Jingjing Ma
Aug 23, 2019

Fast-changing Cambodia calls for an experimental attitude to marketing

We explore a fascinating market that is driving forward on a mixture of traditional "who can shout loudest" techniques; popular KOL campaigns and new highly reactive strategies tailored for the mobile era.

Scene of Air Asia poster block advertisement at Ocheteal beach, Cambodia
Scene of Air Asia poster block advertisement at Ocheteal beach, Cambodia

“Having a crack at something, where you’re encouraged by your pay masters to make mistakes, is a luxury many marketing and brand managers cannot afford in a more established and mature market because competitors seek to prey on your failures. But it’s a different story in Cambodia,” a marketing veteran for the country tells Campaign Asia-Pacific.

In a place like Cambodia, the market is still so nascent and unpredictable that companies and brands are seemingly still experimenting with how they should communicate with their consumers. This can sometimes mean throwing money around while they try to “shout a little louder” or prove that “mine is bigger than yours”, says Yusuke Morotomi, a marketing consultant working in alliance with Solidus Marketing in Cambodia's capital of Phnom Penh, who has 24 years' experience of the market.

“It’s a type of rudimentary marketing you used to find in the heyday of TV advertising, before the internet age dawned on us in other, older markets,” he adds.

With a population of little more than 15 million who live in a relatively small territory stretching to just 181,035 square kilometers, Cambodia has seen fast development in recent years. According to data released by World Bank in May, its GDP growth was 7.5% in 2018, mainly driven by exports and an ongoing construction boom.

Construction projects in the Diamond area of Phnom Penh, 2019 [Paula Bronstein/Getty Images]

The country has one of the highest mobile penetration rates in the region, at around 120%, along with sound internet infrastructure and a young population, which adds up to great potential to drive development and brings abundant opportunities for brands as well as agencies, according to Fernando Valdes, head of MRA Social Design, Melon Rouge Agency. “For instance, the consumer products sector grows very fast due to an emerging middle class who have more purchasing power. However, the sector is very new and the offer is pretty low, so there are many opportunities for brands and companies to fill the gap.”

Last August, two Cambodian agencies — Quantum and Endorphine Concept — merged to create a new integrated agency called Quantum Endorphine Digital (QED). QED now serves a range of large international brands such as TikTok, Coca-Cola, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars and Microsoft, as well as big local brands such as mobile payment app Pi Pay and telco Smart Axiata.

QED chief creative officer Yohan Brizolier told Campaign Asia-Pacific that Cambodia’s marketing and communications industry is "changing in ways that we can no longer expect,” and is increasingly competitive. “A few years ago, for example, when YouTube was created, we would never have anticipated the impact and the importance of influencers for brands currently.”

“In the past, we had more time to produce content during a campaign, but today there is an increasing pressure to produce more content in a short time with the same budget,” he said. “This requires agencies like us to adapt according to trends, including adopting the creation of professional content on mobile and using mobile applications to edit content, etc.”

Billboards for local brew Angkor Beer on restaurants and retail stores in Sihanoukville, Cambodia

This fast-paced growth in the brand communication sector, however, has also led to levels of competition that are curbing the healthy development of the industry, insiders say.

According to Morotomi: “Billboards, TV ads and even Facebook pages spring up all the time in all sizes and forms around the country, as if the nation had decided to uproot the entire land mass to give way to gated communities and skyscrapers. Such all-out splashing of the streets with plastered screens and increasing presence in the digital sphere have caused advertising firms and TV programme directors to focus on big-ticket clients who require little creativity and more of a scale bang of a noise.”

At the same time, marketing "techniques" based on KOLs, singers and actors are overused in Cambodia, he continues. They cannot help brands build uniqueness and increase authenticity as most of them already work for at least a dozen prominent names, from FMCG to mobile phone brands, fast-food outlets to real estate companies, according to Morotomi.

“On one occasion, a three-hour long annual brand communication brainstorm session ended up solely dedicated to this one topic: ‘Who should become our next Brand Ambassador?’” he shares, to illustrate the point. 

But Cambodia is slowly waking up to the benefits of market segmentation and the need for brands to carve out a unique place in the minds of the consumer.

Some brands are investing wisely, consistently and with scale, Morotomi says. “Smart [Axiata], one of the leading mobile service providers, is such a brand. Despite their multicultural background, they rely strictly on their understanding and knowledge of the Cambodian consumers and the way the youth communicate with one another (often as a mixture of English and Khmer), as well as keeping a keen watch and pulse on the way the mainstream culture is evolving.”

The bumpy road ahead

Stacking up the economic disparity between urban and rural areas in Cambodia, plus the limited local talent pool and the impact of digitalization, agencies still face various challenges ahead.

Valdes’s company Melon Rouge Agency works for both the private sector (serving international and local brands operating in Cambodia from different industries) and the social sector (NGOs and public organizations from the development sector such as the World Bank, Unicef and the World Health Organisation). While its services targeting the private sector aim to create and implement brand identity and carry out online and offline marketing, those they offer for the social sector mainly revolve around generationg behavior change campaigns in rural areas. It’s these countryside services that most challenge Melon Rouge Agency, according to Valdes.

Samsung banners in Battambang, Cambodia

“In the rural area, the development is really much slower. Many people are illiterate and have limited access to classic communication channels and tools (although the situation is improving). Given the characteristics of the target audience, our marketing channels and tools are much more complex. Therefore, a very specific approach and process is required to reach this market effectively,” Valdes states.

“For example, when we work on behavior change campaigns, we need to firstly conduct formative research to understand the behaviours, triggers, barriers and the different actors and processes involved, then we prototype and test the messages, creative concepts, materials and interventions to make sure they will meet the defined goals before developing and launching the campaign according to the communication strategy,” he continues.

This highlights the necessity of having local staff who understand the technology and context of the Cambodia market, but marketers also say that the lack of qualified talent is a major problem.

“It’s not easy to find qualified staff with good skills, with experience working in communications for big brands and projects,” Valdes sats. “Therefore, we work with international staff who can meet our quality standards but we also work with local staff who can provide a deep understanding of the communication rules within the Cambodian market and also [help] to avoid wrong assumptions in terms of design and communications targeting the local audience.”

These hurdles aside, Brizolier from QED counters that the biggest overall challenge for brands going forward in Cambodia, from his perspective, is understanding the demands of digital transformation coupled with the increasing importance of data.

“We know how to utilize this data by connecting them to, for example, artificial intelligence. We create a lot of added value at the level of marketing, for instance, anticipating trends and reaching out to the right people at the right time. On top of which, we also improve productivity and logistics, among others. Brands and consumers have access to more and more intelligent and personalized services, and I believe that is what makes the difference."

More for Campaign Members

This article is part of an ongoing series running in August and September, taking an in-depth look at the advertising and marketing industry in some of Asia's less well-known markets. 


Campaign Asia

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