Robert Sawatzky
Sep 7, 2018

Are Asian brands ready for polarising debates?

A Campaign panel discussion on brand and culture did not get far before the controversy surrounding Nike’s Colin Kaepernick advertisement took over.

“I think brands have definitely become more conscious about espousing certain values and clearly standing up for them. They’ve had no choice but to do that,” said Kaveri Khullar, Southeast Asia marketing director for Mastercard, in the session hosted by Campaign’s Faaez Samadi at the Asia’s Top 1000 Brands Breakfast briefing in Singapore. “To be relentlessly relevant you’ve got to believe in something. Stand for something.”

But Joël Céré, co-founder of Flying Fish Lab who works with brands, argued that ads like Nike’s are now pushing that idea much further.  Whereas brands first began by embracing non-divisive causes like clean water and saving the dolphins, he said, that may not resonate strongly enough anymore.

“As society has become more polarized and people are getting more vocal, suddenly consumers are asking these brands ‘where do you stand on that issue?’ It could be about gay marriage it could be about political affiliation, [or if] immigration is a good or bad thing,” said Céré.

“At the risk of dividing the world and saying ‘we stand for something’ and it’s okay if a group of consumers don’t like it. If you don’t buy our stuff, it’s okay because ultimately the people that support our stance will be more loyal and more willing to pay a premium because they clearly see us as championing their cause.”

He went on to suggest the Kaepernick ad is beginning to reshape Nike’s shareholding and customer base as younger consumers supported the advert. (For another take on the Nike ad, see "Nike's Kaepernick ad: Let's not get carried away").

Asked directly if Mastercard felt the need to take controversial stances, Khullar said it would have to depend on whether it fit their brand values around financial inclusion.

“We’re not afraid of controversy. But the starting point would not be, ‘hey, Colin Kaepernick is such a controversial figure let us go do something with him’, or ‘the Trump rhetoric is so exciting let’s jump onto that bandwagon.’ The starting point is, ‘we’re talking about inclusion and that’s something we’ve consistently spoken about and spoken to. So, yes if a social issue is relevant to that, I know that Mastercard would not step back.”

Why Asian brands need to stand up

But whereas Céré sees the strong-stance phenomenon already catching fire in Europe and the US and on its way to Asia, the panel noted that brands in Asia were still catching up on purpose-led marketing, never mind adopting controversial causes.

Haruna McWilliams, senior vice president of strategy at Essence, said she was disappointed to hear in an earlier Campaign presentation that many Japanese consumer brands are starting to lose ground in the Top 1000 rankings.

“I think they’re on the fence. They’re quite neutral, known for high-quality goods and services. But what do they stand for? I actually couldn’t think of what those brands stood for.”

McWilliams then drew a direct correlation to internal culture, citing a majority of new graduates joining Japanese companies in the first 3 years end up leaving and half are leaving in the first year since it just doesn’t fit. 

“It’s a huge issue. The younger generation is saying ‘we want more’. We actually don’t want to work in a place where we can’t share values, where we can’t be ourselves. If it’s happening at a corporate level where brands are being created imagine what we need to be doing as marketers.”

Likewise Khullar cautioned that Nike and other brands cannot run two different narratives by supporting social equality causes in their marketing in one country while producing products in factories with poor working conditions.

The same goes for guarding brands from inappropriate cultural appropriation, Khullar argued.  It begins with the company internally having  diversity of thought and diversity of culture.

“If you have enough people in the room from different cultures, different backgrounds hopefully there will be a more balanced conversation and a more culturally relevant conversation,” Khullar said. 

But campaigns still need to be tested.  Khullar argued Nike knew it was a massive risk but a calculated one.  “It was definitely insanely shrewd,” she said.


At Asia’s Top 1000 Brands Breakfast briefing, delegates also heard from Google’s Sapna Chadha on the platform’s latest marketing techniques, along with Mondelez’s Pamela Goldberg on Oreo’s efforts to ‘play’ with Chinese consumers. Digimind's Stephen Dale unveiled Digimind's Social Spotlight research on Asia's Top 1000 Brands. Campaign’s Robert Sawatzky and Nielsen’s Garick Kea also presented on brand trends emerging from this year’s Top 1000 Brands ranking.

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