Rita Rudnik Iana Zhvirbo
May 20, 2021

6 keys to success in Asian markets

Multinational brands that copy-and-paste marketing into Asia don't tend to do well. Those that follow these six principles (presented with ample examples), have a better chance of success.

Clockwise from top left: Lazada, Dove, Sudio, Dong Won
Clockwise from top left: Lazada, Dove, Sudio, Dong Won

Entering an overseas market is never a copy-paste task. Thus, you should always tailor your marketing strategy to the landscape and user insights of the country you are trying to enter. That said, Asian markets have a few common traits that should be taken into account. When first planning your entry into any Asia Pacific market, be sure to remember these key recommendations.

1. Simple, 'in your face' messages

In the past decades, advertising in the US and Europe has increasingly gone into subtle stories that invite the audience to watch attentively and think deeply about the message. We all love these P&G Thank you, Mom, or Extra Gum’s Origami videos that show routine situations with almost no words, but yet turn out to be deeply touching and well-connected to the brand through a powerful final message (albeit a viewer needs a few extra seconds after watching to let the message sink in).

This trend has been present in Western advertising for a while, and even Asian companies use it now when expanding overseas. However, when making advertising videos for the local audience, Asian advertisers prefer simple messages. Compare Alibaba’s Olympic Ad created for Western viewers and Taobao’s (owned by Alibaba) ad for the 11.11 sales season targeting the Chinese audience. The latter is way more direct and waggish, showcasing oversimplified RTBs and catchy taglines.

Other examples of advertising with direct memorable messages are from Burger King in South Korea (the price of the burger is repeated again and again), Fitty mask in Japan (the fact that you only need one mask for seven days is repeated eight times within 30 seconds), and Lazada in the Philippines (the main message about birthday sales is an easy read from both the audio and the footage throughout the whole video).

2. Visual, loud, 'noisy'

The form follows the content, so Asian markets mostly prefer bold, loud and bright ads. Think of iconic images of neon advertising in Tokyo. The digital advertising landscape in Asia is just as overwhelming. To cut through this noise, your ad needs to be screaming at the top of its lungs.

Moreover, if you are launching an app in one of the Asian markets, make sure it keeps users as updated as never before in their lives with all the notifications. Constant push messages might sound like a mauvais ton for Western users, but would be an anticipated app strategy here. Users are used to the environment where banners, notifications, and popups fight for their attention, and they easily navigate the clutter without getting bugged. If you choose a less pushy communication tone, you risk never attracting enough attention to your message.

Similar approaches should be taken in films. The stories should be exaggerated: colours, bright; music, memorable; humor, direct. Watch the Lunar New Year Nike commercial that ticked all these boxes (while still being true to the brand) and became a success in the Chinese market or the Grab video for the same occasion in Malaysia. Creating a catchy song for an advertising film is also a popular trick in the region. Check out this Toyota Indonesia commercial if you are not afraid of the earworm getting stuck in your head. Local brands ace this trend as well: watch examples of extremely vivid advertising of canned tuna in South Korea, dentures in Japan, or soy milk in Vietnam.

3. Touching stories

While it may sound like the opposite side of the spectrum, long-video forms and touching stories are also a winning advertising form in Asia. The whole execution of these stories is not as subtle as Western users would prefer, so what we told you above about the blatant messages stays true. However, the formats сan be really long. Judging by the YouTube Leaderboard for the Asia Pacific region, the average length of the most popular ads is 101 seconds, with 30% of the pool even going 120 seconds and beyond. The user's attention from these films might not necessarily convert into product purchase or usage—for this, you need to use shorter, more instructive forms—but could help build brand love in the market.

For example, Apple is investing in its brand in the Chinese market by releasing seven- to 12-minute films before the main holiday season, Lunar New Year. For example, watch the 2020 commercial “Daughter” and try not to cry). Google won the affection of both India’s and Pakistan’s users with its “Google Search: Reunion” film. At the same time, Pantene attracted attention to its brand in Thailand through the tear-jerking advertising “You can shine” about a deaf violinist. The long forms are definitely used by local companies too. The Pantene example might have been inspired by the Thai Life insurance company, which has been doing deeply moving advertising for a few years in a row (watch the “Unsung Hero” as the most famous example).

4. Be careful with localization

If done right, the localization of a product or brand name in Asia could open a path to the markets and bring returns on all the investment dedicated to achieving it. At the same time, it could go terribly wrong. In Asian cultures, huge importance is attached to names and symbols, and picking the local naming could be a slippery path.

Choosing characters for the brand name transliteration in the Chinese language is a classic example. Quite a few companies found the right solutions, with Nike’s Chinese name (耐克, Nài kè) alluding to endurance and Gucci’s (古驰, Gǔchí) referring to ancient fine jade.

At the same time, there have been quite a few memorable failures. When first entering the market in 1927, Cola-Cola’s own choice of characters for the company's main drink (蝌蝌啃蠟, Kēkēkěnlà) literally meant “bite a wax tadpole”. Quite expectedly, the naming did not bring many sales in the market. After announcing a contest in a newspaper, the company got a new naming suggested by the Chinese scholar Jiang Yi: 可口可乐, Kěkǒukělè, which means “tasty and joyful”. Similarly, the first naming of Sprite during its launch in Hong Kong was 是必利 (Shìbìlì), which looks like a random choice of characters selected due to the phonetic resemblance. On the contrary, the naming of Sprite eventually used for all the Chinese-speaking markets—雪碧, Xuěbì—means snow jade and creates positive associations for the audience.

Localization should not stop at the naming, though. It is also important to localize the symbols and allusions to folklore stories if they are included in advertising campaigns. For example, P&G used to sell its famous diapers brand Pampers in Japan with a packaging that featured a stork delivering a baby. The sales did not really take off, as the imagery was completely misunderstood by Japanese consumers. In their folklore, babies are delivered to awaiting parents by giant floating peaches.

But if foreign brands manage to tap into the local culture with their marketing—even by chance—the success could be massive, as the audience appreciates a company that 'gets them'. Take the example of Nestlé handling KitKat’s case in Japan. The pronunciation of KitKat’s brand name transliterated into the Japanese resembles the phrase kitto katsu (きっと勝つ), which means “you will surely succeed”. Due to this wordplay, KitKat became a popular snack among Japanese high school students preparing for their final exams. The brand spotted the trend and capitalized on it, releasing a special exam season edition each year since 2014. But this is just one example of various occasions for which Nestlé prepares unique flavors. The company has also tapped into the Japanese culture of celebrating every slight change in seasons (sakura blooming edition, strawberry season edition, red maple leaves edition). At the same time, Nestlé has dabbled with the tradition of having a signature food in each region (sweet potato in Okinawa, wasabi in Shizuoka, adzuki bean in Nagoya).

5. Mobile-first and even mobile-only

While marketers worldwide are talking about the younger generations of consumers as mobile-first, the real land of mobile-first, if not mobile-only, is Asia. For one thing, many economies in the Asia Pacific region are developing, meaning most consumers there missed the desktop stage of the Internet and had their first experience of surfing the web through a smartphone. For another, even the developed Asian economies are on track to become global leaders in mobile technologies. As of the beginning of 2021, 65% of the Internet traffic in Asia is coming from mobile devices (which is 11 percentage points higher than the global average and 15 points above the US share). This figure will continue to grow as the region is forecasted to add another 700 million mobile Internet users by 2025.

The skew towards digital and mobile in the region is reflected in the ad spend as well. Asia Pacific has the largest proportion of digital in the total ad spend globally (55.7% versus the global average of 48.0% in 2020). The growth in mobile ad spend was especially high: in 2019-2020, it grew in China 14.6%, in Vietnam 49.1%, and in India 84.0%.

Thus, any marketing campaign development for Asian markets should start from a mobile-centric idea and be adapted for desktop, not to mention offline formats, at a later stage. Good examples of mobile-centric ad campaigns in the region include the cross-mobile challenge ‘Get supercharged at 2PM’ by Berocca in Vietnam (the mechanics tied YouTube bumper videos, mobile banners, Instagram stories, and TikTok); a live streaming event on the WeChat mini-program by Sephora in China that allowed easy conversion from mobile engagement into offline in-store purchasing; and the Dove Deo Dry Serum Mobile Campaign in the Philippines, with 95% of the campaign's ad spendings allocated on mobile.

Almost every market in Asia has its own unique set of leading video and social-media platforms, so make sure to do your homework on the media landscape in advance. That said, a rule of thumb should still be simplicity and clarity - most users have short attention spans. They have joined the web relatively recently (see previous points), so they are likely to withdraw from overcomplicated ad mechanics or formats that require too many interactions.

6. Social is the king

In 2020 East, Southeast, and South Asia were the leading regions by the number of social network users. At the same time, the amount of time users spend on social media per day is also unprecedented: 4 hours and 15 minutes in the Philippines, 3:14 in Indonesia, and 3:01 in Malaysia (while the global average is 2:25 and the US average is 2:07).

While you certainly can advertise on social media with native formats, another type of marketing—influencer marketing—is working especially well in this landscape. Some platforms have spotted an 85% increase in influencer marketing campaigns in 2019-2020 in Asia, with the pandemic making a human touch in advertising even more important.

A few well-working examples of global brands using influencer marketing in the Asia Pacific include a series of episodes on online gaming with a macro-influencer in the Philippines by Spotify; Vaseline (P&G) advertising via a mid-influencer in Thailand; and collaboration with micro-influencers by Lancome in Thailand, Sudio in Malaysia or Pepsi in Singapore.


Rita Rudnik (left), an analyst for Asia Pacific markets at the Ministry of Economic Development in Russia, has past experience with Google and Procter & Gamble. Iana Zhvirbo, senior global marketing manager at Adenasoft in South Korea, was formerly with Samsung and Google.

 

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