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Marketing in Asia A Complex Choice

“The times they are a-changin,” warbled poet and songwriting legend Bob Dylan. Nowhere could that apply more than the dynamic, fast rising, booming and complex markets of Asia. The 21st century has been referred to as the “Asian Century” whereby Asian economics, culture and politics will dominate over the next 100 years as Britain and America ruled the 19th and 20th centuries respectively. What was speculation before is now emerging as reality, as more emphasis worldwide is placed on the growing economic powers of China, India, Japan, as well as East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. With nearly four billion people – home to about two out of three of the world’s population and projected to grow to five billion by the middle of the century – it’s no wonder that many western corporations and brands have either expanded existing operations here in Asia or have moved in belatedly. Local Asian brands have hunkered down to both defend their local markets and expand globally. What marketers are discovering about Asia’s rich and culturally diverse markets are unique, often complex branding challenges, as consumer attitudes and desires seemingly change as rapidly as the mobile phones Asian consumers cannot live without.

Make no mistake about it: Asians are responding to the influx of rapid worldwide technological development like ducks to water. Already, the largest percentage of the 1.6 billion internet users worldwide are in Asia. Over 90 percent of the world’s internet video games are conceptualized and produced in South Korea. Every global brand worth its salt has established a headquarters in Asia to capitalise on the regions veritable unlimited opportunities. It has not come easy; to most marketers, Asian consumers are more knowledgeable, more discriminating and curious, but with shorter attention spans. Except for Hong Kong and possibly Singapore, Southeast Asian markets and China are young markets. It is this attractive youth market – where brand loyalty is built – that marketers stand perplexed. These are energetic, ambitious, highly motivated, multitasking, upwardly mobile, much sought after youth with seemingly unlimited choices, determined, as other youth have done before them, to burn their own paths toward posterity. Marketers term these multitasking youths as “Millennials”. If you have teenage kids you will know them for their perplexing ability to watch television while doing homework and chatting online while listening to their iPods – they just seem so relaxed and at ease doing so.

Even “older” consumers have been caught up in rapid modernisation and instant communication. The mobile phone in Asia has become the most pervasive electronic tool by far, and will become even more so. In addition to the already countless functions mobile phones now carry, internet games, banking and cash cards are additional functions already in place in some leading Asian countries. You really will not be able “to leave home without” one.

Given the complexities of the target markets’ ever changing attitude and desires, marketers find themselves even more confounded with the growing list of media and advertising vehicles, whether traditional or not, to attempt to get over the equally increasing noise and clutter. Traditional marketing and its subsets of branding, distribution, pricing and advertising just aren’t enough anymore. One has to have Customer Relations Management (CRM) programmes to keep current target consumers satisfied. It’s not enough to build a brand image, personality and franchise system through traditional media anymore, but instead it has become more effective to develop your brand via the internet, mobile phones, event marketing and loyalty programmes. A brand has to become activated to be an integral part of the consumer’s life… at their clubs, bars, concerts and hangouts. Better yet, brands stage the events themselves. Sales promotions once deemed harmful to a product image if continually run are now disguised as loyalty programmes. Brands have to be ever present. The once broad line between brand building and hard selling has blurred. Some marketing gurus see the new markets as horizontal and not vertical anymore. Does that mean a less focused shotgun marketing approach is now the norm?

If one likened the Asian marketing world to an ever growing layer by layer onion, and this onion had a core of truths, that core would have seemingly been crushed under the weight of those countless layers by now. Are there no longer any branding or marketing truths to stand by? Have traditional marketing tenets gone the way of extinction? Not really… because when it comes right down to the core of that onion sans the layers of media options, CRM programmes, events, online and offline activities, loyalty programs and what have you, what you have still holds true to successful marketing, branding, advertising, distribution and pricing; meaning that one has to do their homework to establish product or corporate positioning. This means continuous qualitative and quantitative market research to fully understand what the target consumers desire and want demographically and psychographically. One has to understand what motivates their target consumers whether they are children, teenagers, young adults, mothers, businessmen or senior citizens, and the more one studies these different consumer segments, the more one realises that the core motivators for brand values almost always remain the same. Value for money is not solely about the practical mind, but about emotional value which can be about affinity, intuitions, prestige, status, etc. Peer affinity is always a factor with the youth market that never changes. They have to have their own music, clothes and language. Marketers should not let the layers of technological marketing development cloud out the core values of human motivation. A successful brand has a likable personality – like a human personality – that people can relate to. International brands like Coca-Cola, Sony, Levi’s, Nestle, Honda, Starbucks and HSBC understand the importance of a brand’s perceived value. People prefer to purchase brands they know and have an affinity with.

We can then say that the underlying branding truth underneath all these layers of “change” is that the core values of successful branding remain the same. Consumers make brand choices based on the perceived value of a brand and its personality. The growing challenge for marketers is to make sure that all the layers of their brand stay focused on the image they want the target market to perceive, whether it is a loyalty programme, a CRM programme, online, offline, brand activation or what have you. Every single layer of the brand thrust becomes part and parcel of its perceived image. In retrospect, branding is, in its most basic form, the understanding of human behavior. Nothing more. Nothing less. It is all about common sense. The rational and emotional behaviour of people has always been driven by the same forces. Stay focused and the choices may not be that complex.