Golden opportunity: why now's the time for brands to move in Myanmar

David Roth, CEO The Store WWP, EMEA and APAC

In the street outside Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, a Buddhist monk reaches into the folds of his burgundy robes for his mobile phone. He cuts a somewhat incongruous figure, tapping his screen against a backdrop of golden spires, with a steady stream of pilgrims and traffic all around. But this blend of ancient tradition with digital connectivity is now the way of modern Myanmar.

The pace of change here is on a scale unseen in other fast-growth Asian markets. Just three years ago, buying a mobile SIM card meant handing over $2,000 in cash on the black market; now, there are now three competing networks and a SIM costs just $1.50. Ownership of mobile phones has already shot up to more than 50 per cent – a fact all the more remarkable given that only a third of people here have mains electricity in their homes.

It is this prevalence of mobile connectivity right at the beginning of Myanmar’s growth curve that is proving such a strong accelerant of change. Mobile connectivity won’t just enable growth, it will direct it, leading entire business sectors – from banking to retailing – to leapfrog stages of development.

The International Monetary Fund has predicted Myanmar will have the world’s fastest-growing economy this year, with GDP growth of 8.6%. Since the country embarked on a programme of ‘disciplined democracy’, investment has been increasing. The smooth transition to a civilian-led government earlier this year is giving many more businesses the confidence to invest and expand here.

Economic growth and urbanisation are giving rise to social mobility, and with that, the world’s newest, youngest middle class. Myanmar is home to 51 million people, more than half of them aged under 30. By 2020, Boston Consulting Group anticipates that 10 million will be middle-class or affluent. These people won’t necessarily be wealthy by global standards, but they will have disposable income that puts fashion, fragrance and home appliances within reach. Later, they will be in the market for cars and overseas holidays.

For brand owners, this represents unprecedented opportunity, and there is a clear early-mover advantage to be had. WPP’s global BrandZ study tracks the way consumers feel about different brands around the world. Some brands are so little understood by consumers, they are a ‘clean slate’ in consumers’ minds. In Myanmar, where shoppers have had little choice about where they shop and the brands they buy, about a third of all brands fall into this ‘clean slate’ category – double the global average.

That means now is the time for brands to start making an impression, not just on people who are ready to buy, but also on those who are on their way up. Ford and Chevrolet are already here; Coca-Cola, KFC and Pizza Hut are among the other international brands to have launched in Myanmar.

Consumers in Myanmar are open to trying new products and new brands, but while global brands can serve as shorthand for quality or safety, they are not a badge of honour and do not instantly command a premium. People are embracing the opportunities that digital connectivity offers, but do not seek an express route to ultra-modernity. The languorous pace of life here is seen as something to be treasured; thoughtfulness and self-control are admired, and modest attitudes to spending and thrift can make indulgence seem decadent.

Brands need to be respectful of tradition, and understand that parents and grandparents are highly influential. BrandZ analysis shows that the strongest brands in Myanmar project idealism and a sense of adventure, but steer clear of individualism and rebellion. They also help consumers navigate what is becoming a sea of choice, emphasizing not just the features of a product but the difference it can make to the consumer’s life. This involves working closely with the traditional retail trade – local ‘Mom and Pop’ shops – which account for the vast majority of sales here. These stores are not just distribution points but trusted sources of information and advice.

Norwegian mobile phone network Telenor has demonstrated how global brands can achieve local resonance. Its TV campaign reflects the importance of family as a young woman in the city calls her mother in the countryside for urgent cooking advice; she wants to cook ‘nan gyi thohk’ noodles from her home-town to impress her mother-in-law. The ad has been so popular that nan gyi thohk is now ‘the Telenor dish’.

Similarly, the isotonic drink 100PLUS, from Malaysia, has established a powerful connection with consumers in Myanmar by reflecting what it feels like to be in a hot climate with so much that needs to be done.

For now, access to television is higher than mobile penetration, but only just. Mobile internet is where consumers are increasingly getting their information, and going online in Myanmar means going on Facebook. Even President Htin Kyaw is a subscriber. Media plans need to be mobile-friendly, if not mobile-first.

Success in this market requires a nuanced approach both to business and communications. The Buddhist monk on his phone appears to be straddling very distinct worlds; in fact, he is integrating the two in a uniquely Burmese way.

David Roth is Curator of the BrandZ Thought Leadership Series report ‘Spotlight on Myanmar – The Leapfrog Nation’, and CEO of The Store WPP, EMEA and Asia. He can be found tweeting here.

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