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The wild east? Mastering the essentials of marketing in Asia

The Asia-Pacific region is vast, diverse, and can at first glance seem impenetrable for western brands. But understanding the opportunity on offer is the first step to establishing presence in the region.

Katie McQuater takes a look at a few key considerations for marketers – harnessing the mobile opportunity, overcoming complexity and cultural sensitivity, the issues of hiring local creative talent, and how to navigate China’s ‘great firewall’ of internet censorship.

Opportunities in mobile

Mobile represents possibly the biggest opportunity for marketers looking towards Asia. Mobile penetration is at an all-time high in many of the region’s markets, not least China, where the number of mobile internet users has reached 527 million, according to a BrandZ report. Asian consumers are, on the whole, au fait with being constantly connected and comfortable with information and sharing.

Data from mobile ad platform Opera Mediaworks has shown that smartphone adoption rate across 29 APAC (Asia-Pacific) countries reached 60 per cent in 2014, according to Vikas Gulati, managing director Asia at Opera. Additionally the region’s impression market share continued to grow, finishing the fourth quarter at 26.1 per cent.

Audience targeting, video and m-commerce will all be key when it comes to brands leveraging mobile in Asia. Gulati says: “Mobile is the primary screen for consumers in Asia and the gateway to the web. The device holds the key to valuable information on the user profile, type of content consumed, environment, and most importantly, the location.”

Singles’ Day, China’s equivalent of e-commerce events like Cyber Monday, vastly outpaces its western equivalents, and is largely driven by mobile, according to Duncan Pointer, managing director at Vizeum APAC. “We’ve estimated as much as $4bn of Singles' Day’s $9.3bn online sales in November 2014 would have been through mobile.

“SoLoMo [social-local-mobile] is not new, but arguably more so than any market in the world, it applies to China today.”

Hiring in Asia – the highs and lows of talent sourcing

Finding the right talent in Asia is a well-documented woe for businesses establishing themselves in the region. According to a 2013 global talent shortage survey by the ManpowerGroup, 45 per cent of APAC employers have difficulty filling positions.

The problem is especially pertinent in the marketing profession, which is relatively new to Asia. So with a smaller talent pool to draw on, what’s the solution for marketers and brands?

“Retention is a huge issue – it’s not uncommon for companies in China to complain of an 80 per cent churn rate of their talent,” says Wayne Arnold, chief executive of Lowe Profero, addressing the issue in episode five of Man About Asia, The Drum’s film series on marketing in the region.

While most businesses attempt to solve the issue of creative brain drain by exporting expat talent to the region and nurture young talent locally, Arnold suggests looking to some of the more mature markets in the region such as Japan or South Korea.

“Another way of thinking about it is basically looking at the common languages of the world, and the common language is not English. One is code – because HTML is HTML whether you live in Timbuktu or Mongolia – or looking at data, because a 1 and a 0 is the same around the world. Looking to centralise that talent could be an interesting way forward,” adds Arnold.

Overcoming complexity

The region is large and diverse, presenting a number of challenges for marketers in terms of communication, infrastructure and cultural cohesion.

Aside from deciding which of the 42 APAC markets to target your efforts on or whether to locate your office in Hong Kong or Singapore, marketers also face challenges in the shape of culture, and a one-size-fits-all monolithic approach is usually likely to fail – just as applying a standardised approach across the whole of Europe would be unlikely to be effective.

Localising marketing messages for a global audience requires cultural sensitivity and awareness of local holidays, language and shifting cultural trends. Winnie Park, senior vice-president of Hong Kong luxury retailer DFS, adds that brands should avoid generalising by nationality.

“With Asia, the end consumer spans a broad spectrum of ethnicities, cultures, and beliefs. The biggest mistake marketers make is to generalise by nationality. The discussions usually start with ‘Koreans... Or Chinese...’ With that said, you are always looking for the common thread among consumers – what can you do to segment your approach to that potential customer.”

Meanwhile, just as common threads exist across Asian territories, so too are there common threads in the way business is carried out, and marketers must be flexible and mindful of the characteristics typical of the region.

“Doing business in Asia requires a constantly shifting mindset,” says Nick Foley, Landor’s president of the south-east Asia, Pacific, and Japan region. “When one considers the myriad of countries that comprise ‘Asia’ it quickly becomes apparent that what applies to Thailand may not be relevant in Japan.

“In acknowledging this, there are some commonalities. Time moves at a different pace. Attaining sign-off on an agreement can sometimes take months. Likewise, it is not unusual for there to be more stakeholders involved in the decision-making process. Protocols are not always readily established and, when they do exist, they are often less refined than more developed economies.”

Walking the great firewall

Marketers can’t avoid the ‘great firewall of China’ – the Golden Shield Project operated by the Chinese government is the world's largest censorship programme, with sites including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter all blocked in the country.

“China presents new market opportunities for e-commerce but requires a watertight strategy to reach the world’s largest population,” says Emily Brewer, marketing manager at Oban Digital. “New market entry can bring a multitude of roadblocks including international legislation, policies, cultural differences and fierce competition.”

So how can brands marketing in China adapt their online strategies to plan around the firewall?

Vizeum’s Pointer suggests the challenge is not necessarily planning around the firewall but navigating China’s vast, fragmented digital landscape, which includes several large Chinese ‘equivalents’ including Baidu, WeChat, Weibo, etc.

“For every ‘global’ site the Chinese government blocks, there are several equally scaled Chinese equivalents. As such, the challenge is to understand which platforms are best suited to deliver on your objectives in China, but also how to use those platforms.

“Effective campaigns must go beyond just including China as part of, for example, a programmatic buy. At its most simple, a BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) strategy is vital as the key pillars of the Chinese ecosystem.”

Hong Kong-based digital director Andy Massey says: “Leaving aside any ideological issues you may have with the governance of the Chinese people by the Politburo Standing Committee, you can’t help but be impressed by their sheer audacity in dreaming so big about filtering the entire internet with a firewall.

“Yes, the opportunities in China are huge; but the challenges for foreign businesses are sizeable. Welcome to the wild east. Watch your back while here.”

This feature first appeared as part of an Asia-focused issue of The Drum, published on 18 February.

The Drum's documentary series on Asia, in association with Lowe Profero, can be found on the Man About Asia hub.

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