eBay launched in China but quickly shuttered after it failed to adapt to local selling behaviours. Image by Brad Ferguson via Flickr.

eBay launched in China but quickly shuttered after it failed to adapt to local selling behaviours. Image by Brad Ferguson via Flickr.

Since 2012 it seems Asia has been producing a bumper crop of brands with global appeal. From K-Pop superstars and retail chains like Uniqlo to platforms like WeChat, upstart as well as regional heavyweight brands are testing and proving their mettle overseas.

Amidst this rise of Asian brands-turned-global, many Western brands are fighting to enter Asian markets and to stay relevant to shoppers across Asia.

Earlier this year L’Oreal announced its departure from China, Tesco left last summer and Best Buy gave up in 2011. Online marketplace eBay failed to crack China by neglecting to appreciate the power of guanxi.

Despite an exploding middle-income consumer culture, Western multinationals are facing more competition from domestic brands and the range of choices available – far greater in China than in the West – means ‘brand-switching’ is more prevalent.

But that’s just China. And that’s also kind of the point. As Western brands are forced to compete more aggressively with domestic brands in the East, marketers are learning that to succeed, they need to understand their audience before they change their audience’s behaviour.

Here are a few ways brands can use content to act local, even if they aren’t.

Don’t translate

Language is a powerful tool that elevates us from the tyranny of function. It can be tempting to translate existing content into basic functional claims or to avoid translation altogether, but doing so poses a big risk. It’s not enough to translate. Brands have to speak the same language as their audience.

Dove Japan asked Evidently to help explain its body wash’s NutriumMoisture ingredient shoppers. To get Japanese women on board, Dove invited them to explain the science in their own words, unscripted, using a prose format so ingrained in Japanese culture anyone could do it: A haiku.

The semiotics of haikus played a powerful role in the success of the campaign, as a subject worthy of poetry must by definition be virtuous.

Also, because they’re native to Japan, haikus make Dove seem less foreign, which increased campaign involvement. As Marcela Melero, global brand director at Dove told Marketing Week, “As well as achieving a huge amount of views and shares, consumers began to contribute their own Haikus and share these online.”

Learn from the locals

Did we mention that Asia is diverse? In Myanmar, internet penetration hovers around one percent, while 84 percent of South Koreans are online. People in Vietnam are only now beginning to use brands as a form of self-expression, meanwhile Singapore is home to some of the most sophisticated luxury shoppers in the world.

Since no market is equal, brands have the opportunity to assume the role of educator. Sometimes that means helping people adapt to the mobile web, as telecommunications company Huawei has been doing in Myanmar. But more often than not, brand marketers should be looking at the success of regional brands to learn what works.

Take, for example, Thai Life Insurance, which has been working with Ogilvy & Mather Bangkok to create a string of branded entertainment hits that extend well beyond Thailand’s boarders. The 2014 film “Unsung Heroes” received plenty of international coverage and its most recent video, “Street Concert” is already earning millions of views.

The brand’s success with these films reflects the popularity of emotion-laden films, which are the most shared type of video in Southeast Asia. As Business Insider puts it: “In the East, super-sad ads designed to make viewers bawl and sob as their hearts melt are a time-honoured advertising tradition.”

Google tapped into this regional aesthetic in late 2013 with a melodramatic video, this time by Ogilvy and Mather India, that follows the reunification of two elderly friends. The film became a cultural touchpoint for Indians and Pakistanis and has earned more than twelve million views since its launch.

There’s more to Asia than “Asia”

When it comes down to it, the word ‘Asia’ should be banned from a brand marketer’s vocabulary. Asia is a diverse continent with 49 countries, thousands of languages and dialects and dozens of religions.

I’ve seen many marketers make the mistake of putting the whole of Asia under the one umbrella and miss their target completely.

In a report released earlier this year, consultancy firm Ernst & Young found that “By 2016, emerging Asia will account for almost a quarter of global consumer products markets and 37 percent of total consumer products growth.”

More than 250 consumer products and retail executives based in Asia were surveyed and 69 percent of them said “emerging markets will be the main engine of growth and profits for their firm over the next three years.”

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations comprises Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Image via wikipedia.org.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations comprises Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. Image via wikipedia.org.

In 2015, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Community will be inaugurated, effectively creating a single market for everything from goods and services to skilled labour in Southeast Asia. The economic union will strengthen local brands and will create more challenges for global brands seeking to enter the countries that make up this union.

It’s all too easy for brands to miss their target by being blind to Asia’s diversity and growth. Instead of categorising it as one region, they need to get to know each individual market. Only when brands understand how to connect with their audience, will they have the potential to transform attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.

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