For most multinationals, setting up regional marketing teams have long been a standard modus operandi when expanding to Asia. Given the diversity of markets in Asia, there is generally a need for in-region marketing hubs that could be an effective conduit for strategies, priorities, and policies coming from global headquarters, while still being responsive to local market requirements. However, the rapid pace of change across all industries and the general shift from brand marketing to performance marketing have increased the importance of in-country marketing teams who have a better understanding of local customers and are able to respond more quickly to their changing needs.
At the same time, tightening business conditions in the West have also created more pressure for organizations to streamline operations and headcount. Regional marketing teams, caught in between their global and local counterparts, can find themselves under greater scrutiny to prove their value or risk being marginalized. To stay relevant, regional marketing teams need to evolve - from being gate-keepers to innovation catalysts; from being conduits to becoming value-creators; from driving alignment, to enabling change.
Currently, one of the most common role of the regional marketing team is as a brand custodian and a gate-keeper for global resources and initiatives. The assumption here is that local marketing teams, if left to their own devices, tend to “over-localize” and deviate from global brand and marketing guidelines. Given that global marketing teams are based in different time zones and far away from the epicentre of all the marketing activity in Asia, it made sense for the regional team to take on the mantle of brand oversight and governance.
However, regional marketing teams are fast realizing that there is limited value-add to simply telling the markets what NOT to do. Hypergrowth markets like Indonesia, China and Vietnam are evolving at such a rapid pace that global marketing playbooks often become obsolete even before they can hit the ground. Local marketing teams are under tremendous pressure to move quickly, especially as domestic competitors are often more agile and aggressive in leveraging local trends.
Regional marketing teams need to avoid the trap of planning from their ivory towers in Singapore or Hong Kong. To stay relevant, they need to develop a deep understanding of how local markets work and help their local counterparts drive and accelerate innovation, in a way that is measured, effective and on-brand.
Secondly, regional marketing teams need to contrive not to become the “messenger boy” between the global and local stakeholders. While cultural differences across regions do sometimes necessitate that someone plays the role of “interpreter”, increasing globalization is increasingly attenuating the value of that role. Middle-man roles have a limited life-span—and global marketing teams who are frustrated by the lack of progress in implementing global initiatives locally, may be inclined to reach out more directly to in-market teams.
The lesson here for regional marketing teams is that passing messages is not nearly enough—they need to actively value-add to their role as a conduit by identifying better ways of creating value in the process. By combining local knowledge with a sound understanding of global best practices, regional marketing teams can facilitate the development of hybrid strategies that captures the best of both worlds. It is no secret that local market teams often feel that global strategies do not work in their market context. Regional marketing teams can play an important role in bridging that gap and ensuring that these global strategies work in practice at the ground level.
Lastly, marketers need to recognize that the economic gravity is shifting to Asia and this macro-trend will dominate the world in the next 10 years. According to Euromonitor, Asia already accounts for over half of the world’s population, but still less than a third of consumer expenditure. This is set to change with the explosion of the middle-class in China, India, Indonesia, and other emerging Asian markets. For consumer industries like consumer electronics and personal accessories, close to 100% of the value growth in the next 5 years will come from Asia.
The approach of developing marketing strategies in the West and adapting them for Asia, may be fundamentally flawed. Markets like China and Japan have completely different marketing and digital eco-systems that are self-contained and operate nothing like what we have in the West. Increasingly, change is going to be driven by Asia, and regional marketing teams need to enable that change, rather than holding on to the traditional “West-to-East” model. Rather than just driving global alignment, the role of regional marketing teams in Asia for the next 10 years should be as a catalyst and champion for ground-up strategies from fast-growing Asian markets. This “reverse innovation” process will be messy and complex, but regional teams who can facilitate that process effectively will out-perform those who resist that change.
In the age of disruption, the lesson for regional marketing teams is to become the disruptors or face the spectre of being disrupted. As marketing becomes more performance and ROI-driven, regional teams must more clearly demonstrate their value to the business. Business as usual is not good enough. Regional marketers need to start the journey of transformation today or chance losing their place in the organizational chart altogether.
Eugene Yap is MD of Iris Concise.