Rich Akers
Sep 25, 2023

Cultural competency is critical to creative success in Asia

Whatever Hollywood may think, Asia is not a monolith. Rather, it's an incredibly complex region—home to 51 countries and over 2,300 languages. Mash's Rich Akers shares why what works for one Asian country may not work for another, and how brands can avoid partaking in what he terms as 'creative colonialism'.

Photo: Unsplash.
Photo: Unsplash.

The Asia-Pacific region has a very complicated relationship with the countries next door and further afield, presenting pitfalls for unwary brands. 

Having worked in Asia for over two decades, I've seen far too many international brands come to Asia with the mindset that what will work for one Asian country will work for another. Creative colonialism, I call it.

Case in point: During my time in China, the movie Memoirs of a Geishastarring not one, but three famous Chinese actresses as titular Japanese geisha—requested screening permission from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. I didn't get it. 

As head-scratching as that casting may be, it's worth diving deeper and thinking about why otherwise well-intentioned international brands might struggle. It's been nearly 25 years since Naomi Klein's 'No Logo' book first put globalisation in the spotlight. While it seems that the biggest enemy of globalisation is, ironically, the globe, I can see how generalising Asia as a region is still an attractive concept.

Take me, for example. I'm ethnic Chinese from Indonesia but grew up in a predominantly blue-collar neighbourhood in Melbourne. I spent half of my life in China and now live in Thailand. Go ahead— profile me! I may be a complicated audience to target, but I see more and more people like me every day. And in this part of the world, a little cultural awareness can go a long way. 

Being culturally aware can help you navigate these faux pas, and of course, being culturally literate is the key to not sounding like a typical laowai or farang. But cultural competency will allow you to understand and leverage the unique cultural value of your brand in the markets you seek to enter. 

Your brand is not here simply to survive; it's here to succeed. Likewise, blending in with the local regional players is not enough. It's about combining that cultural awareness and literacy with a deeper understanding of where and how your brand can create local cultural opportunities—leveraging that to make a game-changing impact. 

Understanding local values vs. Understanding your local value

When entering APAC markets, brands must speak the language of Asian consumers, literally in the sense of speech but also in the importance of understanding the unique opportunities and potential your brand may have within local cultures. 

When expanding into Bangkok, Ikea worked closely with their local team in Thailand to scrutinise product names, as some of the original Swedish words had less than savoury connotations in Thai (yes, that is a meatball reference). 

Meanwhile, when faced with a completely different pricing market to what they were used to, Ikea China decided to target the young middle class. This category of customers had relatively higher incomes, were better educated and more aware of international styles. With its easy-to-appreciate Scandinavian aesthetic and big box concept, Ikea repositioned itself as an aspirational global brand—a literal window into the international experience hitherto only seen in magazines or bootleg Friends DVDs—a significant change in strategy from other parts of the world. 

While cultural awareness applied early can and will save embarrassment, understanding why a local culture would value your brand above and beyond local offerings and how to leverage that, is fundamental cultural competency.   

Pitfalls vs. Opportunities

Everyone knows you shouldn't use the number four in China, show dogs in Malaysia, or be too careless with bare feet in Thailand. Getting a little deeper, where Western cultures tend to wear black for mourning, white is the traditional funeral colour in Japan, and choosing between red and yellow in Thailand can be a whole thing on the wrong days. 

But of course, these rules are made to be broken—if you can identify an authentic cultural brand perspective to speak from. Many international brands have stumbled upon using red during the Lunar New Year to "Chinese-ify" their brand and products. This 'red-washing' is not always well-received, being at best bland and, at worst, obsequious and pandering. 

On the flip side, Coca-Cola leaned in on an honest and authentic claim to "China Red"—as well as some savvy wordplay around its well-known Chinese name—to own Chinese New Year in Malaysia in this iconic campaign to rebrand their packaging, resulting in a 43 per net increase in total sales over the Spring Festival period compared to the previous year. 

Where are you from, from?

Asia may be the new global hotspot, but it hasn't always been smooth sailing. Any sense of national and cultural identity has often been very hard won. 

When making purchasing decisions, consumers from Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia said representation was the most important consideration—more critical than cost or quality, with consumers from Vietnam considering it second most important. 

This means Singaporean representation to Singaporeans, Thai representation to Thais—not simply Asian faces in Asia. This goes beyond merely wanting to see people who look like us in marketing, getting down to the core of cultural and national pride and identity in countries and communities where foundational historical events were only a few generations away. 

As the profile of Asian design, music and media continues to rise, this only cements a fact that anyone who has ever taken a taxi in any Asian country already knows: Authentic representation—on the radio or otherwise—is not a choice. It's a must. 

Cultural awareness is not enough

Cultural awareness or even some basic cultural literacy wasn't enough to save Dolce & Gabbana in China in 2018. Their ads, some of which featured a Chinese model attempting to eat pizza and spaghetti with chopsticks, were dragged across the Chinese blogosphere. The brand's upcoming Shanghai fashion show was cancelled, its products were pulled from Chinese e-commerce platforms, and brand ambassadors fled. Years later, the luxury icon is still struggling. 

Cultural competency is the key to unlocking your brand's actual regional and authentic cultural value to the people living there. This will make you a reflector of that culture and a genuine cultural contributor. 

Finally, when we talk about culture, we don't simply mean regional culture and tradition. It's not merely Thai culture vs. Japanese culture—it's Thai graffiti culture vs. Japanese skateboarding culture: Chinese lay-flat culture vs. Singaporean Expat culture; HK Crypto-bros to K-Pop to Canto Cosplay—and everything in between. It's speaking to people in the places and spaces they feel most authentic, helping you build solid and long-term relationships with your target audiences in Asia. 

Rich Akers is the creative partnerships director for Asia at Mash.

Campaign Asia

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