What is Asia? There are a million answers, but the 12 offered here represent realities that Western marketers must understand in order to succeed here. Use them as a gauge of your own expertise in this vast, fascinating region.
Asia is diverse. And this is an understatement. Only 50 percent of Mainland Chinese speak the official language, Mandarin, and there are 290 more living languages in China -- which is one of nearly 50 countries within Asia. So your brand’s “Asia strategy” must be ruthlessly focused and precise in demographic and cultural terms. Overreach happens when a brand doesn’t have sufficient cultural insight and deployment skill.
Asia is resilient. Life in most parts of Asia isn’t like life in most parts of the West. Asians have endured immense natural disasters, disease, social upheaval, military conflicts and economic strife for centuries longer than the West. Especially in China, this results in an ingrained “This too shall pass” philosophy that is bolstered by a strong sense of “collectiveness.” These realities must inform how your brand talks to Asian audiences.
Asia admires Japan and Korea. While American pop culture is still a dominant force, it is yielding slowly. The “Tokyo Cool Factor” is palpable despite territorial disputes, longstanding rivalries and Japan’s economic difficulties. Korea is also emerging as a cultural influence across Asia in music, film, art, cuisine and products. As your brand works to understand any Asian demographic, you have to recognize the cultural currents blowing its way.
Asia craves convenience. Its urban centers are hotbeds of tech experimentation to make commuting, shopping, working and playing easier -- and how convenience can be developed into consumer products. Don’t assume Asians are not as convenience-focused -- but also don’t assume our solutions would be culturally appealing there. At the very least, study the trends. If your brand can’t take advantage of every one, it will still benefit from understanding the Asian convenience mindset.
Asia is driven. For many young people here, higher education is a powerful new reality, and they (and their parents) are pursuing it ferociously. Education has a cachet that brands can leverage, both in the abstract (it represents achievement) and in specifics (Harvard University is the most aspirational brand in China -- not Apple, Mercedes-Benz or Prada). Success is a new “traditional” Asian value.
Asia is opening. While great attention has been paid to first-tier cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Bangkok and Jakarta, the 2nd-, 3rd-, 4th- and even 5th-tier cities have been largely overlooked. There is opportunity to enter these smaller markets to reach eager middle-class consumers, and less competition. Take pains to understand these less sophisticated markets, and tailor your brand experience to fit.
Asia is local and international at the same time. Multinational CPG brands succeed in Asia when they harmonize a mix of international standards/values and local relevance. Customization in ingredients, value, volume and endorsements is a powerful proposition. Conversely, local brands increasingly benefit by infusing international values of quality in research, design, safety and communications.
Asia is experimental. Asian consumers love brands -- and when their brands innovate and surprise them. Global brands like Lay's, Sprite, KFC and Rejoice enjoy growing success by constantly bringing new flavors, formulations and concepts to market. To Western eyes (and tastebuds), a bag of cucumber-flavored Lay's potato chips might seem bizarre. But in China, this combination of Western brand and local flavor stimulates interest, trial and brand connection.
Asia values foreign concepts. And not just because they’re conspicuous. Apple connotes innovation, the NBA connotes cool and Coca-Cola connotes dreams. Even Western infant formula represents advanced science, quality and safety -- powerful selling points. “Foreignness” is no guarantee of success, but for many categories, leveraging this while taking care to customize your messaging to resonate with local audiences is a solid formula.
Asia loves symbols. Many Western luxury monograms trace their roots to traditional Japanese family crests (“kamon”), and today the influence works the other way, with Asian shoppers very attuned not only to what those Western monograms represent but also precisely how they look. Today it’s less about “showing off” and more about the expression of personal taste and freedom.
Asia thinks small. Where Americans “super-size,” in many Asian locales there’s a demand for smaller serving sizes in packaged goods and single-use sizes of personal care items. This reflects cultures that are developing tastes for Western goods but are still rooted in traditions of thrift. It’s also a way for Western marketers to compete with lower-priced local competitors, offering smaller, less expensive servings of their more-premium brands.
Asia makes more sense when you’re there. In Asia, there is no substitute for having resources on the ground, especially for marketers who seek out the knowledge and support to optimize their brand relevance to fit the diverse and changing needs of Asia.