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Using sumo ads, Moderna makes a heavy marketing push in Japan to rebuild trust in its COVID-19 vaccine

When some Moderna COVID-19 vaccine vials were found to be contaminated with metallic shards last year in Japan, the company suffered a reputation crisis in a country that it had worked hard to woo.

So how is Moderna trying to win back the trust of people in Japan?

The company is taking a brute force approach, linking itself to sumo wrestling. As Massachusetts-based Moderna tries to attract customers to a fourth booster dose, it is employing ads that include sumo flags and the company name in heavy sumo-style script, Reuters reports.

Moderna’s strategy is part of an overall push to heighten its presence in Asia as it seeks to become the world’s premiere mRNA player.

Last month, Moderna unveiled its plan to open new subsidiaries in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan to “expand its commercial network.” These will join existing Moderna outposts in Japan, Australia and South Korea.

Using sumo flags and imagery is a popular advertising tactic in Japan, especially from companies selling products that sumo wrestlers are known to bulk up on such as rice, tea, fish, meat, vitamins and beer.

Like March Madness in the U.S., sumo kicks into high gear this month with a 15-day tournament in Osaka. Moderna debuted its sumo advertising on March 13, the same day this year’s event began.

As it was developing its COVID vaccine Spikevax, Moderna eyed Japan, creating a commercial partnership with the country’s dominant pharmaceutical company Takeda.

But relations with Japan soured when a manufacturing error at a Rovi plant in Spain resulted in foreign metallic matter appeared in vials, forcing the recall of 1.63 million doses.

Moderna has done much to regain trust in Japan. The government is backing a fourth booster dose and has announced Pfizer will supply 75 million doses while Moderna is providing 70 million.