Company Websites Hold Valuable Hints About Cultural Differences

I often research early-stage companies in the U.S. and Japan as part of my consulting work. To get a picture of a firm, my first stop is usually the company website.  However, I often feel like I need a translation tool in order to make sense of the different approaches used by U.S. and Japanese companies.  While these differences make it hard to compare apples-to-apples, they offer insights into the different goals and environments of firms in each country. 

A U.S. company website is basically an online commercial designed to engage visitors and hype the enterprise. Not surprisingly, it is usually built and managed by the marketing team, and is very focused on “The Story” – an engaging account of why the company was created and how it is going to solve a big problem and change the world forever.   

The “About Us” section of a U.S. site invariably is chock-full of superlatives like  “leading,” “revolutionary,” or just plain “best.” Other sections contain the accomplishments and pictures of the management team (a la actor bios in a Broadway Playbill), a list of investors and recent positive press stories about the company. 

When it comes to financial information, private companies are much less forthcoming, perhaps because the actual sales and profits often don’t yet support The Story. At most, a company might mention the amount of funding raised to date (especially if it comes from a Tier1 investor), or perhaps some information about the web traffic, key partnerships or unique advantages of its technology.

In contrast, Japanese company websites generally describe the business with a plain vanilla data sheet of information that could double as an application for a business license. This page typically includes short descriptions of the company’s product offerings and business purpose. It includes the name of the CEO or President (although without the glossy photo and bio), and occasionally the board members, but generally not the management team. 

Most Japanese companies also list their paid-in capital (shihonkin), key customer accounts or affiliates, and even their bank (sometimes down to the branch level!). A separate page includes a very polite letter from the company president that resembles the tone and insight – or lack thereof – of the CEO letter in the annual report of a public company.

Why the big differences? In the U.S., early-stage companies, especially high-growth ones, are focused on multiple audiences. In addition to end users, they want to reach potential investors, “influencers” (bloggers, media types, pundits) and potential partners, since these people are often critical to their success. By selling The Story, the company seeks to capture the imagination (and support) of visitors to the site.

In Japan, companies seek to present the company credentials and document its stability. There are fewer investors, and even venture investors are more concerned about striking out than they are eager to hit a home run. 

Finally, Japanese consumers are much more likely to be impressed by a product or service that works – and a company that remains in business to provide support – than they are by a story about how the company will change the world.

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