Shawn Lim
Jun 3, 2024

Where APAC CMOs can lead: Subway, Coca-Cola and Zespri weigh-in

As brands look to APAC for growth and consumer mindsets transcend boundaries, three CMOs tell us how this region can influence more global market strategies.

Where APAC CMOs can lead: Subway, Coca-Cola and Zespri weigh-in

While the Asia-Pacific region is counted on to propel much of the future growth for global brands, most chief marketing officer (CMOs) positions remain in the US or Europe.  

This geographical disparity raises questions about how adequately global brand strategies are incorporating international audience trends and preferences.

In a panel discussion at Campaign360, Mandy Mak, senior director of marketing and transformation, Asia Pacific at Subway, Kok Hwee Ng, global marketing and general manager at Zespri, Matthias Blume, the vice president of marketing for Coca-Cola ASEAN & South Pacific at The Coca-Cola Company debated whether it is time for more marketing executives in APAC to step up and exert stronger influence in shaping global marketing, messaging and media strategies.

Consumer audiences defying boundaries

Part of the reason why decision-making from APAC underwhelms despite its oversized consumer audience is due to legacy. Traditionally, global brands have segmented their consumer audiences into regional and local markets with only regional decisions limited to those audiences.

However, consumers do not always fit neatly within national borders, prompting newer approaches to consumer segmentation. Ng, for instance, explains that Zespri views its consumers beyond geographical confines, referring to them as 'possibility seekers’. 

Kok Hwee Ng, global marketing and general manager at Zespri,

This term encapsulates their proactive attitude towards health, which aligns with the Zespri brand's focus on healthy eating. Its consumers are characterised by their determination to improve daily and their positivity in achieving better health, regardless of where they live.  

“We identify these consumers within various communities or tribes where shared values foster inspiration and information exchange," explains Ng. "Although our media strategies consider geographic boundaries, our consumer definition prioritises mindset and attitude towards health over mere demographics.” 

At Coca-Cola, Blume explains that cultural influence primarily moved from the West to the East more than 30 years ago, but now it flows in all directions. He explains while specific festivals still cater to local cultural norms, the broader human insights are consistent worldwide.  

“The focus is increasingly on penetrating subcultures that, although niche, transcend geographical boundaries.  

“Looking ahead, geographical limits are expected to diminish even further, and language barriers are also likely to become less significant as a differentiation factor.” 

Balancing a global narrative with localisation

Given this, brands continue to recognise the importance of maintaining a global narrative alongside localised content.  

The challenge for marketers has long been to sufficiently leverage global assets and narratives while allowing sufficient autonomy for local adaptations. This ensures that global branding efforts remain relevant and practical across different markets. 

Mandy Mak, senior director of marketing and transformation, Asia Pacific, Subway

Mak points out that today's demand for content is much higher, putting pressure on production budgets.  

“To manage costs, I emphasise consistency in creative strategy across teams. We use toolkits containing primary assets like videos and visuals sent to various markets for local adaptation,” explains Mak. 

“This approach maintains the global brand narrative while allowing for local nuances. It helps us stay on budget by enabling markets to localise content effectively.” 

Agreeing with Mak, Ng points out that balancing foundational and dynamic content is critical; Zespri leverages global scale and synergy for core content to optimise resources, such as product attributes and claims.  

This strategic approach allows local marketers to be more agile and responsive to dynamic market conditions.  

“They can tailor content and effectively engage with consumers and competitors within their specific locales, ensuring content is relevant and localised. This method enhances our ability to react quickly and innovate in diverse markets,” explains Ng. 

However, Blume cautions that localising content can be costly and challenging due to high workloads. He is optimistic that AI advancements could significantly ease these constraints within the next six to 12 months, allowing for extensive localisation.  

Blume explains that Coca-Cola operates through global charters led by individual business units or teams instead of a centralised global team dictating everything.  

“This approach fosters a great sense of interdependency, as teams are motivated to produce work that others globally will want to use, creating a more bottom-up flow of ideas from regional teams,” says Blume. 

Recognising the work created in APAC

It is often mentioned that marketers must possess a certain level of influence within brands to shape narratives effectively.  

The challenge lies in acquiring the influence that ensures widespread recognition of the work created.  

For marketers seeking to gain such influence, developing strategies that enhance visibility and acknowledge their contributions across the organisation is advisable. 

Mak stresses it is crucial to start with the consumer. Marketers can develop work that resonates widely by being data-driven and leveraging the right consumer insights.  

She explains that this approach makes it easier to gain buy-in from everyone, regardless of whether the process is top-down or bottom-up.  

“Work rooted in genuine consumer insights addresses real business challenges and adapts well to local contexts while maintaining the core brand promise,” says Mak. 

“In Asia, the ability to operate swiftly and adaptively is crucial. Marketers in the region are known for their agility, often managing to innovate under pressure with limited resources. This rapid, agile approach allows them to efficiently test and scale marketing strategies.” 

She adds: “This capability is a significant asset, offering a distinct advantage in creating value for brands and stakeholders. This environment cultivates marketers adept at maximising small budgets and executing strategic plans effectively.” 

Matthias Blume, the vice president of marketing for Coca-Cola ASEAN & South Pacific at The Coca-Cola Company

Diversity: Advantage APAC

Blume points out that diversity in APAC is unparalleled, encompassing various languages, religions, and cultures.  

He notes this diversity parallels the rapid economic growth and digital innovation that surpasses many Western developed markets.  

“This environment allows for unique opportunities that might not be feasible elsewhere. Additionally, teams must take pride in their work and communicate their achievements confidently,” explains Blume. 

“Encouraging this internal advocacy can help elevate the region's voice on a global stage, contrasting with the more vocal approaches seen in other cultures.” 

Concurring with Blume, Ng feels APAC's diversity is its key asset, extending to its talent pool and various marketing teams and channels.  

Ng explains that In Singapore alone, Zespri has a global centre of excellence that boasts seven nationalities among its marketing team, reflecting a blend of perspectives that enhance creativity and execution.  

“The region's dynamic market offers a vast array of traditional and ecommerce channels, providing a fertile ground for testing innovative marketing strategies that can be adapted and applied globally,” says Ng.  

“This diversity is crucial in shaping the region's role in global marketing, emphasising its capacity to generate value not only economically but also in terms of social and environmental impact.” 

At Subway, Mak observes that people are deeply interested in the technological advancements occurring in Asia because of the region's rapid evolution.  

“This interest is crucial as staying updated with these changes ensures companies remain relevant where consumers are most active,” explains Mak. 

“APAC is a 'safe zone' for significant companies to test new developments and applications with less risk to the broader organisation. The lessons from these tests are valuable, especially for enhancing operations in the US and providing a cushion in case of failure without significant repercussions,” Mak says.

Globalising CMO roles

With the panelists agreeing that CMOs roles must be more inclusive, extending beyond individuals from APAC or those positioned at company headquarters, an audience member asked the panelists during the Q&A what it would take for CMO roles to be more globalised. 

Mak recalls that in the past, Asians were at times overlooked in their organisations due to culture differences in temperment. Many were quieter and not the most dominant voices in discussions.  

She explains she learned two key things: first, the importance of constructively challenging the status quo, and second, the importance of maintaining brand consistency while adapting to local cultures.  

“Speaking up decisively in global meetings is highly beneficial for naturally reserved people. Even a single impactful statement can significantly raise our profile and enhance the role of the CMO and marketing within APAC,” says Mak. 

Blume agrees share of voice can be unevenly distributed and voicing diverse opinions are critical to sparks meaningful discussions and drive progress from this region.

“This is an open invitation to anyone leading a project: you will likely understand your project better than anyone else in the room, regardless of their seniority. So, speaking up, sharing your insights, and advocating for what you believe is right is crucial,” says Blume. 

Ng adds that engaging with stakeholders to understand what 'value' means to them is crucial.  

This understanding allows marketers to tailor narratives that resonate with different stakeholders, enhancing marketing's influence and presence in discussions and across the company.  

“Marketing gains significant impact when it creates value for all stakeholders, linking its efforts directly to the business objectives,” she explains. 

Campaign Asia

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