In Tokyo, Convenience Stores Are Full of Marketing Gems, and Tommy Lee Jones Is Boss

While a 'Men in Black' Star Serves as Top Pitchman, the Men and Women Move Forward With the Times

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Tommy Lee Jones might not be the big-time movie star he once was, but he's everywhere in Japan.

His craggy profile graces vending machines across the country -- which is as known for those ubiquitous machines as for American celebrities appearing in ads they would never do back home.

Mr. Jones is the star pitchman for Suntory's Boss coffee, a ready-to-drink brand targeting blue-collar consumers. In the campaign, the Oscar-winning actor portrays an alien who has come to Earth and taken the form of Tommy Lee Jones to observe the absurdities of human life.

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Tommy Lee Jones in a spot for Suntory Boss coffee

The "Men in Black" star is stone-faced in most of the TV spots, in which his characters include a miner, worker at a hot-springs resort and cameraman's assistant. In one, he's a karaoke-parlor attendant misty-eyed over his favorite chanteuse, and he sings (in Japanese) a bar from one of her songs. Dentsu handles the creative for the campaign, which is going strong after six years and includes more than 30 TV ads.

"Suntory is still privately owned, which is one of the reasons they have been able to be bold with their advertising," said Jordan Price, senior planning partner at JWT in Tokyo. "The company's rallying cry is yatte minahare ["go for it"], and they work with the most famous creatives in the business in Japan, so when they are presented work that feels right -- even if it's hard to explain logically -- they have a history of "going for it.'"

Though the Boss coffee spots may seem off-the-wall from a Western viewpoint, Mr. Price said, "somehow they have managed to tap into deep insights into the average blue-collar worker in Japan with the idea of this "worthless, wonderful world' that Alien Jones observes."

It's one tiny slice of life in Japan, which is still the No. 2 ad market in the world, after the U.S., despite the earthquake and tsunami that struck in March 2011. It has held the title even as China's ad spending zooms along at a double-digit clip.

More than a week of visits to marketers and ad agencies (and just walking around Tokyo) was a mind-bending adventure of learning about innovations big and small that somehow haven't traveled outside Japan's borders. The country's famous attention to detail and aesthetics make it a dream for those who love design as much as function. Presentation standards are so exacting that products for sale in the West appear shabby and unloved by comparison.

Take Domino's Pizza. In Japan, toppings must be evenly spaced and facing the same direction. Triangular slices of ham point uniformly toward the center of the pie. This may seem obsessive to outsiders, but Japanese consumers expect that level of care and precision. It's now impossible to look at pizza the same way -- especially at those with toppings rudely applied helter-skelter.

Japanese convenience stores are a marketing wonderland, hubs of urban life where people pay bills, buy tickets to events and pick up packages. In addition to snacks and an amazing array of pastries, the stores carry manga (Japanese comics).

The shops have cold cases carrying zero-alcohol, zero-calorie, zero-sugar 'beer.'
The shops have cold cases carrying zero-alcohol, zero-calorie, zero-sugar 'beer.'
The shops have cold cases carrying zero-alcohol, zero-calorie, zero-sugar "beer" next to hot cases stocked with canned coffees and teas. A glimpse in the freezer reveals a familiar brand -- Haagen-Dazs -- but in Japan the ice cream comes not only in tiny tubs but sandwiched between crispy wafers or rolled into soft crepes, a product launched last year by TBWA Hakuhodo.

Look for the line helpfully taped to the floor several feet from the register when you go to pay. It's one customer at a time at the counter, though the rule is unspoken and not immediately clear to newcomers. One frequently feels like a walking faux pas.

Japanese women are the most dynamic demographic at the moment, though few consumer trends seem to stick. Many urban working women are eschewing traditional gender roles to focus on careers and themselves. Women are increasingly dining alone (which used to make them feel self-conscious), and restaurants have responded with female-friendly meals for one.

Young urban men, on the other hand, have rejected the machismo of their fathers' generation of salarymen and adopted a gentler outlook. Cooking classes are popular, as are grooming products and desserts for men. Young office workers in Tokyo still wear black suits (things in Japan haven't changed that much), but their outfits feature unique personal touches -- colorful silk ties and buttery-leather shoes.

It's impossible to talk about marketing in Japan without mentioning Dentsu, which with No. 2 agency, Hakuhodo, dominates the market. Though Dentsu's international profile is still growing, no advertising agency comes close to matching its scale or media-buying power at home. Its soaring glass headquarters is one of the tallest buildings in Japan, with the excellent Advertising Museum Tokyo in the basement.

Dentsu's headquarters is one of the tallest buildings in Japan.
Dentsu's headquarters is one of the tallest buildings in Japan.
The biggest takeaway from a stay in Japan is how difficult it is for outsiders to crack the polished veneer and begin to truly understand the country and culture. Sometimes it felt like a visit to the future, such as the time an executive described vending machines with facial-recognition technology that suggests certain products to certain consumers at certain times of day, based on demographic buying patterns. Another day, I interviewed a robot wearing a polka-dot hoodie in a cafe over steaming cups of milk tea.

But often it felt like a trip in a reversed time machine. A visit with Shiseido included a stop at the corporate headquarters near Tokyo Bay. As our meeting began, a woman in a pink skirt-suit entered the room, bowed and knelt to pour green tea for each of us as we sat around a low table.

Lunch at the Shiseido Parlour (in the building that housed the original Shiseido Pharmacy, in Tokyo's posh Ginza district) was a multicourse affair, with food served on delicate china in a setting that would be perfectly suited for the Real Housewives of Tokyo. The rich potato croquettes were made from a 100-year-old recipe. Dapper waiters provided polished silver hooks topped with the Shiseido logo to hang on the sides of the tables so that no purse has to touch the ground.

Yet the modern side of the company is just next door, in the glossy new Shiseido flagship store featuring state-of -the-art skin-analysis machines and high-definition video terminals that can apply products virtually to a customer's face.

For all that 's different and unexpected about Japan -- heated plush seats on trains! Giant cellphones! -- at least one thing was comfortingly familiar: A night owl is a night owl everywhere. At the ad agencies I visited (except Dentsu, where the department was not part of my official tour), no creatives were at their desks before lunchtime.

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