In the past, young Japanese job-seekers focused their career efforts on finding ‘jobs for life’ at large companies. However, thanks to recent economic factors, graduates today are changing this mindset and accepting the lifetime employment “guarantees” are disappearing from the working world. Interestingly, another factor has also had a profound impact on this mind-set change – the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster of March 2011.
In the wake of the Tohoku disaster, more and more Japanese are questioning the traditional cultural values of avoiding risk, maintaining harmony, and being wary of ‘standing-out.’ Last year’s disaster is forcing people to come face-to-face with uncertainty and to consider long and hard what they should do with their lives. Many are asking themselves the following questions:
■ Should I wait around for my ‘expected’ promotion when I reach 40?
■ Is this the job I really want for the rest of my life?
■ Can I take the risk to change my career?
Such questions were rarely verbalized in the past but are now being asked, and they are compelling many Japanese to take their uncertain future into their own hands. Are Japanese reconsidering the age-old adage that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down? Is standing-out starting to replace fitting-in? Has personal branding finally taken root in the land of the rising sun?
What is a Personal Brand?
Your personal brand is simply your unique promise of value. It is unique because it is authentic only to you. It is a promise because you will always deliver on what differentiates you from others who offer the same or similar experience. It is a value because people are compelled to hire, promote, and engage with you based on a value they cannot get elsewhere. Strong brands – whether products, places, or people – constantly and consistently offer a unique promise of value. The moment they fail to do so, they change from a brand to a commodity and people simply do not get excited over commodities.
While new to Japan, personal branding was introduced in the United States in 1997 by management guru Tom Peters, who told Fast Company magazine, “We are all CEOs of our own companies, Me, Inc. To be in business today our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called you.”
In 1997, this idea of self-branding was ahead of its time. Even in the United States, the average person did not see themselves as a brand and did not want to stand out. Careerists wanted a good job that would provide security, stability, and a steady paycheck until retirement. Today, people all over the world are now uncovering, communicating, and managing their brand to get ahead. Job security and job tenure is decreasing, globalization is increasing competition, and social media and web 2.0 are providing an accessible platform for the average person to finally be, as Tom Peters put it, the “head marketer of their brand.”
Japan and Three Myths of Self-Branding
If you ask a Japanese person if they have heard of personal branding, 99 percent of the time they will not know what it is. Personal branding is simply not part of Japanese culture and people are not aware of it. When I explain the concept, I inevitably get a two-part reaction: “Wow, that sounds really important and Japanese need to do this…” followed by “but I am Japanese and cannot brand myself because…”
What usually follows the ‘because’ is one of a handful of myths about personal branding that I have discovered:
Myth #1: “I have to give up my group identity”
This myth comes from Japanese being taught to be self-effacing and to put the group ahead of one’s own interest. The idea of understanding your unique attributes and using them to stand out to differentiate yourself from others is a challenging concept. As such, defining a unique promise of value in Japan tends to put the Japanese at risk of being separate from, rather than part of the group. The main concern of most people is their in-group identity rather than their individuality.
But personal branding does not mean isolating ourselves from others. Rather, it can help us understand ourselves better and add value to our business, company, or career. Especially in group cultures like Japan, we need to stay focused on how our brand creates value for the group. The diversity we bring to the group does not come at the expense of others but rather empowers the group to reach a common goal. When the group understands how our unique value supports a larger group goal that they are also committed to, we become more memorable and our in-group identity is maintained.
Myth #2: “Only top executives have or need a personal brand”
Many Japanese seem to think that only managers and executives need to have a brand. Their view is that only after years of experience can one develop the skills needed to legitimately have a personal brand. I have actually had people say to me “I do not believe I have a personal brand because I do not have enough experience.”
Everyone has a personal brand. Our brand does not come from years of work experience. Rather, we bring our brand into our work and daily lives, whether we realize it our not. Only by uncovering our brand can we then consciously use it to our advantage.
Myth #3: “Japanese do not need a personal brand, Just work hard and you are rewarded”
As mentioned above, Japanese people have traditionally expected lifetime employment and will stay with the same company until retirement. This lifetime guarantee has always been implicit, with no written contracts. Japanese, therefore, maintain strong loyalty to their company, a loyalty rewarded with promotions throughout a career. Changing jobs, especially mid-career, is considered irresponsible and foolish.
However, Japan today is experiencing a widening income gap and more and more Japanese companies are relying on short-term labor contracts. That is leaving many workers without steady jobs or job security. Market reforms in 2004 made it easier for companies to hire short-term workers in an attempt to make the Japanese economy more competitive. But these new policies increased the very inequality that Japan long prided itself on avoiding. Success in the new working world is characterized by jumping on an express elevator with an elevator pitch in hand that communicates a personal brand. Those who have worked to uncover, communicate, and manage their personal brand with be able to take this express elevator to the top. Those who have not will continue to wait in line.
Does Japan have Personal Branding Role Models?
Helping Japanese to debunk cultural myths about personal branding is one thing, but having real-life examples of actual people who have successfully developed their personal brand is another.
Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani is a great example of someone who has cultivated a strong personal brand. Mikitani started his “lifetime” employment as an investment banker for a large financial institution. But the Kobe native changed his mind-set following the Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe in 1995. He created his own company, Rakuten, two years later.
While Mikitani is a great example of a Japanese entrepreneur who took a risk to ‘stand out from the pack’ there are not many others like him. The average Japanese person does not dream of being their own boss. In the August issue of the Journal, William Saito mentioned that only 12 percent of Japanese dream of being their own boss versus 49 percent of Chinese. And where 73 percent of Americans respect entrepreneurs, only 32 percent of Japanese feel the same way.
The Time Has Come for Japanese to Stand Out
The Japanese need to understand that standing out is not something reserved only for a business owner. In today’s economy, all careerists must stand out and differentiate themselves from others with similar backgrounds competing for the same opportunities.
Last year’s natural disasters may have opened up people’s minds to change, but Japan now needs more people to put this mind-set change into action. This is why personal branding is needed now more than ever in Japan.
As more Japanese uncover their personal brands and use their unique promise of value to be more successful, a different kind of tremor will shake the foundations of Japanese culture – one that does not destroy but builds a new generation that values and rewards standing out and cultivating one’s own personal brand.
Peter Sterlacci is a pioneer in personal branding in Japan. He coaches global careerists in personal branding and presents to organizations about using personal branding and online reputation management to enhance career success. His website is www.petersterlacci.com.