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Brian R Richards explains how to build brands in Asia that can cross cultures, cut through the clutter and tell impactful stories. 

Branding is about perception. As a strategist, I am usually talking about the customer’s perception of your brand. But here, the perception of the discipline itself is in question. When we talk about branding for the Asian market, we are met with the obstacle of the ‘corporate Asian mind-set.’ This mind-set sees branding as another cog in the marketing wheel. A low-priority task often implemented from the bottom-up, rather than envisioned by the company’s Board of Directors.

Traditionally traders, Asian businesses tend to value physical products and price over building brand equity and customer loyalty. However, over the past few years we have seen a more sophisticated Asian consumer emerge. The influence on buying behaviour has shifted to stories, emotions and reputation over getting a bargain. Brand-driven businesses like Toyota and Samsung have noticed, reacted and ultimately – kept ahead of the pack. But many still live in the trader’s mind-set, prioritising price, mass-production, planned obsolescence and tangibility.

The question here is; how can companies make the shift to becoming a brand, not just a trader? 

Telling your story

Asian cultures are embedded with a rich history of storytelling. Brands should play into this aspect of the culture, using it to strengthen customer relationships, all the while building a captivating narrative.

We recently worked on a brand-refresh with Nuplex – a global leading composite materials manufacturer and distributor. As a business that exports to global markets, including Asia, brand story was at the centre of this project. Working closely with the global leadership team, we developed the concept of ‘rightness’ – a value at the heart of the complex resins business. For Nuplex, this was materialised in achieving the ‘right chemistry’ both within their products, and with their client partnerships. ‘Partners With the Right Chemistry’ became the brand essence at the core of their business. In telling this story, we looked at the business from the outside-in, considering what would resonate with their clients across many different markets. After our work with them, Nuplex would later merge with Allnex to lead the industry globally. 

Cutting through the clutter: Designing simplicity 

The saying goes: less is more. Yet when it comes to advertising, marketing and ‘branding’ in Asia, the rule of thumb seems to be ‘more is more.’ We see this play out over many forms of media, most notably e-commerce websites. Possibly this is because consumers are looking for a more informed but chaotic shopping experience (think Shibuya on a web page). However, catering to this psyche comes at the detriment of brand recall and differentiation in a consumer’s mind. For this we can learn from Japanese Zen philosophy, particularly the concept of Kanso, which means simplicity. In my opinion, this is epitomised through the Japanese clothing brand Muji. Built on the cornerstone of universality, their products are designed to blend in to our lives.

This year we completed a brand refresh for Thailand-based INSEE Group (wholly owned by Siam City Cement Company). Working across 16 sectors of the company, in four different languages, across six countries – designing with simplicity and clarity had to be at the centre of this project. The refresh saw a ‘house of brands’ approach to the brand architecture, supported by a design system that could be simply interpreted by a wide range of users.

Crossing cultures

Even the biggest brands in the world know that they are not immune to cultural differences between markets. Starbucks recently released a ready-to-drink milk tea Frappuccino in China, knowing that they are a culture of tea drinkers. Although this is not a large side-step from their current products, it is an impactful one. Operating in different markets is about understanding cultural nuances and traditions. Knowing how to connect the dots between your brand and the people is how you succeed. This is only possible when you have a brand that is able to maintain integrity whilst being nimble and flexible. Localising your message, story or even in the case of Starbucks, your product, can help your brand resonate with people. 

The worlds’ most important consumer

There is ample potential for brands in Asia to succeed if they tap into the ‘new’ Asian mind-set – an emerging global customer. In China alone there are 318 million young consumers, aged 15-29, who reflect this category. A majority of these people fall into a high-income bracket, frequently travel and share significant commonalties with western cultures and beyond. Without question, we know that Asian consumers are emerging as global citizens. Between BMW to Louis Vuitton, they hanker for western culture to reinforce their status. However, they can also be fiercely patriotic for the right company. This tension of opposites presents a chance for brands to capture these enormous shifts in consumption, simply through understanding the Asian mind-set. 

Brian R Richards is founder of Richards Partners, a creative agency that works at the intersection of Strategy and Design. He has been recognised as New Zealand’s foremost brand strategist, having spent the last 30 years working with major global brands, helping tell their stories to the world. [email protected]

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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