Never heard of ソフトバンク株式会社? How about SoftBank? It’s a Japanese telecommunications, internet, finance, media, and marketing zaibatsu now looking to reach across the Pacific pond to snatch a controlling share of #3 U.S. wireless company Sprint Nextel.
Shaking up the mobile market
The deal could see Softbank take a 70 percent stake in Sprint worth more than 1 trillion yen ($12.8 billion). It would allow the combined company to then take a controlling stake in the Sprint minority-owned, and LTE spectrum heavy, Clearwire. They could then use their new global muscle to grab T-Mobile or MetroPCS—and even leverage better terms from hardware manufacturers like iPhone-maker Apple. In fact, the chart below shows how the new company ranks on the global stage.
Business value aside, I’m looking forward to the consumer value of importing the quirky Softbank advertising campaign that features the very non-conventional Shirato family. The mother and sister are Japanese, the brother is black, and the father is a cute white dog. Otosan, meaning Father, is the fluffy, canine patriarch of an otherwise normal human family—and the four-legged star of one of Japan’s most successful advertising campaigns.
The dog days of mobile marketing
Since the first “Shirato Family” commercial in 2007, the long running campaign has produced over 130 episodes. The campaign was created by Creative director Hiroshi Sasaki, TV planner Yoshimitsu Sawamoto, and SoftBank president, Masayoshi Son. The well-loved campaign is seen as a critical part of SoftBank’s climb from obscurity in the mobile market to rivaling Japan’s largest carrier, NTT DoCoMo.
I welcome the Shirato family to the United States. Other than the beautifully branded T-Mobile girl (recently spared from marketing oblivion when the AT&T deal fell through), other US mobile carriers offer bland, boring, uninspired, and undistinguished marketing. Like so many other areas—manga and anime to video games and pop culture in general—Japan is a leading purveyor of not just technology, but a unique Japanese brand.
That brand may originate in the land of the Rising Sun, but it’s a new, global, post-national culture that Dr. Koichi Iwabuchi has called “mukokuseki” (むこくせき). The word, originally used to describe anime, has been extended across other cultural frontiers. Mukokuseki can be translated as “odorless,” but in this context it means a person who is “stateless” or “without country of origin.” It refers to the way Japanese cultural products can be seen to erase national history and identity in an attempt to more fully integrate with a global audience.
The next big global telcom brand
If there is a CEO who could bring to bare both the business and branding skills needed to build a new global telecom brand, it’s Masayoshi Son. He’s known as a lover of all things American. Son moved to California at age 16, going to high school in San Francisco, and attended the University of California in Berkeley. He was infected by the Silicon Valley virus, and exhibited a rash of entrepreneurial ideas that’s made him the second richest man in Japan.
One of the big advantages of Softbank is its exclusive Japanese iPhone marketing deal—helped along by a friendship with Steve Jobs. Like Jobs, Son’s success, in part, came from a sense of being an outsider striving for greatness, fueled in part from being a Korean child raised in largely homogeneous Japan. His particular mukokuseki could be advantageous in taking a combined Softbank + Sprint + T-Mobile to a dominant position that ties together global consumers with a post-national brand that’s a perfect fit for this Pacific-dominated century.
If Son has his way, it’s only a matter of time before we see the English versions of these Softbank commercials:
Doc: “He’s recovering so fast, its hard to believe he’s human.”
Nurse: “Yeah Doc, I can’t believe he’s human”
Daughter: “Dad’s a genuine human, isn’t that right?”
Dog: “I’m starving”