Malaysia has always been known for its ethnic diversity. It’s one of the first things you notice when you enter the country. While this medley of cultures is great for tourism, it has been a tightrope walk for marketers and advertising agencies.
What seems homogenous at first glance is fragmented and insular on deeper inspection. Every mass marketing engagement that has endeavored to target Malaysia as a whole has had to struggle with being meaningful to culturally sensitive Malaysians; the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians. While the country stood mostly united, its myriad cultures have remained fiercely insular and intact.
In one way, Malaysia’s unique ethnic diversity has been a bag of mixed blessings. It has worked when you’ve targeted a specific segment. Not so much when you had to go mass. And because marketers are rarely ever satisfied with just one racial segment, their communication partners more often than not had to walk that proverbial tightrope in an attempt to homogenize a disparate population. It has been a nightmare for both strategists, when identifying common insights, and creative folk, for finding an execution that unifies diverse cultural contexts.
But all that is starting to change.
There are new kids on the block. Enter Malaysia’s Gen-Y. They are different and that’s a good thing. Their diverse ethnic backgrounds notwithstanding, they have more in common with each other than they do with their more culturally rigid baby-boomer parents. They’re young, far more global in outlook and they’re challenging how marketing in Malaysia has been done in the past.
Just look at their numbers today. In June of last year The Rakyat Post reported that “the National 2013 census recorded 13 million individuals in Malaysia aged between 10 and 34 years old. By the end of 2014 they would constitute 44 per cent, which is nearly half of the population”. Today they’ve come of age, entered the workforce and have become a force to reckon with.
At McCann Malaysia, our own social immersions over the past few years have revealed that while Malaysian Gen-Y still respects its ethnicity and culture, these people also want to break away from it.
During one such exercise a 20-something Malaysian Gen-Y summed up this struggle, “My parents insisted I do a masters in psychology, which I did. But that’s not what I really wanted. So I did it for a while out of respect and then slowly changed lanes. My parents are only now coming around to seeing me happier running my own store selling cookies”.
Our study found an architect pursuing real estate, a microbiologist taking up fashion designing and even a medical practitioner choosing marketing of insurance instead. All without upsetting the family equation. It’s happening across races. It’s this common ambition that unifies them with each other and with their counterparts in the West.
What’s immediately perceptible when you engage this generation is the ease with which they interact with each other. They are more apolitical and steer clear of sensitive cultural differences.
“I still respect and follow my culture but I also celebrate my friends’ culture. It’s what being Malaysian is all about”, is how another Gen-Y Malaysian put it. And it’s not just words. We did one interesting group exercise where we asked each respondent to bring along a friend. We were expecting ethnic pairing, what we got was racial diversity; an eye-opener even before the study began. The change in Malaysia is palpable, visible and real.
They are blurring the lines that have divided Malaysia. And there’s an element of the modern marketing mix that is leading this change. Digital. That’s what marketers here need to embrace to make their engagement work harder over this new, savvy generation. Digital simply doesn’t operate under the same limitations as traditional media. If it’s relevant, it becomes mass.
Malaysia today has 34 million mobile subscribers and 17.5 million internet users. Nearly 90 per cent of Malaysians on the internet use Facebook and the highest contribution, at 64 per cent, is led by 18-34 year olds. The digital landscape is where young Malaysians are becoming more homogeneous in their thinking and attitude. Diversity is finally getting a common voice.
While many marketers are jumping on the digital bandwagon, there is still a lot more to be done. Fundamentals need to change. Advertising needs to give more way to content; activation to engagement; satisfaction to shareability. Malaysian Gen-Y are here and set to make marketing in Malaysia a little bit easier but lot more exciting. The ball is now in our court.
Abhinav Sharma is the national planning director for McCann Worldgroup Malaysia. Some of his insights can be found in the McCann Malaysia Ethnographic Study August 2014.