Samsung Electronics is of course an entirely separate business to Samsung Fire and Marine Insurance, domestic Partner of PyeongChang:  different addresses and different stock market listings. So, to be fair, there is no certainty that Samsung Electronics even knew about SFMI’s Sustainability Partnership. But for Greenpeace, of course, it’s irrelevant – because Samsung stands for one thing above all else in western markets: handsets.

It’s inevitable that the Olympic Games will increasingly be used by campaigning organisations such as Greenpeace because of the global platform they offer. And the IOC’s push for higher standards of sustainability in particular will generate increased scrutiny by NGOs in the space. The IOC must know Agenda 2020 ultimately challenges the entire Olympic Family to meet the challenge of that scrutiny – but I’m unsure how well it’s understood by NOCs and bid cities, especially in countries unused to western communications practices. And, specifically, to Greenpeace’s superbly structured campaigns. Both South Korea and Tokyo OCOGs have demonstrated an insularity and naivety about how far media and consumer interest in their event, and its governance, extends far beyond their shores.

The media bandwagon will no doubt continue to question the IOC’s ability to generate host city candidates, despite the fact that the IOC can relatively easily turn down the dials on the criteria for hosting, as we’re actually seeing very clearly now with Tokyo, Paris and Los Angeles – and with ‘The New Norm’. I would suggest that the IOC faces an altogether subtler challenge.

Both the IOC and FIFA have thrown open the doors in the last ten years. First China, then the African continent, then Latin America and, in the near future the Middle East have all hosted inaugural events of one or the other – but this phase is over.

It’s unsustainable because the Olympics, in its current city-led model, requires not just significant financial underwriting but real population density to justify the creation of high capacity velodromes, swimming pools or Olympic stadia. A combination which tends to come in the world’s more mature markets.

And it’s risky because, as we’ve seen in Beijing, Tokyo and PyeongChang, the other critical ingredient which the IOC needs to secure is a sophisticated communications machine capable of engaging with international media. For all its faults, Beijing’s Organising Committee at least knew how to talk the lingua franca of journalism, politics and marketing. Tokyo and PyeongChang clearly do not; and this weakness will always reflects on the IOC.

The IOC’s former Marketing Director Michael Paine believes that people scrutinise the IOC’s actions because they care about the values the IOC seeks to uphold. I can’t disagree with his gloss, but there’s another, simpler explanation: people don’t like hypocrisy. They feel cheated, and manipulated. The IOC can’t afford to stand back and allow the OCOG to own these mistakes. They need to play a more proactive role in shaping and guiding OCOG communications.

The importance of ‘a new Dentsu’

Dentsu President Toshihiro Yamamoto has promised to create a ‘new Dentsu’ – with a commitment to reform its work environment. The ambition is not just to prevent a recurrence of the tragic event of last year, but to reduce efficiencies and ultimately deliver a more productive Dentsu. A laudable ambition, and an opportunity for Dentsu to take a lead for Japan. Hopefully, with the strength of Dentsu’s connections to the Liberal Democrat party, it will become a beacon for Prime Minster Abe’s work style reform. But the more systemic challenge it faces is not actually reform, it’s renovation.

We’ve now had the privilege of working with five Japanese clients in the last two years – and the incredible experience of working in Japan. During this time, we’ve met with over 40 businesses and had many meetings with Dentsu. And in the course of long flights and project delivery, we’ve of course thought intensely about how Japanese businesses communicate and Dentsu’s contribution to that.
Redmandarin is an advisory practice specialising in sponsorship. Our proposition is to offer unequalled levels of insight and sophistication in planning large, integrated communications campaigns through sponsorship to deliver targeted progress on business objectives. But as we’ve slowly come to realise, our entire approach is premised on marketing principles which are universal – outside of Japan.

Universal marketing principles?

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Both Western and Japanese businesses consider brand holistically – a combination of corporate reputation, product, marketing communications and employee relations. Western practice however is then to identify brand attributes which are understood to be drivers of purchase, and to upweight the communication of these attributes. This is based not only on the concept of purchase drivers, but on the belief that focused communications have more impact. Japanese businesses, by contrast, are reluctant to separate out specific attributes or functions, anxious that the emphasis will distort overall understanding of the brand.

Both are legitimate positions, of course. It’s just that the world outside of Japan thinks one way – and Japanese businesses think the other.
This Japanese preference for the harmonious whole also clearly influences the concept of segmentation. Segmentation of course is premised on the belief that consumers or clients are not a homogenous group but an amalgamation of sub-groups with differing characteristics, needs and relationships to a product. Despite diverging levels of understanding and application from country to country, and business to business, segmentation is a marketing fact of life. Remove the concept of segmentation, and marketing communications inevitably gravitate to generic, catch-all statements. But, from our experience, Japanese businesses approach segmentation largely as a reference to different product audiences.

One final example, not strictly from the domain of marketing, is the concept of vision. It took us six months to differentiate Japanese business use of the word. Outside of Japan, vision is the inspiring destination of a corporate journey. It is used as a North Star to guide change, and is intrinsically a dynamic concept. Vision in Japan – from the many visions we’ve encountered – is more commonly closer to a longer term forecast. That’s not to suggest Japanese businesses are static, just to call out another major difference.

Significant differences, I think you’ll agree, and with huge implications for all marketing communications. Western communication practices provide a consistent framework everywhere outside of Japan, not only for delivery, but also for consumer interpretation. The result is that Japanese businesses are poorly equipped to communicate and market outside of Japan. They do not understand how audiences deconstruct messaging or the cues they expect to see. And as a consequence, Japanese management will often struggle to harness the creative power of its international agencies.

For a European person, to feel close to a brand means active feelings of warmth and fondness. When I ask people in London which Japanese brands they feel close to, the list is always similar: Sony, invariably first; Honda and Toyota, almost always second; Muji, Uniqlo and Shiseido in equal third, thanks to their successful retail presence. And then the list stops. It’s a short list. Okay, it’s not scientific – but as a litmus test, it consistently delivers the same results.

So the last two years in Japan have been eye opening for me : I have met some amazing businesses. Companies such as Ajinomoto: now how many businesses can lay claim to having discovered an archetypal flavour? Like ASICS, who command such immense respect from serious runners around the world. Like ALSOK, which is commercially transforming the concept and service of security. Like Pasona, a uniquely values-driven organisation which reminds me strongly of my time at The Body Shop. Like Seiko, which incredibly still manufacturers every single component of every watch they produce. There are many, many more.

Perhaps the largest surprise for me was to experience the respect and affection which Panasonic commands in Japan. In 2008, brand consultancy Landor described the Panasonic brand as ‘known all too well and loved by all too few’ and, generally speaking, little has changed. Painfully, if we look at television, the category which Panasonic has misadvisedly used as its consumer platform for Olympic Partnership since 1987, its image is flat by comparison with Korean and Chinese newcomers such as Samsung, LG or Huawei. Despite all my previous impressions, my time in Japan has kindled a strong fondness for Panasonic, and an appreciation for the depth of its commitment to research and the breadth of its innovation.

All of these brands, Ajinomoto, ASICS, ALSOK, Panasonic and many more, have wonderful stories – stories that are almost completely untold internationally. And Japanese businesses are suffering as a result, because their marketing and sales activity is simply unsupported by the brand equity they enjoy in Japan..

Dentsu – and the responsibility of leadership

The excellent FT article from October 2016 by Leo Lewis, Kana Inagaki and Robin Harding’s presents a balanced picture of the soft power welded by Dentsu. Amongst other factors, it references the Japanese norm of rotating employees through different departments. This rotation may be excellent at building broader organisational understanding, but it comes at the expense of internal expertise. Meanwhile, Dentsu’s judgment is beyond challenge.

But with power, comes responsibility. In theory, DAN provides an accomplished cultural intermediary for international markets. But in practice, brand control is managed centrally by most Japanese businesses, and international agencies apply their creativity within a communications framework built for Japan.

So despite the enviable reach and expertise of DAN, the ability of most Japanese brands to connect with consumers outside of Japan is limited by two powerful forces: an intrinsically Japanese worldview which prioritises the whole brand gestalt over messaging which is more directly relevant to audiences – and Dentsu’s dominant influence over the communications practice of Japan’s major businesses.
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Ultimately, the challenge facing Japanese businesses is to take responsibility for their international marketing communications – but, let’s be honest, this requires cultural change of an immense scale. For Dentsu, the challenge is more direct because it is, de facto, the brand steward of Japan’s largest businesses. Given the sheer scale of its business, power and its undeniable influence over its clients’ communications, it is both an abdication of responsibility and a betrayal of trust not to absorb and assimilate western communications thinking, and understand how best to help its clients communicate internationally.

The real challenge for new Dentsu

Commercial legacy for the Games isn’t measured by Games-related turnover, tourist spend or an increase in Tokyo Bay real estate values, it’s measured in exports and inward investment. That is partly a function of product and service quality and relevance. But despite the Bank of Japan’s recent upbeat Tankan report, it also fundamentally depends on the ability of Japan’s businesses to communicate with the rest of the world. In the present constellation, unless Dentsu becomes fully international in its outlook, as well as its holdings, Japanese business ambitions for global growth will happen very slowly. And Dentsu will be a very real limiting factor for Japan’s international growth on the back of 2020.

So the real challenge that Dentsu faces is renovation, or re-invention. The global opportunity, both for Dentsu and Japan’s businesses, is to take the larger place on the world stage that they deserve.