Much like “social media” and “content,” “emerging markets” is one of the hottest terms in marketing these days.

But as with any hot topic, there’s a danger that the hype will overshadow important messages about how to connect profitably – and sensitively – with these complex markets. The South Sea and dot-com bubbles are just two historical examples of this; time after time, the unwary get their fingers burned and discourage others from connecting as early as they could.

So what do we mean by “emerging markets”? Too often it seems the term is used as shorthand for China, or China and India. But even beyond the BRIC countries (which include Brazil and Russia), markets in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America represent significant opportunities for developing long-term relationships with travellers.

Together these places contain roughly 60 percent of the world’s population and they’re getting stronger. If anything, their growth relative to developed economies has been accelerated by the global economic slowdown. China is already the world’s second-largest economy and the International Monetary Fund has predicted that the total GDP of emerging and developing economies will equal those of advanced economies by 2013-14.

In other words, the opportunity to find a culture or consumer that is right for your brand has grown exponentially. But that doesn’t mean marketers should blindly jump into the fray.

All of these markets share common characteristics that allow us a “starting point” in dealing with them. But they all have their own unique needs and traits as well. To borrow a well-known emerging markets catchphrase, these places are “same, same… but different!”

Branding lessons from Atticus Finch

Let’s start by looking at one of the common factors. I’ve always loved the book To Kill a Mockingbird and as a researcher I find Atticus’ advice to Scout very inspiring: “You never really understand a person until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

I learned this lesson with regard to emerging markets when I ran a syndicated airline brand study many years ago. We ran it across a number of different markets, but one year at the request of one of our clients we added Pakistan to the study.

In the eyes of most international airlines, Pakistan was considered high volume, but low yield – even for business travel. The Pakistani business class mostly consisted of small traders who flew economy class once or twice a year and bought on price. They weren’t perceived to be very sophisticated in their branding needs and the few ads aimed at them generally consisted of a picture of a plane, with the destination and price in huge type.

But when we looked at the market drivers, price turned out to be number four or five. The factors that really drove decision-making revolved around prestige, service, category leadership and innovation.

Here’s where climbing inside the skin of Pakistan’s business travel community was so important. In a country where GDP per person is US$2,400 per annum and 43 percent of people work in agriculture (according to the CIA World Factbook), a small businessman who runs a garment factory and travels overseas a few times a year (even in economy class) is a very big deal.

He sees himself as entrepreneurial and successful: the Tony Fernandes or Richard Branson of Karachi. And, if he can, he wants to fly with an airline that demonstrates that success to others. 

That’s why the few airlines that put a message out beyond price were able to charge more than their competitors. We’re not talking great multiples, but in an industry with moderate margins and high fixed costs, enough to make a significant difference and (here’s the kicker) with little or no extra cost.

Sleep cheap, shop chic

My Pakistan experience came back to me recently when I read the The Economist’s Christmas feature on the new Chinese travellers. The article identified two characteristics that most emerging markets share and which are very important for those of us in the airline and tourism industries to keep in mind.

First, make sure you understand the cultural value that your brand (and the destinations and experiences it offers) has in the eyes of emerging consumers. The Economist mentions how Chinese travellers like to visit a Cambridge college where a famous Chinese poet studied. Similarly, Indian travellers are often drawn to sites the Mahatma visited. And both Anfield (Liverpool) and Old Trafford (Manchester United) are on the tourist trail for many international soccer fans.

Second, it’s worth remembering that travellers from emerging markets are often still surrounded by daily evidence of what it’s like to not have. As a result, they make different trade-offs around what they spend their holiday money on than developed market travellers, with a higher focus on tangible souvenirs from their trip.

Many adopt a “sleep cheap, shop expensive” approach: They’ll buy that handbag from the original Prada store in Milan but it may mean sleeping in a no-frills hotel to afford it.

The challenge for travel brands is to find ways to cater to this pragmatic mindset – and to retain a deep respect for those customers while they do. This is the lesson my airline clients learned in Pakistan – and it helped them make money in one of the toughest outbound markets in the world.

So when you want to connect with these very different travellers, remember to look under the skin of a world that can appear, on the surface, very same same.

This is the first of a series of posts on connecting with consumers in emerging markets that will be collected in a special TNS/Sparksheet e-book. Sign up to our award-winning monthly newsletter to receive a free copy.

*Note: Our definition of emerging markets includes the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), Africa, Latin America and the N11 countries: Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Turkey and Vietnam.