Kim Benjamin
Jun 6, 2016

The brands that will take over

Airbnb’s debut on the Top 1000 Brands ranking means it’s only a matter of time before Uber, Netflix and Grab displace more traditional incumbents.

The brands that will take over

Airbnb’s debut on the Top 1000 Brands ranking means it’s only a matter of time before Uber, Netflix and Grab displace more traditional incumbents.

Disruptor brands haven’t got to where they are today by simply shaking up a particular marketplace. The likes of Uber, Airbnb (debuting at 292), Netflix and Grab, to name a few, have focused on building sophisticated technology and delivering unbeatable experience.

They have also rarely stood still, seeking to expand quickly in new markets to appeal to a wider audience. Earlier this year, Uber announced an aggressive expansion strategy for China, with the ride-hailing business targeting 18 new cities in Southern China, alongside 15 in Sichuan province. And the company is not stopping there. By the end of this year, Uber says it aims to have a presence in 100 Chinese cities. 

Grab, another ride-hailing app founded in Malaysia in 2012 and Uber’s chief rival in Asia, has not only expanded in the region -— with a presence thus far in 28 cities in six Southeast Asian countries — but also broadened its services, from taxis to cars, motorbikes, carpooling and deliveries. 

One of the latest disruptor brands looking to fast-track growth in Asia is online video service Netflix, which expanded its streaming service into Japan in September last year, followed by launches in January this year in several other Asian markets, including Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. 

However, as these brands are becoming more successful and establishing themselves as household names, the simple fact remains: with a move towards the mainstream comes the perception of less disruption and better behaviour. So what is the next step for these brands now that they are mainstream? And how do their marketing strategies need to evolve?

Brand personality

Cheryl Goh, group VP of marketing at Grab, says that in early stages of the business, the brand’s investments and marketing activities were focused on growing its user-base and pool of drivers. As the business has evolved, from simply being a taxi service to now offering a wide range of transport choices in Southeast Asia, Grab is looking to inject what Goh terms ‘brand personality’ into its marketing. She describes this as being “daring, positive and genuine”.

One recent example of this approach is Grab Thailand’s ‘Man versus Grab’ video series, created by MullenLowe Group Thailand, which was unveiled in March. The humorous take on surviving Bangkok’s big-city environment, and in particular navigating its dense, urban traffic, featured a parody of seasoned wilderness explorer Bear Grylls up against a Thai woman who uses Grab to get to places in congested Bangkok with ease. 


“As a hyper-local company, we’re by the locals and for the locals. That authenticity and relevance is reflected in our marketing,” explains Goh. “As we scale, we also have increasing opportunities to work with other brands to create one-of-a-kind experiences for our users. Recent brand partnerships include our regional campaign which put Star Wars-themed GrabCars on the roads and branding electric vehicles as part of our Singapore fleet.”

This move towards partnerships is one of several ways disruptor brands are evolving their marketing strategies, according to Tan Kien Eng, chief executive of Leo Burnett Group Malaysia. To achieve business growth quickly in Asia, he says disruptor brands prefer to collaborate and partner with established businesses and/or category leaders, to access funding as well as an enlarged consumer-base. Uber, for example, formed a partnership with Baidu at the end of 2014, which has helped fuel its expansion in China. At an event held by Baidu last year, Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick said hundreds of millions of people that use Baidu Maps can order an Uber directly from their Baidu Maps app.

“Brands are also able to maintain their disruptor edge by regularly introducing new features and addressing customer pain points,” says Tan Kien Eng. “We cannot say that it is a ‘feat of marketing over reality’. These are, in fact, examples of classic marketing: find a customer need and fulfil it better than the competitors.”

It’s a view shared by Alvin Huang, managing director of Isobar China Group, who says successful disruptor brands never lose sight of disrupting the market, even as they grow bigger: instead, they continue to change the game of business by providing innovative services. engages customers with rewards for filming an ‘Unrooming’ video of their hotel room

Tailored approach

Focusing on creating experiences, much like Grab, is also key to Airbnb’s marketing strategy, which last September announced its plans to crack the Chinese market. Julian Persaud, regional director at the accommodation sharing website, says that Asia represents one of the business’ most exciting growth markets and that the company is focusing on showcasing experiences to the region. 

“We’re always creating meaningful experiences for our community,” he says. “We favour tailored marketing approaches that best suit the individual culture of a specific region and include a mix of different platforms.”

Examples of recent ‘experience’ campaigns across Asia included the opportunity for five guests to be hosted by celebrity Korean popstar G-Dragon at the legendary Dukyang K-Pop studio in Seoul, while in Malaysia, two Airbnb guests were given the opportunity to experience a night at the Sepang Circuit. 

Preserving a startup mentality and approach is also vital to sustain disruptor brands’ marketing strategies as they expand, according to Skyscanner, the flight, hotel and car hire comparison site. Fang Fang, senior marketing manager at Skyscanner Greater China, says that while people might consider it to be a mainstream brand (having entered into Asia in 2011), Skyscanner still considers itself as a startup company. 

“We embody the spirit of a startup firm: we are constantly monitoring consumers’ changing behaviour, brainstorming for ideas on how we can tweak our products to adapt to these changes, and evaluating if we are indeed bringing value and helping travellers solve their problems,” she says.

As an example of the business’ sustained startup approach, Fang says that while it took Skyscanner considerable time and finances to build an agile website, it was very quick to shift its focus to become a “mobile first” company a few years ago when it noticed the growing momentum in the mobile-commerce sector. This, she adds, is just one example of how disruptor brands are not only capitalising on real-time customer knowledge, but also implementing changes to their products and services in response to these customer needs. 

As Skyscanner grows, it has also increasingly adopted a localised marketing approach, as opposed to assuming there is one-size-fits-all global strategy. This, says Fang, is particularly relevant for the Asia-Pacific region, one of the most geographically and culturally diverse in the world.

“There are still some markets that face structural or institutional limitations such as low credit card penetration or poor internet coverage, let alone the culture perception people hold towards online travel companies,” she says. “We are committed to continuous investment in product innovation to suit consumers’ unique needs and bring seamless, hassle-free travel experiences to users in these relatively untouched markets.”

A localised marketing approach has also worked for Grab: in Singapore and Malaysia, it launched its first ‘Grab durian’ campaign in July last year, the first durian delivery in a transport app, inviting consumers to order a durian delivery via a Grab app. 

“We also look at driving campaigns that push our overarching brand pillars such as safety, which has always been the core of our business and relevant in any and all of our markets,” adds Goh. “This strategy enables us to stay true to our mission and what we stand for, while delighting our customers with exciting experiences with a local flavour.”

Content is still king

Driving compelling content via partnerships and relationships is a key marketing tactic for new rankings entrant Trip Advisor (126). Through syndicating its content, it enables travel brands and chains to incorporate review content of hotels, attractions, restaurants and destinations into their own websites and marketing channels. Its vice-president for display in Asia-Pacific, Cindy Tan, is also banking on mobile to enable the business to continue innovation. Last year, Trip Advisor relaunched its China sites under the Mao Tu Ying brand and offered an accompanying app. 

“Mobile gives us a powerful way to connect directly with consumers,” says Tan. “Continuous iteration and innovation here is key, and we are actively engaged in delivering more value to consumers on these devices.”

Tan believes that disruption is not developing something new everyday or changing the entire landscape. It’s about continuously providing an offering to consumers and the industry, as well as creating long-term value.

Moreover, with three of the top 10 ecommerce countries in the world — China, Japan and Australia — located in Asia, according to the Asendia research published in January in cooperation with the Ecommerce Foundation, Tan is confident that there remains plenty of opportunities for growth. 

However, as more brands look to capitalise on increasing their share of this growing ecommerce market in the coming years, they will undoubtedly need to find a point of differentiation to compete with each other. For (entering at 140), which says it is trying to understand how to best reach millennials and the tech-savvy youth aged 25-35, getting the right mix of communications is essential. Content, colours, banners, messaging, branding and PR activities all play a crucial part to ensure the brand remains at the forefront of their mind, according to Nelson Allen, senior director of marketing, Asia-Pacific at the brand.

Allen says it’s vital that brands understand not only what channels have high impact, but also the pivotal role that data insights, analysis, production and performance play in the ‘planning’ of a disruptor brand. Tapping into wearable technology has also been key to evolving marketing strategy of

“We have tapped into the potential of wearable technology at a very early stage, with a special app for Android wearables launched in 2014, and an Apple Watch compatible app in 2015,” says Allen.

Offering mobile-exclusive offers targeted at mobile users is another focus. Last year,  marketed these to users in Japan, and Allen says further similar promotions are in the pipeline. The brand is also investing in branded video content — Allen believes the brand’s value is set to increase dramatically. In April, to provide more engaging visuals, launched its ‘Unrooming’ video campaign in Australia and New Zealand, aimed at creating a new type of hotel review, where consumers can film their first impressions of a hotel room and upload it to YouTube.

Critical eye

The very nature of disruptor brands mean they have attracted more than their fair share of criticism and negative press. And as they scale up in awareness and reach, appealing to increasingly diverse audiences and preferences, this is likely to continue. For Grab’s Goh, having strong social media and client experience teams in place to respond to users’ evolving needs and giving feedback, fast, is crucial.

“We take any forms of negative criticism in our stride and constantly look at ways to improve ourselves and take us one step closer to our vision of driving the transport industry forward,” she says. 

With no sign of a slowdown in the shared economy sector and with disruptor brands emerging from every part of the world, agencies too are being forced to have a long, hard look at their way of working and adapt to better serve disruptor brands. 

Tan Kien Eng at Leo Burnett Group Malaysia believes that this requires a need to be responsive real-time, be social media-immersive, from content to analytics, and enable digital thinking at the centre of brand development.

“Agencies will need to move beyond advertising campaigns, stop thinking target audiences and think communities and purpose, becoming curators, learning co-creation and embracing new technologies from the start,” he adds. 

For a data-driven brand such as Skyscanner, which has a team of marketers who are all data experts too, there is a very stringent and precise set of criteria to follow when seeking agency support. 

“We look for people in the team who think similarly,” Fang says. “They need to be good with data, sharp in picking up market trends and able to help us formulate communications strategies and campaigns ahead of the curve.”

For Grab’s Goh, innovation is key, alongside the ability to react quickly to identify and respond to new trends. “Beyond the usual valued agency traits such as agility and commitment to quality in crafting targeted and multi-platform campaigns that reach desired audiences and outcomes, agencies must innovate at an increasing pace to both identify and leverage opportunities, to tell a unique story in a dynamic marketplace,” she says.


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