Emma Gage
Nov 5, 2014

New pragmatism and the spirit of innovation

The region's unique perspective on innovation carries important lessons for brands, writes Emma Gage of Flamingo Singapore.

New pragmatism and the spirit of innovation

Editor's note: This article is part of a series on the concept of brands as intersections.

It’s easy for onlookers to suggest that Asia is not a region where innovation happens and in fact, many from the region often levy this criticism at themselves. In reality it depends what you mean by ‘innovation’.

We’ve always seen examples of pragmatism across Asia: a self-starting mentality, driven by a desire to progress and a reaction to a range of socio-political situations where things don’t come easy. In India this is referred to as ‘Jugaad’, the development of an innovative fix or simple work-around, in China, it’s zizhu chuangxin自主创新 (roughly ‘self-determined innovation’). In it’s original guise this was about purposeful creativity and ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking used to make things work, or to create something new. More than anything it was a survival tactic. It’s a street mechanic making an engine out of abandoned parts or a woman using her front yard as a makeshift school to make a living.

What’s most interesting about this is how fertile it is as a basis for genuine innovation. In the same way David Ogilvy called for “the freedom of a tight brief” in order to focus his creativity; there’s something completely refreshing about a process that focuses only on the purity of an idea. It doesn’t get hampered by different brand agendas or by what’s gone before. It doesn’t worry about what the competition are doing and it’s not at all bothered about creating something that will stay the same across its lifetime. What it does concern itself with is purpose. You could call it ‘demand-led innovation’.

And whilst the surrounding context has changed for many, the mentality remains baked in. Affluence is rising sharply and fortunes changing fast; for many life has moved from survival to disposable income and choice. It’s often no longer about making do, but rather seeking out the best of what’s available and in a world of growing connectivity where ideas travel fast, the nature of the game is changing. A new wave of pragmatism is emerging where people now have multiple sources of information and inspiration at their fingertips and they are deftly extracting what they need. Most importantly they are borrowing with pride from Western markets and from their own locales; they’re finding out about what’s new and emergent, as well as looking back and learning from the past. They crave an eclectic mix of influences and inspiration and they mash it up, they cherry-pick the best bits and they re-imagine, creating new and innovative solutions to their challenges.

What’s so characteristic about the region is that people just get on and do it, they innovate from the ground up rather than waiting for a formal, polished product offering or for a brand to fill the void. For brands this means that people remain the biggest source of inspiration, but it’s rarely enough just to talk to them, or even in many cases just observe them. It’s fundamental that we take the time to understand the underlying cultural drivers of any behaviour. This shows us the real reason why and should provide a more robust context for brands hoping to capitalize.

For example, in Indonesia a love for online shopping could be hampered by a low penetration of credit card usage but people have found a work around. They use a middleman service; someone they communicate with via email, they pay them either face-to-face or via a bank transfer at the ATM and they are given a (often handwritten) voucher that they present to the website as payment. It’s a system that’s based entirely on trust; it ends up costing them a small amount more and is obviously more laborious but it’s not necessarily an inconvenience. In a market where authority is mistrusted; from the government to corporate institutions; people are far more trusting of an individual, a human face and they are also accepting that this is what fuels the local economy. In fact it’s an innovative solution based squarely in the demands of the cultural context.

Online retailers entering the Indonesian market would struggle if they only recognized the behaviour. They might invest in new, safer online payment methods for example and while this might help to ease fears around the high levels of cyber crime in the country, it would risk missing the bigger point. The driving principle here is the need for the human touch and a dialogue around the transaction. In order to win, retailers might be better placed investing in local ambassadors, door-to-door sellers or even a call-handling centre with a remit to provide high touch communication with the customer.

And of course many brands are taking note. They’re taking the time to understand these fundamental cultural drivers and they’re designing products around them. John Grant, talks about this in his new book, Made With: The Emerging Alternative to Western Brands from Istanbul to Indonesia. He points to a new generation of brands coming out of non-Western countries, from cultures that are innovative, adaptive and comfortable with chaos. Again echoing the value of innovation with purpose, born out of demand, rather than opportunity.

We see homegrown start-ups taking a western concept and grounding it in the everyday realities of Southeast Asia. Paktor is the Singaporean version of Tinder; except in a culture where rejection is taken to heart and dating apps are seen as “desperate”, Paktor allows the users to remain anonymous till both parties express interest.

Another slightly controversial example is an AirBnB style service for Asia, PandaBed.

To ensure a ‘cultural match’ they’ve created the “PeerMatch” feature on their website, which enables homeowners to connect with guests based on their cultural beliefs, religious ideologies and nationality. As provocative as this may be to Western eyes, in many parts of Asia where religious and cultural commitments maybe deeply ingrained into the everyday realities of life, this feature ensures avoiding awkward situations.

So what can be learnt from the spirit of innovation that we see in the region?

Human behaviours are not looked at in isolation; great innovators look up and around at the societal, cultural and behavioural shifts that are defining consumer experiences, aesthetics, environments, language and behaviours of the future. One-dimensional insight is not enough. This means they don’t just ‘talk to consumers’, they talk, they observe and they dig deeper to understand ‘why?’ It also means they don’t just look for the single deep penetrating insight to direct their thinking, instead they seek out a clash of insight and inspiration, creative provocations from a plethora of sources. Most importantly the innovation process is stripped back and pure. The path is clear of agenda, politics and detailed brand challenges, to support genuine innovation… ideally with a purpose.

Emma Gage is managing director of Flamingo Singapore


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