In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Shao Yang, vice president of marketing for Huawei's device division, admitted: "At Huawei, we are always very confident about technology and innovation. But understanding people more, this is the challenge."
Shao's admission is courageous, but it seems to reflect an Asian state of things, more than an issue at Huawei. Indeed, while western brands crowd Asian shelves in every category you can name – from toothpaste to mobile phones, from ice-cream to apparel, the Asian brands making a dent into western markets are quicker to count; a few apparel or fashion brands (from Uniqlo to Comme Des Garcons), a few cosmetics powerhouses (Shiseido), and a handful of car manufacturers and technology brands. But Coca-Cola, Dove, Apple, Johnny Walker and Nike, all western brands, make up a whopping 90 out of the 100 largest brands in the world list from Interbrands. What drives that dynamic?
The question is reminiscent of the one asked in the book Guns, Germs and Steel, in which Jared Diamond wondered why America, Africa or large parts of Asia were colonized by Europe, and not Europe by African, Indonesian on Japanese civilizations?
Diamond's answer was simple: technology exchange. Civilizations have thrived when technology could be exchanged between communities, adopted and enriched. This was easier across the vast spaces of Europe and Eurasia, than across South America, the islands of South East Asia, or a then closed China. But when Asia could borrow these technologies, it was in turn able to better it – and thrive.
Brand marketing could be the latest “technology" that Asian powerhouses like Huawei adopt, and it is likely to get Asian brands on the global map soon.
The changes in Samsung's marketing offer is a clear example. Only four years ago, the Galaxy tab was launched in Indonesia along with the tagline of "It does many things" - a surreal choice that would leave marketers at Nike, Coca-Cola or Levi's in deep thoughts. Samsung had the technology; understanding people (and how to sell them the technology) was obviously the challenge. Today, Samsung runs a savvy marketing operation and has managed to position Apple as the brand for the parents. Not surprisingly, it climbed 11 places in five years on Interbrands ranking, reaching number eight last year. And it’s held the No.1 spot in Campaign’s cataloguing of Asia’s Top 1000 Brands for the past three years running.
How did the company achieve that? Samsung's marketers (and they include a rapidly increasing number of people borrowed from Western marketing companies like Unilever) pioneered the use of online communities as a research tool, so they stay close to the people using the brand. Samsung is serious about market research – and that includes, in some cases, the use of immersive techniques that make it possible to understand how the broader life of people – the way they relate to their family, to their self-image, etc, impacts their choices.
Since the "It does many things" approach, the Galaxy story has come a long way, and in particular, Samsung learned to mingle its technology story with an identity story. As human beings, we constantly try to define who we are, and our brands help us do so. Nike works hard to help us feel we can achieve more, and Starbucks manages to make us feel as free electrons every time we take an hour to work at “the third place". Similarly, Samsung has stopped telling us the Galaxy was a smart product – and learned to tell us it was a product for smart people. Samsung probably did not overtake Apple in the mobile phone market through sheer technology muscle – building a real brand story made a difference.
The roadmap for hundreds of Asian corporations on their way to becoming global names is actually a simple proposition – and it consists in shamelessly stealing the three principle that power the work of thousands of Western marketers.
Meet the people: Make a status update in person. Stop outsourcing your feelings. Understanding consumers is not just about getting the numbers rights, but about understanding the emotions, the aspirations, the hope of people, and how they relate to the products and brand they use. It takes a different approach to market research.
Position for life: Positioning is not an exercise that happens within a category. Just like the idea of making people feel progressive and smart, strong brand ideas are relevant beyond the category. Harley Davidson, Dove, Coca-Cola or BMW, do not just offer products to buy, but ideas to buy into. ICBC, Lenovo and many others can do the same – and thrive.
Unlock the power of play: Fifteen years ago, Coca-Cola was an ailing giant, with the business on its main brand going down. The brand decided to re-claim its iconic status by becoming a beacon for happiness – a way to "position for life". As it rolled out this idea through over a hundred countries, one thing crystallized and drove change almost everywhere: The teams changed offices, installing bright coloured sofas, and kicker tables. Play freed corporate decision makers from an old and overwhelming rationality. Play allowed them to create brand stories that were fun, and to bring these stories into reality. Play, similarly, is deeply embedded in the Crafting Brands for Life marketing approach that Unilever rolled out in 2012. It’s not about having free fun but about unleashing the passion and creativity that makes good marketing.
As Asia rises, the next brand icons are probably brands you may not have heard from yet - the likes of LiNing, Bagus or Indomie. Who's next?
Benoit Beaufils is co-founder and Christophe Fauconnier is CEO of brand consultancy Innate Motion