Insights 3 Challenges for Brands in the Asian Century… And 3 Opportunities — Part 2

The experience of big brands who have entered Asia over the last decade suggest that even the most savvy are forced to adapt to local ways of doing business to truly tap into Asia’s potential. Within Asia comes unpredictable variety, consumers from an array of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, economies at vastly differing stages in terms of development and demographics. And here trends change at spectacular pace — taking even the most seasoned brands by surprise. To meet the challenge, brands will have to evolve innovative, genuinely local approaches designed for the region’s consumers. In part 1, we established Asia’s ascendancy and looked at gathering and leveraging first-party data to unlock customer value. Now we’re looking at two more opportunities for growth in Asia Pacific.

2. Diversity and inclusion: Cultural intelligence to reflect the customers we serve

In Asia’s high-growth markets, brands already face fierce competition from low-cost local players. Middle-income customers have an eye on the budget, with swiftly changing preferences, and no established brand loyalties. And then there’s fragmented distribution. 

By all accounts, the retail landscape in 2030 ASEAN will continue to stay dominated by small and medium sized players, with traditional trade and convenience stores capturing 40% to 50% of sales. While some of these problems will phase out as these markets mature, many are here to stay driven by consumer appetite for unlimited choice, and on-demand fulfilment.

In addition to fragmentation, a defining trend across Asian markets is digital consumption led by Generation Z (1996-2012) and Millennials (1981-1995). Together, they will account for 75% of ASEAN consumers in 2030. See our recent stories for more on the trends shaping these groups.

Made by Us, not Made for Us

Despite the region’s inherent diversity and demands for inclusivity, stereotypes, tone deafness, and cultural insensitivity are common challenges when marketing in the region. Burberry, Prada, Fendi, Victoria’s Secret have all come under fire from local audiences for being out-of-touch. Established brands have apologised for ads that didn’t “fully reflect their brand values”.

Who died? Burberry’s 2019 CNY Campaign missed the mark with local audiences

 Image credit: Burberry

Branding missteps prove costly in Asian markets, where consumers are more likely to react swiftly and loudly and decisively — no longer buying from the brand, switching to a competitor, or discouraging others from buying or supporting it.

This “cancel culture” behaviour is also strongest among younger generations who have an outsized impact on spending behaviour in the region, with 88% of Gen Z and 85% of Millennials saying they would share negative feedback with family and friends.

Hyper-local strategies for the new world order

Embracing diversity and inclusivity in Asia isn’t simply good positioning, it’s also good business — take Wardah, an Indonesian brand focused on halal cosmetics. Muslim beauty lovers are expected to spend US $90 billion on cosmetics by 2023 and Wardah is well positioned to make the most of this bounty.

Wardah: Meeting the needs of an underserved US$ 90B market for halal cosmetics

Underserved and growing customer bases in Asia are an opportunity — and local brands and startups have been quick to cater to the needs of these diverse customer preferences. From old timers like Coca-Cola to Grab, successful localisation and hyper localisation is key.

Considering that consumers in Asia are eager for personalisation and willing to share their data for convenience and quality, gathering first-party data and activating it is a critical first step to building a genuine understanding of customer needs. Equally important is local collaboration and co-creation, understanding local nuances — what’s said as well as what’s left unsaid — to appeal to Asian consumers with hyper-local preferences. 

3. High/Low Innovation: Embrace completely new ways of doing business

When it comes to digital and technological progress, Asia is seeing innovation at the speed of need. We have Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, Xiaomi, and Meituan Dianping in China; TSMC in Taiwan; Naver in Korea; Rakuten and SoftBank in Japan; Grab and Go-Jek in South East Asia; Reliance, Infosys and Paytm in India. Agile and aggressive, these companies are well funded and are innovating to meet the appetites of Asian consumers, creating capabilities to meet this recent disruption and the next one.

Alongside high-tech innovation, Asia is also embracing reverse and frugal innovation — eliminating complexity in production and supply chains to improve affordability. With infrastructure and skills gaps in Asia, thinking outside the box is imperative: the most innovative ways brands employ technology and local ingenuity to reinvent both products and channels in unexpected ways. 

Data analytics + hyper localisation + high/low innovation with Grab

Asia’s ride hailing and logistics player Grab is an interesting case study of a brand that has successfully adopted all three strategies to win out against global giants in Asia.

Grab: Bike taxis, cashless transactions, durian delivery and more…

Grab introduced bike taxis to beat traffic, local food stalls as pick-up and drop-off points, cashless payments for the unbanked, and even a dedicated app for durian pick ups. The platform applies machine learning to route its drivers during surge hours. Combining data analytics with local expertise and high-tech innovation has been instrumental to the brand’s success (the company has a US$ 100 million R&D centre in Singapore, plus more centres in Beijing and Seattle). As with most other businesses, COVID-19 has posed serious setbacks, but a diversified approach — food and grocery delivery, ride-hailing, payments — is helping the brand cope with the new normal.

The Asian Century — A nuanced, dynamic approach

To succeed in the Asian Century, brands will need to develop strategies that reflect Asia’s diversity, and continually revisit and refresh their approaches to keep up with the lightening pace of change in Asia’s markets. Understanding user data and embracing digital are first steps. But actively engaging with end consumers (especially the fringe ones) and investing in innovation are key to unlocking sustainable growth. The recent experiences of brands in Asia only goes to show that we all know less about one another than we think.

One constant is finding true resonance with audiences. This means identifying shared beliefs — whether belonging, connection or quality of life — and defining a brand purpose that responds to these needs in an immediate, compelling way. Asia’s time is now, and with a little preparation, this promises to be a rewarding ride.