Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

How can brands engage profitably with Asian markets?

by Elisa Harca, CEO and co-founder, Red Ant Asia (Photo by: Daniel Murray)

The continent of Asia is the most diverse in the world. It spans vast geographies, cultures and climates, and boasts rapid growth across all sectors. Western brands are often highly enthusiastic about the region and can naively (and incorrectly) assume that a single strategy for Asia should be applicable to the entire continent. Instead, rather than one-size-fits-all, they should think about a ‘country specific’ approach. 

Each country has its own distinct demographic; in terms of language, religion, societal norms, attitudes to consumption, economic power, political and legal system, social media landscape, which makes localisation of messaging challenging. Seasonality also varies hugely – when it’s summer in Australia, it’s Winter in Japan, for example. 

There are 48 countries in Asia – it’s impossible to can’t check them all off at once, even if you are Starbucks, Nike or Apple. Hence, you need to assess where your potential audience could reside, and which market could be your lead market. 

Many brands will aim for China first, drawn to its 1.4 billion population, and second biggest economy (after the USA), and will often consider a staggered launch into Mainland China, through its closer, population dense and affluent neighbours, Hong Kong and Singapore first. Traditionally these markets can be seen as the ‘low hanging fruit’ thanks to being trilingual, with a strong use of English. 

Consumers – research and gather insights 

It’s important to understand your consumer. Aside from market visits, it’s advisable to conduct market research gathering qualitative and quantitative learnings. Work with a local partner to cast a focus group for you that is reflective of whom you would like to reach and get real world feedback on how they connect to your product. Hear them discuss your brand and your products, you might just catch onto some clever marketing speak that you can use in your campaigns. 

For example, Chinese consumers give products and brands nicknames to make them easier to remember. It’s very common in internet speak; for example the classic Crocs are called 洞洞鞋 (Hole shoes) and the Bottega Venetta Pouch bag is called 云朵包 (Cloud Bag) due to its shape. This insight can then be applied to a paid advertising or SEM strategy, building on key words that resonate, creating hype around your brand. 

It’s also important not to assume things about the consumer in China. For example, the average age of the luxury consumer is 25-35 years old, versus 35-45 years old elsewhere. Which means that your product could resonate with a younger demographic in your new market vs. your home market. 

Channels – select and localise your strategy & content 

It’s vitally important to be mindful of digital marketing channels and the multitude of social networks available. China lives inside the Great Firewall of China. There is virtually no access to Western channels e.g. Facebook, Instagram, What’s App , Google etc. This, in turn means that Chinese netizens have their own social networks that they live within, and your brand will need to be active on these channels. For China, currently the most important marketing channels you should be aware of are: The Little Red Book (RED) – most like Instagram/Pinterest; WeChat – not comparable to a network in the West; Weibo – most like Twitter/Facebook and Douyin – China’s TikTok (actually TikTok is Chinese, owned by Bytedance). 

Comparatively, Western social media reigns strong in other Asian markets such as South East Asia, Australia & New Zealand, India, Hong Kong etc. In Hong Kong for example, What’s App marketing campaigns are very common, and the QR code is ubiquitous with offline to online programs. And, Thailand you will be impressed by how active the consumers are in both following and engaging in brand content. Even when brands aren’t heavily investing in some of the SEA countries, they will often find they have a large social media audience from there – this is a nice surprise compared to the elusive Chinese follower. 

Communication – messaging needs to be in tune vs. tone deaf 

Once you have defined your Asian jump off point, you then need to prepare messaging and delivery of that messaging that resonates and connects. This applies to your Asian team as well as your Asian consumer. 

From a team perspective – be it inhouse and/or with a partner – give your Asian counterparts time – time to digest info, feedback on info and find their voice. Things are definitely ‘noisier’ in Europe and the US, and you don’t want to drown out their local insights due to your impatience in getting them to speak up and loud. 

In Asian culture, it’s respectful to let the ‘leader’ speak and share their insights, and then it’s smart to digest and form informed suggestions vs. in the West we are encouraged to often be the loudest voice in the room, which can seem impulsive and shallow in Asia.  

Form a consumer perspective – you need to truly understand what they value, what their needs are. For example, in the haircare space, one of the biggest concerns for Chinese consumers is hair loss (both men and women, and at a young age), so if you are launching a haircare brand, you should tap into this need. 

Asia is the world’s most populous continent, with roughly 60 percent of the total population, it’s a wonderful region to live and work in!