In a famous study over a decade ago, psychologists showed an animated video of fish swimming to both Japanese people and Americans. Afterward, the researchers asked the groups to describe what they saw.
The Americans described the big fish and fast-moving brightly colored objects in the foreground. The Japanese talked about what was going on in the background and how the fish seemed interdependent.
Though it’s reckless to make sweeping generalizations about any cultures, marketers are aware that marketing in Asia requires a different approach than marketing in Western countries. With time, the Asian market will only continue to grow in importance. In fact, economists have predicted that in the years ahead, China will be the world’s largest economy, with Japan and South Korea also projected to be among the world’s top 10.
As the fish experiment illustrates, when it comes to storytelling, different themes resonate with different audiences. Those who attempt to tell stories in Asia should heed these differences.
Adapting To The eEnvironment
While at Cannes Lions this year, I observed that conversations about the cultural differences between Asia and the West were everywhere. Taking the stage at the event, René Chen, partner and managing director at Jones Knowles Ritchie Shanghai, outlined a key divergence in themes between both markets: acceptance versus challenge.
As Chen explained, in China the mentality is based on a herding instinct that places a high value on conforming and accepting nature. “The Chinese don’t challenge anything,” she said. “If it rains, we just accept it. The Westerners will ask a fundamental question like why does it rain?”
Obviously, an ad like Bud Light’s 2016 Super Bowl commercial, which featured Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer proposing a third political party based on the brand, might not resonate in a market where challenging the status quo isn’t seen as a virtue.
Instead, the theme of connection is common in Asian markets. For instance, a highly popular ad in China is Coca-Cola Hands, which shows two hands sharing a Coke. A few recent viral ads from Thailand have also played on this theme of interconnectedness. For example, this 2014 ad for insurer Thai Life featured a man who is rewarded for random acts of kindness directed at strangers. A 2013 ad for Thai telecom True Corporation sported a similar theme.
The Myth Of Foreign Bling
The breakneck growth of China’s economy over the past few years has led to a torrent of luxury spending that some have called the Bling Dynasty. Now that the economy has cooled off, so has the ardor for luxe foreign brands. A recent Barclays report found that Chinese malls are looking for niche brands that get good reviews online and on social media.
A good example of this trend is Apple’s iPhone, which was initially a big hit in China but is now tanking there as Chinese choose cheaper phones from local manufacturers like Xiaomi and Huawei. Though cost is a factor, Apple’s troubles there have shown that offering your brand as a Western status symbol isn’t necessarily a winning strategy.
Peer Loyalty, Not Brand Loyalty
Social media sharing is a huge factor in Western marketing, but it’s even more the case in Asia. More so than in America, Chinese consumers look for reviews and peer recognition before they buy anything.
More than in other markets, Chinese consumers are known for their lack of loyalty to brands and their penchant for switching. A Bain study a few years ago found that the top five brands in 10 categories lost 30% to 60% of their customers in a one-year period.
One trick marketers have learned is to try to win over the group rather than the individual consumer. For instance, when the outdoor clothing brand the North Face tried to break into the market a few years ago, it had a hard time selling its message. The typical North Face message in the West is man versus nature, and ads often feature a lone climber taking on a mountain. Adapting to the market, the brand set up an online community for hikers to enjoy trips in nature with their friends, which helped turn sales around.
If there’s one takeaway, it’s that rather than try to be the big fish, brands would be smarter to recognize just how huge this pond is and do their best to work themselves into the background.