Laura Halliday
Feb 4, 2016

The tension with tensions: Why SEA requires a different approach to innovation

The western paradigm of problem/solution is not necessarily a useful one when it comes to generating innovation in Southeast Asia. Flamingo's Laura Halliday explains why brands and agencies need to look beyond pain points.

Laura Halliday
Laura Halliday

For those of us with innovation within our remit, 2016 is an exciting time to be in Southeast Asia, and indeed Singapore. Countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia are now considered must-win markets for global teams seeking growth. The arrival of many global R&D innovation hubs means that SEA is now at the top of brand and insight-teams’ agendas. More and more brands are seeking Asian-led innovation for global rollout, a trajectory set to continue as the Singapore government pumps $19 billion into the innovation sector in the next five years.

By bringing these hubs to Singapore, companies are not only taking advantage of tax breaks, they are recognising that adapting (or force-fitting) Western innovation into Asia is not enough to gain cut through. SEA markets are distinct, with their own cultural and behavioural mores. They require focused exploration, and potentially bespoke innovation to win. Clients are looking for their business to do something different: They want agencies to help them identify what ‘different’ should look like.

So this isn’t business as usual. We need to find new ways to think about the opportunities these markets present. We would argue that it has been underestimated how different things might be when it comes to innovation—especially when it comes to the paradigm of ‘problem/solution’. Collectively, we tend to convince ourselves that this is the main (and sometimes sole) source of innovation. We are convinced everyone has tensions to break, and obsess over how to uncover these tensions or pain points. We expect these problems to guide our innovation, and we talk about drilling deep into the product to uncover the answers. In our experience, this deep and focused approach can be a mistake, especially in the SEA region.

In our experience, focusing exclusively on pain points and tensions merely scratches the surface of the innovation opportunity, for a number of reasons:

  • We are looking where everyone else looks, so we are likely to observe the obvious. This means competitors will happen upon ideas very quickly and an arms race of piecemeal innovation will ensue.
  • It assumes dynamics of a category are fixed and we can only optimise within this remit. In fact, categories are constantly conflating and the rules changing. The rise of the smartphone as the music repository is a key example of this.
  • It also tends to assume innovation must be design-led—the grip of a handle, the finish of a casing. But innovation opportunities can be more expansive, and cost-effective, than this. It could be a rethink of positioning, or targeting, or benefit versus a ‘parts change’.

An even more fundamental issue is that problem/solution approach assumes consumers have lots of problems that they want brands to resolve. In SEA, a workaround mindset endures, in spite of economic progress. Sulekha cleverly satirised this recently in India with its ‘anti-jugaad’ campaign.

But we’ve seen even more extraordinary examples of people making their own solutions versus buying solutions first hand. For example, very affluent Vietnamese homes, where a table-top fan is stuck to the ceiling with gaffer tape in lieu of air conditioning, or a newly refurbished sitting room with a 15-year-old entertainment system centre stage. We’ve met wealthy dads in Indonesia who’d rather buy fake DVDs each week than subscribe to a media service, or students who buy ‘introduction’ SIM cards each week to get the best data plan.

This is a mindset that is not (just) about money—although that is part of it. We shouldn’t underestimate that there’s some satisfaction in being savvy and finding clever ‘life hacks’. People are not always convinced that brand solutions are better. On a trip to the Philippines, I noticed that the sitting room entertainment centre had around 12 remote controls. When I asked why they didn’t buy one integrated remote, they were surprised: What would happen if they lost it? Yes, my solution resolved one tension. But it set up quite another which would be even more problematic.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

We believe looking beyond problem/solution innovation enables us to tap into something truly differentiated and resonant for consumers in these markets. This means approaching innovation with a fundamentally different point of view:  

  • Looking wide rather than drilling deep. We need to look to other categories, adjacent industries and other markets to understand the possibilities rather than just the issues.
  • Looking to the wider world of the consumer’s life beyond the product. What role does our brand or product play in their life today? What fills similar needs? Where might we move?
  • Seeing consumers as one source of insight, but not the sole source. Tapping into super consumers, naive experts, and cultural thinkers’ points of view, as well as internal business capabilities will build a more holistic picture.
  • More fundamentally, we need to approach innovation with a more open mindset. Rather than just seeing it as resolving tensions, we could think of augmenting pleasure points in product usage. Identifying what consumers enjoy most about products—the fragrance of a laundry wash, the visuals of a TV, or the texture of a t-shirt—and finding ways to augment them. In this part of the world, consumers may be much more articulate in building a rich, nuanced picture of the things they love, rather than pinpointing the pain points of the things they’d like to change.

If we take this approach, the innovation challenge changes. It’s no longer about finding the ‘pain point’ needle in the haystack, but a matter of pressure testing, conflating and filtering all different insight streams through the lens of the brand. This in itself is no easy task. It requires conviction from clients and partners to make the right strategic calls. But it feels like a much more exciting, rich and open source of innovation, rather than trying to find new things through old means.

Laura Halliday is director at Flamingo Singapore


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