How to meet regional marketing challenges in Asia

Isn't it time marketers moved to make our northern neighbours key to strategy? Ashleigh Hall from Atomic 212 makes a case for progression, and flags where things can go wrong, in this guest post.

With President-elect Trump flagging that one of his first orders of business will be to withdraw America from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the idea that Australia’s trading future lies in Asia has been rammed home over the past few days.

ashleigh-hall-atomic-212-croppedI say rammed home, because business with our neighbours due north has built to the point that in 2015, seven of Australia’s top 10 trade in goods and services partners were Asian nations.

While to this point many of our exports to Asia have been primary industries, marketers have taken note of the potential – how could we not?

For starters, there’s an increasing population of educated young media professionals working in Asia, and plenty of Australian agencies and publishers are utilising this highly affordable skilled workforce.

Perhaps more importantly, this increasingly skilled workforce is the result of growing economies, with China and Japan having the second and third largest GDP in the world, while the likes of the Philippines and Vietnam are enjoying strong growth.

But while the region presents fantastic opportunities, it’s not as simple as offering a Mandarin translation of your company website and watching the renminbi roll in.

How to manage cultural understandings

Obviously one of the great appeals of working with countries such as the US and UK is a shared language, and a fairly similar culture. Sure, your Seinfeld reference may fall flat with a Cockney, but you’ve always got The Beatles to fall back on.

Embracing marketing in Asia requires an entirely different understanding of languages and cultures. And with an estimated 1.4 billion people in China (that’s right – it’s not just a billion, it’s a billion plus more than the entire population of the United States) often there are marked differences in language and culture within a single border.

There are faux pas to avoid – for example, make sure you accept business cards with both hands and actually look at it before putting it away, as it represents the person and to merely pocket it is insulting; don’t compliment a person’s English-language skills as that implies they haven’t done anything else that impresses you.

But it’s folly to try to explain a single approach to cultural understandings, and keeping that in mind is central to managing them well.

Do your research on not just the country but the specific area of the country where you intend to set up shop. Find out about the language, culture and history of the people you will be doing business with. Likewise, make sure you’re across the system of government.

Within that, also remember that certain things transcend: people want to earn a decent living and see the path to a better life for themselves and their family, and consumers want value for money.

Ultimately, you can make up for a cultural misunderstanding if you and your agency are a robust and honest business partner.

A local partner is a great idea, but…

One of the best ways to manage these differences is to have an intermediary – a partner on the ground who knows the local market and people.

However, this is a lot easier said than done, as Bundaberg Brewed Drinks discovered when it began its push into China.

“China presented a real opportunity for Bundaberg with a rapidly emerging middle-class, large disposable incomes and an increasing appetite for imported food and beverage products,” Bundaberg CEO John McLean told Asialink Business.

“However, what we learned the hard way is that you really need to take your time.”

Bundaberg took on a local partner without doing extensive homework, and were soon unhappy with the level of transparency provided by their regional partner, discovering the partner did not share their business values.

The latter point was one the brewery’s general manager of marketing, Andrew Shepard, hammered home: “Align with the right partners, whose values align closely with your organisation.”

The takeaway is to not only know the culture and area, but to get on the ground and meet people you intend to work closely with before you begin.

Pitching in different markets

The notion you must have at the absolute forefront of your pitch is that your focus should be on quality, not being region-specific.

The idea was explained expertly by Jenny Zhang, an Australian media professional who works in China, in PwC’s ‘Australian Entertainment and Media 2016 – 2020 Outlook’: 

“First and foremost concentrate on creating great content. Too many times [Australian producers] are stressed about finding the Chinese angle.

They think ‘If we are going to make a show for China let’s do an overseas Chinese student story’. I say, ‘Great, if you’ve written a good story with great characters and you really care about it then go ahead. But don’t do it because it’s an obvious Chinese angle.”

It’s a fantastic message, and one which applies across any pitch.

Obviously there are cultural sensitivities you’ll need to be aware of, and tweaks will need to be made depending on the region where you’re pitching, but don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of trying to find a local angle.

To paraphrase David Brent: a good idea is a good idea everywhere.

Ashleigh Hall is a business director at Atomic 212


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