Tara Hirebet
Jun 23, 2014

Tap cultural undercurrents to endear your brand

What draws consumers to a brand in Singapore? Tara Hirebet the former Asia Pacific head of trendwatching.com, looks at top brands in the country and offers insight about local trends that marketers could leverage for building better bonds with potential customers on the affluent island.

Tara Hirebet
Tara Hirebet

Talking about Singapore always feels like talking about an island that doesn’t really run the way the rest of Asia does. And that’s no different for consumer perspectives and behaviours. It’s probably the same way you’d look at Shanghai vs. the rest of China.

The biggest reason for this is the level of global and foreign exposure inside Singapore from an early stage of its urbanization and business development. (Singapore has always welcomed foreign talent / residents.) That means organic daily, social exposure to global culture, lifestyles, brands and tastes.

Singaporeans also have a great thirst for travel and are geographically well placed to do so. As consumers, they prioritize saving and spending on holidays, more so than in Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, according to a July 2013, Nielsen survey. And as they get more exposed to brands and concepts on those travels; Singaporean consumers are eager to then lap up that experience and recapture that feeling when they get access to it here. All this travel also means they’re continuing to expand and edit their personal portfolio of known brands.

Looking at Campaign’s Top 50 rankings for Singapore, there is a good mix of large local to Asian and global brands, which perfectly reflects the county’s melting pot travel and brand exposure.

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The number of technology-based brands in the list is also unsurprising (Samsung, Apple, Sony, LG, Panasonic, HP, Toshiba). After all, Singapore also has some of the highest internet penetration rates in the region (73per cent, We Are Social, Jan 2014), which also means high social media penetration rates (70per cent, We Are Social, Jan 2014). All this reflects a population of consumers with heavy device and screen-driven lifestyles (87per cent smartphone penetration, according to Media Research Asia).

What is notable is they’re buying from large, safe multinational names (no Japanese companion robots or iPhone -controlled vibrators, like Vibease, yet). “Latest and greatest” driven as Singaporeans may be, they’re cautious. What’s driving this? On a big picture level: recent economic crises, and with that job & career insecurity, stress over rising wealth gaps (and not wanting to fall through that gap). In a cultural and even Asian behavioural context, Asians are value driven and so will always prefer trusted or word-of-mouth peer recommendation (be it offline or online), and they will show a level of frugality, especially in big-ticket purchases (they want the best in class and value.)  That’s why we should expect to see, even next year, the same big global brand names dominate this list.

The same rationale of tried, trusted and value-driven, goes a long way to explaining why home-grown brand, NTUC Fairprice, comes in at number four in Campaign’s Singapore ranking.

NTUC does not exactly ooze the sleek sex appeal of Apple (sorry guys). But in a rapidly changing Asia, state-owned or local brands with history have been forced to modernize and update their offering to keep up with younger consumers. And they’ve got incentive to, as many Asian, and especially millennial consumers are also turning back to local and traditional brands, as something dependable and familiar to hold onto in a rapidly changing urban landscape.

NTUC has expanded its offering over the years, with more international products on its shelves. The chain also introduced organic sections to cater to consumer demand for pesticide-free, hormone-free, and less mass-manufactured produce. Environmental issues, as well as Chinese food scandals in the region feed that same trend. The brand’s “Expat Dinners” campaign picked foreign couples to host dinners at home, which the public could sign up for, and the accompanying videos showed how these couples found all their own “home” ingredients at NTUC for the meal. The first video received backlash, as it was unbranded and Singaporeans felt deceived. As a concept though, it was on brand, appropriate for an Asian nation of foodies and relatively progressive and social media savvy. It was also on trend. Secret and private supper clubs and startups like PlateCulture (think Airbnb for home dining/ book to dine at peoples’ houses) were starting to get popular as urbanites searched for a sense of neighbourhood and community in their overpopulated cities. This is a quality of life issue that feels like a luxury to many people.

Watching the trends

In Singapore, classic luxury brands sit towards the middle and bottom of Campaign’s Top Brands ranking, which definitely shows a changing luxury sentiment locally. Globally, younger luxury-buying consumers seek a more dynamic, progressive, experiential form of luxury today that reflects their equally dynamic city lifestyles. Lagerfeld has always managed to push Chanel as a brand into more progressive design, multimedia and interactive territories, which likely explains its place higher up the list versus Gucci or LV (who still rely on heavy heritage values, and iconography). We can expect the old world luxury print ad is going to resonate increasingly less with a Singaporean millennial who has grown up in a post PAP era, where change is the only real constant.

But there are local trends that do not yet show up in a Top Brand ranking like this and major marketers would do well to pay attention to the undercurrents in order to stay on the top in the future. Outlook includes smaller, independent, brands that reflect emerging trends around Asian cultural mashups; the bespoke; and the maker movement.

Postmodern Asian Designers

Millennial, Gen X to Gen Z consumers increasingly support more global, regional and local young designer labels. Look at the rise of the Blueprint Fashion Exhibition, and e-commerce sites like Future Fashion Now, Inverted Edge and others that curate indie designers. Younger Singaporean consumers find that these designers understand and reflect back the postmodern ‘mashup’ identities they recognise (fusion of global cultures). Singaporean designer Ong Shunmugam, for example, displays her mixed Indian, Chinese and Malay heritage, often in a single look (Chinese print on a Malay style jacket, coupled with an Indian print skirt) and has risen to the likes of Paris Fashion week, New York Fashion Festival and the recent Audi Fashion Festival in Singapore.

Niche, bespoke, boutique, subtle designer labels

Leading on from luxury: niche, bespoke, subtler luxury and boutique houses are sought after when overseas or even ordered online by increasing numbers of Singaporeans. Younger, discerning consumers want the brands and products they buy to be far more personal than a generation ago. They want a deeper reflection and curation of themselves. This generation is more independent, pioneering and entrepreneurial and these types of brands have an “I found it first” social currency. Younger consumers want to show off their knowledge and to stand out, whereas classic luxury brands are more about wearing recognizable badges and fitting into the “elite club.”

The rise of Amateur Artisanship (artisan, home made and maker culture);

There has been a rise in indie cafes and European artisan bakeries (and even Japanese-European fusion bakeries) all over Singapore (think CCSH, Loysel’s Toy, The Plain, The Bravery, Common Man Coffee Roasters, Rokeby; or bakery wise – ABC on Killiney Road, Tiong Bahru Bakery, Paul, Maison Kayser and more).

Consumers want to become amateur connoisseurs or makers and sellers as well (think etsy.com). And they’re doing this with their hobbies and personal interests. Design retailers, Tyrwhitt General Company and Naiis have tied up to offer leather making, bookbinding, enamel jewellery and micro-green growing classes at a location-changing, pop-up store called Transitional___. There are barista sessions and coffee appreciation courses at many independent cafes too. And Singapore has recently seen growth in maker fairs and flea markets like M.A.D, the M.C.M pop-up marketplace, and Thieves Market as well as the Maker Café, which sustainable-business agency Newton Circus developed as part of a co-working space in Chinatown.

A couple of things drive this movement. First, a certain fatigue of mass manufacturing and mainstream brands and second, a search again for the authentic, personal and unbranded in a cluttered, branded world. In most cities, excelling at your career is a given nowadays. So, it makes sense that becoming professional and knowledgeable in hobbies has also become a way to make your entire life a well-presented and stand out curriculum vitae.

If you’re a big brand, leveraging these trends will make you a progressive market leader and shaker versus a follower and will connect you on a grassroots level with consumers. One way to take this on board: partnerships and collaborations with those already in this space. For example, Grey Goose Guild is the vodka brand’s initiative to recognize and offer master classes to young, progressive creative talent in Singapore. Grey Goose was one of the first to discover and showcase fashion designer Ong Shunmugam.

Another way forward is to take these trends and incorporate them in-house on a product initiative or campaign level, like NTUC’s “Expat Dinners” did by jumping on the “Airbnb of dining” trend. Starbucks, ranking at 16 in Singapore, has managed to take the spirit of an indie café in house. The company’s now much talked about “secret menu” has gone viral. The menu uses existing ingredients but combines them in quirky or new combos with fun titles. For example, a Biscotti Frappuccino is a Starbucks biscotti blended into your Frappuccino. Consumers can also ask their baristas to put together their own unique concoction. Check out Starbucks’ “secret menu” here.

So what is definite? Looking at Campaign’s top ranked brands in Singapore and some of the emerging trends, today’s brand landscape is definitely more diverse and dynamic than ever. And, we can thank a younger, stretchier and in-flux “I am a this slash/ that slash/ this” consumer generation for all those options.

Tara Hirebet is expert in Asian consumer trends, strategy, foresight and innovation. She was formerly head of Asia for trendwatching.com and freelance senior consultant at The Futures Company.


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