Akira Mitsumasu, Vice President, CX, Data Analytics and Global Marketing at Japan Airlines, will be chairing the Customer Experience category of the 2022 WARC Awards for Effectiveness. Here, he talks about how Japan Airlines helped travellers during uncertain times, the company’s increased focus on sustainability practices, and what he’ll be looking for in the category’s entrants.


Akira Mitsumasu, Vice President, CX, Data Analytics and Global Marketing at Japan Airlines

Describe your role.

My main responsibilities are to find insights, generate ideas and run campaigns, especially for our markets outside of Japan. I also oversee our customer data centre, working with a team which helps other departments have a more data-driven approach to decision making, both in customer experience and in marketing. And these two ‘hats’ I wear are not unrelated: working closely with both the marketing and data analytics team is incredibly helpful in bringing out relevant insights.

The pandemic drastically impacted the travel sector – what have been your biggest challenges at Japan Airlines and how did you tackle them?

The situation required us to refocus our efforts and we did that by looking at things through the lenses of both the present and the future. When looking at the present, we focused on identifying the areas where we could apply our resources to address an immediate problem. In our case, that meant looking at things like shipping medical supplies and enhancing safety. We created a programme that provided PCR tests and insurance to cover medical expenses, and introduced contactless solutions in airports, using facial recognition to help travellers go through all touchpoints in the safest possible way.

In terms of the future, we approached this time as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us to stop, reflect and make changes, especially in areas like technology and sustainability. Over the past eighteen months, we heavily focused on reducing carbon emissions, food waste and single-use plastics, making ESG one of our strategic pillars alongside business and financial strategy.

How did you approach customer experience during this time?

We put ourselves in our customers’ shoes: “What would I need when travelling?”, then we try to cover all aspects of the journey and make solutions easily accessible.

In the travel space, there are three things consumers need the most. The first is safety: from enhanced hygiene measures to ensuring the crew is vaccinated, we go through a checklist to make sure we have it all covered and benchmark it against other what other airlines are doing as well as industry best practices. The second thing is information: rules for travelling are constantly changing, so we try to break this information down for travellers in a user-friendly way, using machine learning to surface the most relevant points. The third thing is flexibility: in the case of new restrictions and cancelled flights, we make sure we can guarantee refunds to our customers.

On top of these three key areas, we also provide COVID-19 insurance coverage, cover medical expenses at destination, as well as offering easy access to PCR tests at discounted rate. The latter we can only provide for Japan’s outbound travellers, but for other customers we tied up with clinic aggregators to make it easier to book a test.

What are the learnings from this time that you see yourself applying in the future?

It’s been a time of learning to adapt to an increasingly uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. As a result, in our business processes, we learned to be more agile and embrace the digital transformation. But the main learning for me was realising that change on such a huge scale brings with it opportunities too, and it is for us to recognise and seize them.

Can you share an example of a recent campaign (not from Japan Airlines) that impressed you in terms of customer experience?

I particularly like campaigns that are bold enough to challenge social stigma or create a sense of community. Increasingly, brands are playing an important role in promoting social understanding and creating bonds. Recently, I was taken by the Cadbury Celebrations campaign in India, which used technology to allow people to find independent shops in their vicinity, so they could buy from them during a Diwali season disrupted by COVID. To me, good customer experience gives consumers the opportunity to play a role in their society and build their communities.

In your view, what are the essential elements of a successful paper in the Customer Experience category?

I think there are three key elements. First of all, because customer experience is constantly evolving, it’s important to be clear about your understanding of what customers are going through and how this informed and shaped your strategy. Secondly, you have to explain what makes your work special: it could be the way you approached a physical experience, or the use of technology – describe what makes it stand out from other entries. Lastly, prove how effective it was against the objective or challenge set out. Many papers start off with brilliant ideas, but fall down in showing how they addressed their challenges, which makes it hard to evaluate effectiveness.

What is the one thing that is a red flag for you when you read a paper?

What I find the most disappointing is ‘padding’: using superfluous words and fluff without talking much about the real results. This could mean one of two things: either the paper truly is brilliant but the writer somehow failed to provide details, or the work was not really impactful at all.

What are you hoping to see in this year’s entrants?

Ironically, we’ve all been enriched by the pandemic, so I would love to see how today’s bright minds can bring novel ideas alive in their work. And by novel ideas, I don’t necessarily mean something we have never seen before, but rather new and better ways of addressing old problems – or even finding a new language to describe these problems, so that we can look at them through new lenses.

The WARC Awards for Effectiveness are now open for entries. The deadline for submission is 2nd March, 2022.

Entry is free. For more info on how to submit your work, visit the Awards website.