3 Lessons for the APAC Brand Marketer in the Digital Age

Martin Roll August 2018 APAC Region

Martin Roll is a business brand and marketing strategist who is an advisor to various Fortune 500 companies and Asian family conglomerates. He has 25 years of C-suite consulting experience, and he is a highly accomplished keynote speaker at global conferences, and an Entrepreneur in Residence at INSEAD. He has called Singapore home since 2000 and is the author of global best-selling business book, "Asian Brand Strategy."

Every business is looking to make an impact, be it in terms of financial standing, market share, loyalty, or positioning. This is especially crucial in a marketplace crowded with products and services, each vying for the buyer's attention and across different communication channels. To navigate through the noise, consumers look at the brand and what it represents. After all, there are reasons why one chooses to buy a Hyundai and not a BMW, or vice versa.

So how can companies successfully build a brand in Asia-Pacific? Here are three lessons I've learned about brand marketing from speaking with clients and observing the Asia-Pacific landscape over the past two decades:

1. Be authentic

Consumers today want customized offerings, and they want brands to know the person they're talking to. The flip side, though, is that consumers expect so much that brands can end up being swayed in many directions if they try to please everyone.

Customers want authenticity, and that’s going to be a keyword for businesses in the years ahead. There has been so much discussion about misinformation online and debate about trustworthy sources that people have been looking to entities they can trust. Consumers want to know where the brand is from and the people behind the brand.

Brands will need to be driven by values and beliefs that reflect the local society…It means standing for who you are and not simply replicating what other market players have done.

South Korean skincare and cosmetics company Amorepacific is an example of an Asian company that has built a strong portfolio of authentic consumer brands by leveraging global interest in Korean popular culture, referred to as the Korean Wave.

Brands will need to be driven by values and beliefs that reflect the local society. If you’re an F&B brand in Asia, for instance, spice should be added to your flavors. Or if you’re a hotel or airline, reflect the Asian hospitality. It means standing for who you are and not simply replicating what other market players have done. This also means you need to localize your engagement with customers here. If you're going to bring a brand out into the marketplace, you'll need deep cultural and societal understanding. Recognize, too, that markets mature at different levels, so cater your messaging to best address the local audience.

Singapore, for instance, is widely recognized for upholding the highest levels of security and standards. Similarly, Singapore Airlines is portrayed as a brand that’s about service quality and safety. It’s about associating what the brand stands for with its country of origin.

Charles & Keith in Singapore is a great example of a brand that has been able to appeal to its customers because it knows that Asian consumers want good-quality shoes and value for the money. It’s also quick in introducing new collections and providing a wide range of models. Furthermore, the brand has an authentic Asian history, depicting two brothers who built up the business after spending their youth working in their parents’ shoe shop. Its strong family tie is something that most Asian countries such as China and Singapore value.

2. Be agile

Just as it takes years to nurture a growing child, it can take brands and markets time to develop and mature. There are no shortcuts to building strong brand equity.

Along the way, businesses need to be agile and manage disruptions effectively. It's easy to fall into complacency, so it's absolutely crucial that brands remain at the verge and slightly outside their comfort zone.

If you don't stay agile, your competitor is going to make a play for your lunch. You've got to constantly reinvent the brand, your team, and the organization. Strong brands and their leadership teams always raise the bar.

They need to be customer-centric, focusing on speed in their service delivery and picking up on new market trends. Brands need to ensure they’re tracking consumer demands and feeding them back along the supply chain quickly so tweaks can be made to tap into these emerging trends. If you don't stay agile, your competitor is going to make a play for your lunch. You've got to constantly reinvent the brand, your team, and the organization. Strong brands and their leadership teams always raise the bar.

And that’s exactly what Thai beauty brand Cute Press did when it launched a lipstick campaign to refresh its image and connect with a new generation of local 15- to 20-year-old women. While the retail brand—which has a 40-year history—came from a traditional business environment, it quickly realized digital channels, specifically online video, provided a more effective way to engage with its target audience.

The brand kicked off a digital-only campaign, “Goodbye Dry Lips,” exclusively on YouTube for two weeks before launching a nationwide TV and digital campaign. Doing this allowed Cute Press to compare the impact of both platforms, and it was able to establish that the YouTube-only campaign delivered 2.5X higher returns on advertising spend. It also doubled the membership of consumers between 18 and 20 years old and tripled the membership of those aged 15 to 17 years old. On top of that, brand interest climbed 60% while recall went up 40% and product interest increased 19%.   

Despite its traditional business background, Cute Press demonstrated great agility in being able to evolve its approach to better connect with a younger audience and a willingness to experiment with digital platforms to achieve better results.

Martin-Roll_inline_img

3. Be omnichannel

Having an omnichannel strategy is essential—one that caters to all channels and all frequencies at the same time. You can't have a one-voice-fits-all approach. Instead, a multiple approach is necessary to cater to various consumer needs.

Look at all the touchpoints in the customer journey and identify where consumers and stakeholders interact with the company, be it through calls or PDFs or your website. Just ask pizza chain Domino’s, where consumers can now order their pizzas through 15 different channels.

[To maintain a cohesive customer experience across multiple platforms], businesses can look at areas where they can deploy artificial intelligence to deliver a more seamless and unified omnichannel customer experience while remembering to always ensure we stay “human.”

It's a given these days that brands need to be platform-agnostic. People expect to be able to get in touch with Singapore Airlines via the phone, online chat, or email. And if they want to buy a pair of shoes from Zara, they want to be able to get them either in-store or online on Alibaba’s Tmall.

Keep in mind that, compared to 20 years ago, there are few barriers today. Everyone's online, and everyone knows what's going on in other markets. That makes it more difficult to maintain a cohesive customer experience across multiple platforms. To address this, businesses can look at areas where they can deploy artificial intelligence to deliver a more seamless and unified omnichannel customer experience while remembering to always ensure we stay “human.”

In this aspect, Sands China turned to machine learning to better understand and predict the needs of its customers—important traits for an organization that’s widely recognized in the Macao hospitality industry. To do so, it also needed to unify customer data that was disconnected across multiple channels. The brand built a prediction model that analyzed more than 200 real-time variables and tapped Google Marketing Platform to deliver personalized ads across search, display, and video based on customer data signals. For example, someone searching for “suites in Macao” would see ads on Sands’ luxury suites, while another seeking “deals” would see ads featuring offers and discounts on the resort’s standard hotel rooms. The brand’s use of machine learning tools to deliver more relevant, personalized ads gave Sands a 22-fold increase in conversions on display ads and a 30X higher returns on advertising spend.

The role of CMOs

So, how can CMOs help build brands that are authentic, agile, and omnichannel?

1. See yourself as a business leader, and bring marketing into the boardroom.
2. Dig your toes deep into technology. Marketers today who don't have the foggiest idea about key technology developments in their industry will be disregarded and overlooked.
3. Embrace the digital-filled future.

Like it or not, the digital realm is where consumers in Asia are heading, and brands will need to follow. Even India, where TV and print remain the dominant media platforms, has an internet population of 430M, which dwarfs the entire population of the United States. A Nielsen/BCG report estimates consumer digital spending in India will reach $100B by 2020. It’s no wonder forward-looking brands like Flipkart and Mahindra Racing are already using VR and AR technology to better connect with consumers.

Avoiding pitfalls

Why do so many Western brands come into Asia but fail to make an impact? More often than not, it’s because they’re not authentic or agile. A typical mistake is not being observant enough about local cultures and nuances and not having a long-term view of Asia.

Walmart and Carrefour, for instance, exited the South Korean market because they lacked the sensitivity and understanding of local cultures, such as Koreans’ love of the wet market atmosphere. McDonald’s is an example of one that has succeeded because it empowers its local franchises to create new items that cater to local consumers, which have included the nasi lemak burger and curry sauce in Singapore and the chicken maharaja mac in India.

Yes, it can be challenging to build a brand in the digital era. But Asian companies can successfully do so if they’re willing to be daring, bold, and different.

Failing to Learn: Why Owning Up and Celebrating Failure Is So Important