Jonathan Sanchez says global firms are making a big mistake when they choose to overlook the fact that Asian consumers will pay more for products they know are ultimately good for society
There was a time in the place called Asia when everyone aspired to be someone else. Everyone wanted a brown sugary carbonated drink and everyone wanted to be the people holding the bottle in the advertisements they gulped down.
Those were the golden years for global marketing companies, not only could they hold their clients’ hands and lead them into these new ‘emerging markets’, they could also practically take an ad from the ‘far west’ and simply dub it for the ‘far east’. Those halcyon days and the margins and profits they bought the JWTs, Ogilvys and others are gone – as are the markets and as has the soft-touch consumer that lapped it up.
A recent Nielsen study tells a story which must be unsettling for those leviathan agencies and their teams here in ‘the Asia’. It is a story that can be told in one sentence, yet will confound copywriters as they stare at their mac. It is simply this: Asian consumers are prepared to pay more for goods that are ethical and sustainable than any other region on earth. It’s worth reading that two more times (marketers believe you need to hear it three times before it will register – or used to) and then walk with me as we unpack the impact this is having on companies and the companies that market them.
I’m not going to give you another stump speech and I’m not going to ‘Gore’ you. By that I do not mean have a Spanish bull run into you, I mean I am not going to give you an Al Gore polemic. Instead, I’m going to start by telling you three critical opportunities marketing companies across Asia must embrace in order to protect their bottom line and our planet’s resources. By resources I mean both their means of production and the consumers that buy their finished products –- or simply put – us, we, you.
The greatest missed opportunity for global marketing companies is that of being the connective tissue of community. There is no global consumer and this systemic disconnect between consumers and people has never been wider. Sadly the current belief that ‘digital’ is the panacea to the distance that traditional media affords is akin to tweeting about deckchairs shifting on the titanic. Marketers that challenge clients to understand, respect and authentically connect with people, communities, society and help address the real life challenges people face will be rewarded with loyalty, authentic insights and sales. This is because today’s consumer in this part of the world expects more from the companies they buy from. Therefore the marketing industry needs to reset, from being solely the voice of its clients, to being the catalysts of conscience, the agents of positive social activism and the mirror held up to the Emperor’s new clothes of brand centered marketing.
The communications industry has talked an excellent game about corporate influence and power, but I’m not buying it. I’ve loved seeing Martin Sorrell at all the WEF East Asia meetings – he’s a brilliant connector. But outside the hermetic, sealed off world of global companies being global with each other – where’s the delivery on the ground, where people live? Marketers must demand not just a seat, as is the rhetoric, but a voice in the boardroom. They must be accountable for more than GRP’s and analytics, but for social impact and sustainability. I’ve always believed marketers are the foreign and home office for their clients. In today’s society and economy, there’s never been a better time to stop talking social media and start driving social impact. We need to get them there.
There’s been a historic belief that emerging market consumers are only concerned with value. For decades we’ve told ourselves that this region’s consumers aren’t connected with empathy or emotion in marketing. It’s a condescending view that posits a belief that people here are not ‘developed’ enough. A bitter pill to swallow if you understand the cultural contribution people in this region have created over the centuries.
Perhaps they just don’t care much for the inauthentic, sterile and false environments advertising narrative has purveyed. Perhaps, although I believe this to be true; they just don’t respect your marketing? Perhaps the value they seek is far more important than a price. So why only stand for a product or brand when you can stand for something that is meaningful? How can you help your clients use their resources to create social and economic good? Because fundamentally, if you don’t put improving the livelihoods and wellbeing of consumers at the heart of your purpose, how will you create new ones? Development, social projects and sustainable practices that do well and do good are not charity or CSR, they deliver long-term business protection.
So where to go? What to do? How to make this systemic shift? If you think this is too hard, think about China lifting 300 million people out of poverty. Think about Indonesia and Malaysia working together to protect forestry. Think about Singapore’s government launching a vision and target to be a regional hub for sustainable business.
Expectations in this balmy, wonderfully erratic, conflicting and cultural region are high. You have to embrace communities because that’s where people live. You are expected to take responsibility for leadership and lead your clients towards a more pro-social and pro-profit way of working. You must stop believing that digital channels really connect and evangelise — that it is what you stand for, your purpose that connects you — anything else is just advertising, isn’t it?
This is not a negative critique; it’s a shot in your marketing arm. Your industry has untold influence, coupled with both means and money. However, the key to a long-term sustainable business for you and those you serve will be unlocked by purpose. This is what people here expect and value from you and the companies you communicate for.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘find your purpose, the means will follow’ – it’s time to find yours.
Jonathan Sanchez is co-founder and Managing Director of STAND, a Thailand and Singapore based consultancy specialising in communications and leadership