From West to East: The relationship with brands

Earlier this year I moved from London to Asia to set up the salt Singapore office. In the last few months of travelling across the […]

Earlier this year I moved from London to Asia to set up the salt Singapore office. In the last few months of travelling across the region to Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, China and Indonesia, I realised how much we navigate the world by brands. They became my stepping stones from one country to the next, the only constant frame of reference – a universal language, a way of communicating. In Jakarta food halls if you want a bottle of water, you ask for a Nestle. In Pinoy slang in the Philippines, taking a photo is “Kodakan”.

Research suggests that people in emerging economies, such as Asia, have a stronger and healthier relationship with brands. There’s less cynicism; brands are truly integrated into daily life. In the UK, we’re marketing and brand saturated. There’s an indifference to brands – we’ve grown up with them, seen them do silly things, got sick of them, stopped noticing them; like a childhood sweetheart. Big brands have been and gone. But big brands in Asia are growing hand-in-hand with the burgeoning middle classes. Like a lifelong friend.

A survey earlier this year by Havas Media indicated that this tight relationship with brands means consumers in Asia expect more from brands than do consumers in more mature markets. In China, 57% of participants in the survey said that brands made a “notable positive contribution” to their lives. 84% of respondents in China and 74% in India thought companies had greater responsibilities than the government to solve social and environmental issues. And Asian consumers are shown to be more likely than those in the West to reward brands deemed to be “meaningful.”

One example that caught my eye is the award-winning “Cha-Ching” edutainment series from Prudential Corporation Asia. It was developed following the financial crisis, when financial literacy became a significant concern for families and governments across Asia but existing programmes were either dry or overtly self-serving. Through a series of three-minute catchy musical cartoons, co-created with Cartoon Network and reaching 4.5million households, it builds children’s understanding of four fundamental money management pillars – Earn, Save, Spend and Donate – through the Cha-Ching band of six animated characters each with a different approach to money management. The Cha-Ching World Tour took the characters on a school outreach programme across Asia and financial literacy is now being included in the school curriculum for the first time in the Philippines. Last month it was announced that the cartoons will be aired on the Garuda Indonesia inflight entertainment system at no cost to Garuda and with no corporate branding from Prudential.

It can’t be assumed that brands and branding follow the same rules and evolution in the East as they do in the West. Whilst the West is entering what’s been dubbed a ‘Detox Decade’ where we unlearn certain behaviours; the East is learning behaviours for the first time – so it can bake in the right thinking from the outset. Asia’s mostly “collectivist” culture in a country like Indonesia differentiates it from Europe and provides the context in which meaningful brands can blossom. Individualistic cultures have a bias towards personal drivers such as habits, happiness, saving time. Collectivist cultures encourage a focus on community, job creation, the environment we live in. This is a big opportunity for brands that can think – and act – holistically in terms of the impact they have on a society. But punishment is higher for companies that disappoint or break their promises. Take the recent dumping of toxic waste into the river near Beijing. China took to the streets. Collectively.

If a brand is to be meaningful, it needs to make an impact. And the impact a brand can make on society is arguably bigger in Asia than Europe. It’s not enough to be marginally better than a competitor; it’s about impacting lives in a positive, perceptible long-term way. Take Unilever brand Lifebuoy. Handwashing with soap is one of the most effective and low-cost ways to prevent disease. Lifebuoy has boldly committed to change the handwashing behaviour of one billion people by 2015 and this October marks the 5th birthday of Global Handwashing Day, of which Lifebuoy is a founding partner. Like all such initiatives, it began with a piece of paper and a small group of like-minded people who, whether from the private or public sector, shared an ambition and a feeling of responsibility to use the power of their brands and networks to make a difference. Now it is a UN-recognised day celebrated in over 80 countries where this life-saving message is spread among communities on a scale never seen before. If that’s not a meaningful purpose, then I don’t know what is.