Economic and social reforms in the past three decades have resulted in "massive changes in people's incomes, spending power and breadth of choice" across Asia-Pacific, ushering in a new age of individualism in place of the region's traditional culture of collectivism, the global market intelligence agency says.
Mintel's new white paper, Individualism: The rise of Generation Me, points to the dramatic upheavals that have taken place in China since economic reforms began in 1979 and the shift in attitudes that have followed.
"This is a generation of people who went from being allocated state-controlled jobs and work-unit-assigned homes to working in commercial companies and buying their own homes," says Matthew Crabbe, director of research, Asia-Pacific, at Mintel and author of the report. "Consumers went from riding bicycles or buses to driving their own cars. Their neighbourhoods have been knocked down and completely redeveloped, with modern apartment blocks, highways and metro systems. They went from having no supermarkets to having tens of thousands of them, and from food rationing to buying imported delicacies. They gave up cloth shoes and began buying designer Italian brogues."
The 70-page white paper argues that this is indicative of similar changes taking place throughout the region. "China has experienced the most rapid growth, but the change in economics has been profound across Asia-Pacific," Crabbe states, noting that the region is now home to more than half the world's population.
Individuals are struggling to "comprehend what their place is in this new, ever-changing reality", particularly those living in the region's mega-cities—and consumerism has become a way to define that sense of self.
"Higher spending power is leading not just to greater demand for better quality and wider choice; it is also driving demand for more personalised products and services," Crabbe says.
Here, Campaign Asia-Pacific identifies six ways brands can connect with "Generation Me", with research and analysis from Mintel:
1. Embrace contradiction
A "massive paradox" sits at the heart of the new individualism sweeping Asia.
"While individuality is part of the great shift in the consumer market right now, this coexists with a tug-of-war between the desire to express individuality, and the need to conform to social groups and gain approval from peers," Crabbe says. "Consumers across Asia-Pacific present a different form of self-expression in different ways to different people and in different circumstances, in sway to those external influences."
Consumers long for "private, exclusive and intimate" experiences—such as a secluded boutique hotel only known to a select few—but they still want to boast about it on social media.
"For brands, this paradox means they have to tread a fine line between being a brand that provides sought-after obscurity and becoming passé with the kind of consumer they are trying to attract, and becoming more of a 'masstige' brand due to over-exposure," Crabbe advises.
2. Changing definitions of 'luxury'
Asian consumers have traditionally associated luxury goods with their price tag and value as a status symbol, but Mintel sees evidence that increasing numbers of consumers feel "luxury is more about expressing individuality rather than fitting in".
According to Mintel research, a recent trend in Malaysia for "speak-easy bars and hidden nightclubs … often behind faux fronts, cater to only those people 'in the know'", and Crabbe likens this to the growing market for boutique hideaways and spa retreats in China. In both cases, the 'luxury' element derives from the consumer enjoying an experience only available to a small circle of sophisticates—not the number on the price tag.
"They no longer want what is sold to them; they want what is designed for them. This is completely changing, and challenging, the whole idea of the kudos of luxury brands, their dominance of leading what is stylish and how they dictate what their craftsmen will make for customers."
3. Morals matter
Another facet of the rise of individualism Mintel identifies is consumers' use of purchasing decisions to project a message about their personal belief system on a range of ethical issues, and "none appears to be more universal than environmental protection, sustainability, fair trade, and low impact".
"It is about having the freedom of choice and of deciding to make positive use of that choice by behaving in a self-imposed ethical way. It is similar to the kudos of charity: the bragging rights of doing the right thing," Crabbe says, adding that this opens up scope for brands to assume the role of mentor.
"It is interesting that those consumers who are most tempted to try organic foods are young people (aged 20-24) living in Tier 2 or Tier 3 cities, who have limited experience with organic foods, but are eager to learn. For brands, the focus is about being able to act as a guide to younger consumers in order to earn long-term trust and ethical kudos."
4. Five flavours of youth
One of the biggest impacts of the trend towards individualism across the region is the fragmentation of demographic groups, making it harder for marketers to target consumers based on broad data fields such as age. Mintel looked at one particular demographic, Chinese consumers in their 20s, and found no fewer than five groups of individuals based on their general outlook on life.
At one end of the scale, "blinkered urban dwellers" had "low aspirations in life and for their future, and are fairly disengaged with social media", and lacked motivation to try new things or actively seek "joy and indulgence in the moment". The spectrum then passed through "aspiring stargazers", "indulgent optimists" and "jaded social-media users" before reaching "digital enthusiasts". The latter group is made up of "social media lovers lost in the hyper-connected world with scant thought for their future or their relationships with others".
"In many ways, individual personalities are being shaped by the rapid changes in Asian societies, both positively and negatively" Crabbe continues. "This proves that demographic groups, such as young people, do not conform to any single stereotypical 'norm'."
5. Whither the 'Asian Man'?
Just as younger Asians refuse to be pigeon-holed by their age group, Mintel warns against adopting widely held assumptions of the preferences of the supposed 'Asian Man'. While acknowledging that "traditional patriarchal cultural norms" have held sway across much of this diverse region, Mintel says sweeping generalisations of a masculine archetype for this culturally diverse area are largely based on "prejudicial views created from outside the region".
"The changing role of men—such as more South Korean men becoming stay-at-home dads or Japanese men going into the traditionally female career of nursing—further hint at how men are challenging the traditional notion of what masculinity means," Crabbe says.
Mintel goes on to cite a survey by GQ China magazine in 2015, which found so-called "now generation" men—those born since 1985—are "busting the myth that they are conservative dressers" and that "they appear to be more expressive and less conformist than their female peers".
"This was the mistake made by formal clothing brands which led the market in previous years. These brands assumed men would continue to wear conservative suits. However, modern men are expressing their growing confidence, created by greater incomes, by becoming more expressive and looking for more interesting, generally casual clothing."
6. Nail that niche
Looking again at the luxury end of the market, Mintel notes a "growing shift away from the leading, obvious brands towards more niche, nuanced, in-the-know brands", creating a drive for customisation and personalisation.
"High-end brands are getting increasingly personal," Crabbe writes. "They are increasingly developing invitation-only social circles 'curated' by real people who 'concierge' the services offered, and drive the conversations in the 'inner-circles' of invitation-only guests."
Just as consumers' thirst for bespoke products and experiences is morphing the market from a "nice, clearly defined trend line to a fan of different trends", they are adopting a similar attitude to the masks they wear in public.
"Marketers need to realise that individuals have many different personas, according to the situation they are in. People can now project multiple personalities—who they are in person and who they are via social media or online gaming are not always (or at all) the same thing," Crabbe states.
"Therefore, marketing that connects with more than one personality within each person is on the rise. Marketing needs to speak to all of the 'me's, rather than just 'me'."