A 25-year veteran of communications in Japan, Jonathan Kushner currently heads up comms at McDonald’s Japan after a career that has also spanned Microsoft, AIG and Kreab. Here, Telum catches up with him to discuss moon viewing burgers, the impact of the 2011 earthquake and turning Happy Meal toys into serving trays.
Your comms work has spanned Japan-specific roles and Asia-wide remits. What is it about doing comms in Japan that has kept you based in the country for nearly three decades?
Home is and has been Japan, and as someone interested in international affairs, it’s been a vibrant part of the world to be in. But when you’re in Japan, you sometimes get sucked up in everything Japanese and miss what’s happening in other markets. Experiencing things as a non-Japanese living in Japan gives me a unique perspective of having one foot in Japan while looking out to the rest of the region.
What has been the defining moment in your career so far that’s carried you to this moment?
The period around the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami was transformational, personally and professionally. It was a real crisis that unfolded in real time, and as a comms professional, it was simultaneously a tremendous challenge and opportunity. It came at a time when I was shifting from government relations and policy work towards more comms and policy. I was really cutting my teeth on crisis comms to learn how to handle and manage change and how to work with senior leaders as a business partner.
Last year, McDonald’s Japan turned 50. What are the campaigns that you think people will look back on at McDonald’s Japan’s centenary?
In terms of food campaigns, the Tsukimi or moon viewing campaign comes to mind. It started with a burger with an egg topping on top, in semblance to the moon. Over the years, we expanded the Tsukimi family to items including a shake, McFlurry and pie. Besides being one of our biggest limited time campaigns in the year, McDonald’s Japan, as the first major restaurant chain to start the Tsukimi offerings, had created a culture around moon viewing items that various restaurants and convenience stores have followed in putting out. To create such a well-received campaign while continuing to evolve it over the years is something quite special.
For the next 50 years, it’s about the campaigns we haven’t done yet. My team and I aspire to do great work in sustainability and ESG. We started our foray into sustainability comms via Happy Meal toys. We launched a programme where kids could drop their old toys into recycling boxes at our restaurants. Several months later, the toy would be reborn as a green serving tray. The idea was to initiate conversation with children around recycling. From a regional, time limited campaign, it became an ongoing, national initiative. Our work in the next 50 years is going to be about how we use our brand power to empower our customers in society.
In 2020, McDonald’s Japan posted record sales of 589 billion yen. What was it like leading the comms team at that time?
In the beginning, the pandemic reminded me a lot of the 2011 earthquake. It wasn’t a physical shock, but it was very much a crisis comms moment. Like what we did after the earthquake, we created a war room and crisis team, meeting daily or often twice daily with the whole cross-functional team to figure out what we needed to do to respond and to take care of our customers and our people.
Throughout the pandemic, McDonald’s Japan was always operational to provide food for people who needed it, whether they were at home or frontline workers. As a result, we spent a lot of time focused on our people to make sure they felt safe coming to work and that their families felt safe about them coming into work. In this process, active and transparent communications was crucial.
It was also critical that comms and corporate relations closely monitored consumer trends and government guidance from national to city levels. Through social media monitoring and analysis, we tried to get a sense of where customer mindsets were heading to be a step ahead in providing products and services consistent with expectations.
Any advice you’d give businesses or comms professionals looking to move into the Japanese market?
One skill that all comms professionals need to develop is to listen. Japan is a market where often the best kind of comms is unsaid, understated or just “felt”. If you don’t listen, adopt the approach of the local environment and ask the right questions, you’re not going to get the input you need to communicate effectively.
Something applicable to Japan and other parts of Asia is building relationships that last throughout your career. Loyalty runs strongly in a market like Japan’s, and it’s important to have trusted relationships with people that go beyond a single project.
The final point is equally applicable in Japan as it is outside Japan. Always remember as a comms professional that there is a lot you don’t know. Ask questions, be eager to learn and push beyond your comfort zone.