How did you get there? Vanessa Oshima

Great to catch up with Vanessa Oshima, VP, Marketing division, Starbucks Coffee Japan. Vanessa is also the founder of heart data inc, a marketing strategy company focused on putting the consumer at the heart of the data, and was the co-winner of the ESOMAR paper of the year for her work on brand ikigai (unpacking brand longevity and loyalty) she is also a keen marathon runner and advocate for supporting the fight against cancer. Vanessa is also running for ESOMAR Council!

Hi Vanessa, great to be able to hear your story and get it out there to inspire junior researchers. Let’s crack on! So, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?

I grew up in a small town in NZ. Actually I think you probably know it. It’s Shire in Lord of the Rings. Yes I grew up in Hobbiton! In my final year of High School I applied for an exchange student program, and I clearly wrote on the form that I wanted to go to CANADA. Long story short I ended up in Japan, and this is where I met my husband, Yasu.  We got married quite young and lived in NZ for 7 years. I worked in academia teaching socio-economics (now its more commonly referred to as behavioural economics). I moved from Academia to consulting in best practices, I wanted to put theory to action and the work we did was investigating role model companies in areas of HR, e-commerce (yes when it still had an “e” before it) and finance  for companies to unlock growth by learning from others.  I call these my “foundations” to being a researcher – Like most people I was never formally trained in research – but I have a passion for learning, and teaching. When my husband and I and our two young sons returned to Japan in 2001, I answered an ad in the Japan Times Newspaper (yes NEWSPAPER) to join a Start-Up research agency. I knew I could do math, was curious, loved people watching. I still remember the interview. The founder of the venture fund said “we have tech solutions, that we can bring to the market – I don’t know much about research but I have a feeling you will succeed at this” – so let’s try. And that’s when the love affair started!  And I loved it – puzzles, tools, innovation, finding the future opportunities. I got a “buzz” when I saw products hit the market that we as a team had worked on.   As with any start up team we were doing it all – Business Development in the morning, research and report writing in the afternoon, admin and catch up in between.

The start-up experience taught me so much about being a small agency, with a great tool, but just needing a break – someone to listen to me, give us a chance – just 10 minutes.  After I moved to the client side I vowed to always make space and time to listen to the “new kids on the block” and actually even set aside “play budgets” to explore new techniques.  I moved to Philip Morris as my first job “client side”. It was a surprising move for me – as the biggest non-smoker you had ever met (not even a sneaky trial in High School!). So why did I say yes to Philip Morris? I went to the interview with a very open mind, and I could see that I would be able to learn a lot from a company that had been building brands without “traditional Above the Line Media” for decades. It was the future. I also learned that I was a non-smoker, but not anti-smoking (I have friends that are smokers). I learned a great deal about responsible marketing, responsible research. My learning is “don’t close your mind or the doors” – at least listen! You never know where it might take you!

Next stop, Nike! And Brand Manager. Just as I left Academia to experience making the theory hit a real business problem, I moved from insights to Brand Management as the Running Category Brand Manager for Nike Japan. I was a runner and there is nothing like your job and your hobby converging! The experience as a Brand Manager helped me understand that sometimes the “change the game insight” I had delivered as a researcher was not easily transferred to  a creative brief or marketing plan. It’s like we are speaking different languages. My experience as Brand Manager made me an even stronger strategy and insights lead when I returned to insights as the head of Knowledge and Insights for Coke Japan.  Increasingly I came to realize that I have  a deep passion for understanding “how to unlock potential and create lifetime connections”. This means that I can fluidly move between insights roles and marketing roles. I stopped calling myself a researcher or a marketer and started saying “I am passionate about building brands”. I work in unlocking potential for now and the future.

A fantastic journey! And if you had to distil everything you’ve achieved right down, what would you say are three secrets to your success so far?

  1. People: surrounding yourself with the right people and a diverse group of people. I once had a boss say to me if you are the smartest person in the room, you need to move rooms. Keep seeking out people to support you, challenge you, build you and inspire you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and offer help.  And be comfortable with not being the smartest person in the room.  Building networks (in the company, across the industry, in your community) and nurturing  these networks to become relationships takes time and effort. My experience is that it is worth every second of my time in doing this.  It means you have an infinite amount of support to tap into when you need it.  
  1. Having an open and positive mindset:  Although Japan was not my first choice to come to as an exchange student I tried it, and it changed my life – literally. Although never having worked in research or a startup – I thought let’s see what could be possible. I have also learned that I have a certain amount of energy – I can apply that energy in the way that I choose. I can spend time “finding an excuse” or “finding a way”. I generally believe that there is always a way through – If I can’t see it … (see hint number 1 above!)
  1. Pivoting: A piece of advice given to me by a trusted friend and mentor once told me, if you don’t like something you have three choices. 1. Change it (see 2 above), 2. Change your attitude towards it or 3. Quit/leave. It requires you to have the ability to PIVOT. I have successfully pivoted many times, not stuck in the situation and I believe that has been key to me being able to “make it through”

So, come on, if you’re allowed to say, what’s the most interesting, crazy, fun project you’ve ever worked on?

This one is personal: It’s the #outruncancer project that started on September 11, 2012 (  The short version is that I promised my friend Caroline that I would run everyday for her until she was through and done with fighting cancer. It was the start of the my “marathon of  learnings”.  It is project that I have been doing for 8+ years.

Finding a way to lace up and run.

In snow, Typhoons, in between conference calls, with hangovers, before dinner, just before midnight, just after midnight, at airports and even running down Mount Fuji.  Run the day before a marathon and the day after.  I came to realise that “if it mattered, I would find a way” – and  that made this project a little crazy at times.

I started to also raise money for the cancer society as well.  Time and again at Esomar congress, members braved the weather, hangovers and jetlag to meet me in front of the congress venue to participate in our “outruncancer run” wearing bright yellow daffodil hats (the symbol of the cancer society in NZ – after a long winter there will be daffodils springing to life with all the vibrant color and optimism that comes when you beat cancer).

In 2016 I was invited to run London Marathon as a Charity runner for the NZ Cancer Society. You are set a  fundraising target that we as runners pledge to meet as part of the quid pro quo to get an entry to London Marathon (notoriously hard for international runners to enter!).  I needed a few hundred dollars more to make the target. It was actually an ESOMAR friend that texted me and asked how much do you need – I am making the donation. 

In Feb 2017  the “run” took another crazy turn. I was diagnosed with Cancer. And the friend I was running for … well she started to run for me.  She is still running for me, and I am running for her.

And my “most fun research” project was a cross functional discovery and ideation project. The “Future of Menthol” trend trek with Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve team in New York and then Tokyo. Spending a day in a shuttle bus hoping from one curated location and interactio to the next as we learned and explored. From mohitos to mentholated shampoo, spa treatments, tea ceremonies, ice baths,  toothpaste and curated refreshment dinner. We learned that it was not menthol but refreshment we needed to evolve.  The brainstorming after led us to a product concept that when launched was the biggest launch in 20 years in Japan.

Inspiring stuff! So, not being in the office and around colleagues, it is incredibly challenging, for younger researchers. What two bits of advice do you have for a junior researcher, working from home in lockdown, on how they can thrive, and impress their teams?

It’s a great question. I actually have 3 new members on my team that joined after we went into Lockdown here in Tokyo. They have not officially ever worked in the office with the entire team present. It has required a focused effort to create connection and “showcase” their skills and stand out.  Every member of a team has value.

Be fearless. Be confident. You were hired into the role for the value you bring. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to try.

Be engaged and engaging! Story telling, communicating, networking, personal… these are things that make you memorable with clients, teams and wider networking groups. Once I presented about the importance of Sleep to an Executive Vice President in Pokemon Pajamas. The next time he saw me he was “you are the pokemon presenter”.  (word of warning he was known to be very creative so I could get away with it!). And when at home it is easy to be multi-tasking and doing other things. Its clear when you are “fully in” and when you are not … be “IN”.

And thinking more long term now, what two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?

I have this conversation with my sons and their friends often. Keep your eyes open for opportunities. Keep looking – yes stay connected to recruiters even if you are super happy in your current role. (Making decisions about next roles when you are not happy in your current situation can lead to wrong moves). Move purposefully but also don’t rush. I remember once a candidate I was interviewing saying “I have my MBA now” so when will I be managing people? Not maybe the right question at that stage of the process!

To become a leader and act like a leader. When you play sports at High School the captain of the Senior Varsity team, was already showing “captain like qualities” when they were a junior. It makes the decision so much easier. Stand taller, stretch yourself. Surround yourself with a diverse  network and lean on it often.

You’re running (see what I did there?) for ESOMAR Council, congratulations! What is your key message and how do you plan to make a difference?

Thanks! As Congress Chair in 2017 I marvelled at ESOMAR celebrating 70 years, staying relevant and strong for 70 years is not easy – & wondered what the next 70 years would hold. I have decided to run for council with the goal to not just “wonder” but to give back and apply my experiences on agency and client side, insights, strategy and marketing teams. And couple this with my passion for development and future of the research industry to stay relevant and strong. As part of council I want to focus on the task at hand to  craft & lead global industry policies & guidance, inspire & develop new members, to realise our new research reality & unlock the transformations we need for next 70 years. It is my 3P focus on People, Potential and Progress.

I believe that the experience I have working in a start-up research agency bringing new tools that were challenging the status quo, working on client side in both research/insights function and now in marketing adds a needed and unique perspective to council. I plan to make a difference by harnessing these experiences, my networks and my “passion for action” and finding a better way.

And do you have anyone who has helped your career so far that you’d like to acknowledge and say thanks or give a shout out to?

As they say it takes a village … every person I have worked with and for has helped to build me.  But the biggest shout out goes to my “boys” – My husband Yasu and my sons Zac and Jordan as the absolute backbone of my ability to have developed my career to where it is.  They have always cheered me on and that is the biggest tailwind I could ever have.

So awesome to be able to hear your story, Vanessa. So much great advice here for junior researchers and anyone in our industry in fact! Best of luck for the ESOMAR Election!