Jenny Chan 陳詠欣
Jan 13, 2014

The predicament of Asia’s young singletons

Unmarried consumers, having different lifestyle needs from their coupled-up counterparts, face unique stresses but that means opportunity for brands to get to know in intimate detail.

This Acuvue campaign focuses on healthy eyes rather than the need to catch a man.
This Acuvue campaign focuses on healthy eyes rather than the need to catch a man.

The swelling ranks of 'single-sumers' (single consumers) who leave their parents’ homes to live independently, postpone marriage, choose not to get hitched at all or stay solo after divorce, are challenging Asia’s family-oriented traditions. If marketers pay attention, they have an opportunity to sway this increasing spending power towards them.

According to Euromonitor, Japan has the highest number of one-person households in Asia, followed by Australia, South Korea, Greater China and India. One-person households in Japan have risen from 27.9 per cent of total households in 2001 to 32 per cent in 2012. The Asia Research Institute estimates that by 2020, four out of the top 10 countries with the most one-person households will be in Asia.

While more men and women are opting to live alone, it is the marketing message to women that has to change the most, as the old standby of “use this product to catch a man” now fails to resonate with modern audiences. Marriages are being delayed all over the world, but the avoidance is particularly marked in Asia, especially in wealthy Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. In these markets, women are getting married around 29-30 (on average) and 31-33 for men. In South Korea, some young men even complain that women are on a “marriage strike”. 

Given the long history of female subjugation in Asia, the only way a woman could better her and her family’s circumstances in the past was to “marry up”, says Tess Caven, human experience strategy director for North Asia at Starcom MediaVest Group. With emancipation and education allowing women to enter and compete in the workplace, the pressure to marry for financial security has relaxed. Despite the bulk of the 11,000 women surveyed by SMG this year agreeing that “falling in love with and marrying the right man is important”, this conventional belief is increasingly at odds with their “vehement desire” for self-control and independence, says Caven. “From students in China’s top cities, to mistresses from the lower tiers, financial independence is first in women’s minds”. 

Dave McCaughan, director of McCann Truth Central Asia-Pacific, notices that the Chinese match-making show If You are The One was the first to put women in a position to make their own choices about marriage. This is part of the trend for women to believe they have control, he says.

The key word here, unfortunately, is “believe”. Yes, Asian women may be career-oriented and prefer to marry later than before, but in truth societal attitudes remain traditional. Singles in China are driven by intense social pressure to find a spouse. In a survey of 32,000 people by the All China Women’s Federation, 90 per cent of men said that women not married by the age of 27 are sheng nu or 'leftover ladies'. This generation of Chinese women face both work stress and marriage expectations when they are adults — “being engulfed from both ends of the stick” as one lady put it, during the Starcom women-only study that Campaign Asia-Pacific participated in. 

To ditch this 'old maid' image and defer the crossover to the 'leftover' line, Chinese women are generally conditioned to look like sweet and innocent young things. To illustrate this point, some post-1980s women (whose ages are now firmly in the 'leftover' category) are seen favouring adorable styles of animal-themed fashion and candy-coloured dresses.

Brands that support instead of stigmatising these women stand a strong chance of connecting with them. “In Japan, the Johnson’s skincare brand talks about not just skin-deep beauty but empathy with single women who are starting to succeed in work and life, and want to be encouraged so that they can go even further,” says McCaughan. In South Korea, services that assist single women with predominantly male tasks like lifting heavy objects and even exterminating bugs also answer the need for independence.

To further appeal to 'single-sumers', brands have gone on a compact-product frenzy. Last year, Muji launched a single-serve clay pot for Taiwanese singles. Watermelons sold in quarters serve the same purpose. According to Lotte Supermarket, sales of smaller prepackaged foods and groceries, such as Pulmuone's individual-portion tofu pack and Kitchen Art's mini rice cooker, have been gaining by 10 per cent every month.

Although a tried and true method to sell to single households, size alone is an insufficient selling point. The key is efficiency. In 2011, Japan’s Panasonic released 'Petit Drum', a compact washer and dryer that boosted total sales by 30 per cent year-on-year despite a recession. 

Small also doesn’t mean cheap or temporary with what's known as 'lifetime singles' looking to invest in quality products with added value. One such example is a computer monitor with TV reception, such as LG Electronics’ 27-inch LED screen that can be hung on a wall in cramped apartments. And because having one product assume two functions is simply more efficient, Kyowon went further to develop a compact water purifier equipped with smartphone battery recharging and hot-pot cooking. 

At the same time, brands have also found that economic stability is every bit as important as convenience to singletons. Financial products that convert assets to lifelong monthly 'salaries', such as reverse mortgages, are popular as are retirement packages. Cathay Life, Taiwan’s largest insurer, has been advertising its products to singles worried about retirement since 2010. 

In terms of advertising language, brands have not been so bold to specifically call out singles, and those that have opted for subtlety perform best. A Muji ad in Hong Kong hinted at a solo lifestyle with a single-sized bed and a single-dish meal, without actually slapping the “single” label on. Caven feels this is sensible, and brands should hone their ad content to appeal to an independent woman rather than one that has yet to pair off. After all, Asia is still a society that is harshly critical towards singles, so using a tone of voice suggesting 'one is single but not lonely' isn’t the most appropriate, says Marc Fong, head of business planning at Mindshare Hong Kong. Just look at the popularity of dramas like Let's Get Married and the eagerness of Asian parents in matchmaking their children to see the manifestations of prevalent anxiety about this issue.

Even in the city-state, where HK women are famously picky and fiercely independent, there is an admitted lack of confidence in sexual attractiveness tied to underlying feelings of loneliness, according to a survey by Mindshare. 

It is considered passé to take the 'do this and land a man' angle, advises Caven; but language related to improving their looks and personal well-being will appeal to Asian single women instead. For example, Veet established a link between hair-free skin and confidence in China, and opened up the depilatory market for itself. Another Acuvue Define campaign for Korea, speaks of healthy eyes reflecting inner beauty, and that long hours at work building a career didn’t have to mean haggardness.

A new tack for brands to try next could be humour, says Caven. “Singles here might well be ready for their own equivalent of Bridget Jones”. 

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