Facebook and other platforms are due to resume ad delivery in Thailand today after shutting down their marketing as a mark of respect to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. But it’s likely to be some time before media activities in the usually colourful country return to normal. We asked Hiroyuki Okamoto, a Bangkok resident and co-founder and CEO of social media and influencer marketing consultancy Withfluence, how long the dark mood is likely to last, and how brands can strike the right note in the short to medium-term.
While sharing the sentiment of the country in the loss of its popular ruler, Okamoto believes the current situation offers Japanese brands the opportunity to win back Thai hearts from Korean or American brands, which have become stronger in recent years.
What has changed from a consumer and brand perspective since King Bhumibol’s death?
As a foreigner who has lived in Bangkok for three years, I feel a strong sense of loss. Thai people of course feel that more than us. The Digital Advertising Association of Thailand has announced that brands can start advertising again from 21 October. I believe they will [resume], but we advise international brands that were going to launch new products to postpone their campaigns because Thai consumers are not ready to accept new products or services. Most brands will probably postpone their new product/service launches until next year.
Can we expect ‘business as usual’ to resume any time within this year?
Thai people are strong and flexible. They have faced many problems and challenges, from coups and political issues to floods. But this situation will affect consumer behaviour. Alcohol, cars and luxury products can expect to see low sales for the rest of the year.
Has the reaction from consumers been universal, or is there a difference between generations?
Millennials are more flexible. Of course, their heart is the same, and they are sad about the news, but they do not stop consumption. Many booked trips overseas during the long weekend, and even though most airlines allow free cancellation, my Thai friends chose not to because they want to continue to enjoy their lives. Brands should observe how this group acts, and act quickly to reach this segment because they are different.
How would you advise (Japanese) brands to behave over the coming 12 months?
I recommend that they respect Thai people’s feelings first and foremost. But that doesn’t mean they should postpone all marketing communications. Neither the king nor the government would want to make the economy slow down.
I have heard that some Japanese companies have decided to cancel business trips, postpone the establishment of new companies and reduce marketing budgets. Headquarters in Japan are unable to understand the real Thailand. This is not a crisis—this is a chance to engage with Thai people to communicate with them from a different perspective. Thai people will evaluate Japanese brands by how they react to this event. Although Japan and Thailand have a strong relationship, if Japanese people act negatively, Thai people will go for other brands. So I strongly recommend Japanese brands to understand the actual situation of the Thai market and their audience. They should not decrease their marketing budget but invest to communicate with consumers from a different angle so as to build strong, long-term relationships. Japanese brands should not be too restrained.
Hiroyuki Okamoto previously spent three years in Ho Chi Minh as a consultant to Thai brands in Vietnam, and prior to that worked at iRep, a digital marketing agency under DAC/Hakuhodo Group.