State of the Nation: Thailand’s consumers hope for honesty from politicians and brands
As Thailand's elections draw closer, consumers hope for more honesty from politicians... and brands. Vero Bangkok's vice president of consumer experience, Prapasri Vasuhirun believes change is in the air.
/ Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay
Welcome to the wonderland of Thailand, where the food is to die for, the weather is beautiful (when the AQI dips enough to safely enjoy it), and the people’s sabai-sabai attitude makes interactions generally very pleasant. It’s also a country where getting a taxi is a gamble on getting ripped off, where massage shops are not always “real” massage shops, and where some politicians seem to enjoy switching parties three times in a four-year term.
Many Thai people entered 2023 with the greatest hopes for positive changes we’ve desperately needed for many years. Our hopes are so high this year because the general elections are around the corner. But while we try to stay afloat and look forward to a brighter future, we are puzzled by how many of our politicians still treat electoral politics as a game where ethics and honesty do not apply. The lack of honesty, trust, and truth in local politics leaves us looking elsewhere for people to say or do the right things.
In this era where we’ve grown accustomed to fraud, scams, and lies, the hunger for truth and honesty remains stronger than ever. As communications professionals, honesty should not be only a buzzword to attract consumers’ attention. It should be deeply integrated into the way we communicate and create. Here are some communication areas where I believe greater honesty is needed.
Building Authentic Connections with real customers
Undoubtedly, influencers help build better connections between brands and consumers and will continue to do so. A recent survey from data analytics firm Nielsen Thailand showed that Thailand has over 2 million influencers, the second highest in ASEAN after Indonesia, and that the main reason people follow influencers is their apparent authenticity and trustworthiness.
However, as Thai consumers have grown more sophisticated and resourceful, they’ve become more aware that celebrities and traditional influencers get paid to say wonderful things about products. Influencers’ authenticity has now been questioned. This is the time when brands need to step up their game by looking at their actual customers and spotting the key influencers among them. These influencers are also known as KOCs or Key Opinion Customers, and brands can benefit from their genuine, honest brand love.
Showing our humanity as creators
In today's world where anyone can be a content creator, consumers have grown accustomed to consuming content from creators and expect brands to also be skilled content creators. Consumers expect you to care about what they care about, to talk about what they talk about, and to stay true to who you are. Basically, brands are asked to be as an ‘honestly human’ as possible in a way that’s relatable and approachable to the audience.
Adopting an honest, human-like approach doesn’t mean you have to be blunt or boring. Brands can be playful, use memes, speak informally, use slang, be on trend, or be spontaneous. But it would be wiser if they use the right words at the right time.
In June 2021 our Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced new and stricter Covid restrictions by using the word “naja”, which is normally used as a suffix meant to make the conversion softer and more casual. In the case of serious Covid restrictions, this was an odd choice. This triggered huge criticism from netizens. A few days later, the PM attempted to dismiss the criticism by saying “I am not angry. I work wholeheartedly, naja.” Was he just being human? Yes. Was he being honest? Maybe. Was that the appropriate communication? No. Did he make the situation worse? Absolutely.
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Don't Let Them Sus Your Sustainability Efforts
When it comes to sustainability, Thai consumers are ready to support brands with sustainable initiatives or practices. According to a seminar called "Enterprise of the Future: Sustainability as a Digital Transformation Catalyst" hosted by Thansettakij newspaper last year, over 60% of surveyed consumers said they were willing to switch brands to reduce environmental impacts, and over 50% said they wouldn't mind paying more for sustainability.
But there is no room for brands or communicators to be less than truthful in how they communicate about sustainability. Conscientious consumers won’t be happy to learn that your much-touted sustainable initiatives or practices won't be realized until the year 3000, and they will not hesitate to call out any greenwashing efforts or false environmental claims. The consequences of avoiding responsibility, in this case, can be more trouble than just living up to your commitments.
Honest Voices on Matters that Matter
Local audiences today are more vocal and articulate than ever. From major social issues to old beliefs or social values, Thai consumers question social norms and offer their constructive opinions with a fair share of humor and sarcasm.
To give an example, a trending meme early last year said ‘How to Raise Your Kids Not to Become XX’ while asking Thai netizens to fill in the xx part. This meme came after an incident where a local physician wrote an online post which criticized new graduates for not attending the graduation ceremony and said that they should not receive any job offers. Netizens found out that the physician had written a best-selling book called “How to Raise Your Kids Not to Become Gay”. The resulting meme went viral to the point that some brand copywriters picked it up and twisted it to promote their products.
Brands’ words and actions also matter because they have the power to reach large audiences and even contribute to societal change, so consumers today want brands to voice authentic opinions that align with their core values.
This means that brands should be aware of issues that today’s audiences embrace, whether those are environmental awareness, political issues, or a culture of respect in terms of diversity, inclusivity, and equality. However, you don’t have to address every single issue to stay relevant. It’s best to stay true to what you stand for and focus on how you can contribute to meaningful change.
It may seem like fighting a tough battle to remain honest in a world where dishonesty seems to have become the norm. Fear of backlash, the complexity of communicating controversial issues, or internal pressure can sway brands to be less than honest. But as we are raising our voices to demand a better social, economic, and political environment, can we really tell only half-truths? Will exciting viral fictions fix the problems that the country is facing? This is why, my fellow communicators, I want to invite you all to be my allies in delivering what consumers deserve and being part of an effort to build a better and more trustworthy world.
We can probably live with some minor half-truths, like a few massage shops not really being “real” massage shops. But for public discourse on important issues, we need trust and honesty more than ever.
Prapasri Vasuhirun is Vice President of Consumer Experience at Vero in Bangkok.