Unsure how to ride the Hallyu wave? Branding expert Martin Roll joins Mark and Nicole to chat all things branding in Asia, from K-Pop and Wechat payments, to the implications of rising labour costs.
In China, Singles Day has once again smashed online sales records. Giant online marketplace Alibaba generated more than $33 billion in just 24 hours. It’s safe to say in the current market, traditional branding rules are in flux.
Gone are the heady days of the nation’s first steps into the global economy under Deng Xiaoping. Then, the urban elite associated domestic brands with “cheap” and Western brands were elevated above all others.
“It used to be very cheap to produce in the Eastern coastal region of China, but they’ve now moved to Vietnam, and who knows, they might soon be in Indonesia, or Africa,” says Martin Roll, Business & Brand Strategist at the Martin Roll Company.
“So Asian firms have been realising that they need to move up the value curve, and one of the ways of doing that is to build their own premium brands. What you see now is a totally different confidence.”
It’s a confidence Roll says Asian brands will need to break into the West, by “truly differentiating” their offerings from “the usual Fortune 500 names”.
Branding strategies are evolving throughout Asia, from CX case study Singapore Airline’s efforts to reinvent their digital offerings, to Samsung’s increasingly aggressive attempts to compete with Apple’s iPhone on the basis of quality and features, rather than price.
Tune in as hosts Nicole and Mark discuss branding in Asia, including the role of A.I. and emerging technologies, China’s unique ecommerce ecosystems and of course, K-pop.
- Korea Wave – The Rise of Korea’s Cultural Economy and Pop Culture
- Alibaba’s Singles’ Day Sales Smash Record With $25 Billion Haul
The CMO Show production team
Producer – Candice Witton
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Participants: Hosts: Mark Jones and Nicole Manktelow
Guest: Martin Roll
MJ: This episode of The CMO Show is brought to you by Filtered Media.
NM: Telling your story brilliantly.
MJ: Welcome back to The CMO Show, my name’s Mark Jones.
NM: I’m Nicole Manktelow.
MJ: And we are going to talk about building your business in Asia.
NM: Oh God it’s a fascinating subject and people are obsessed…
MJ: Yeah and students or fans of The CMO Show will know we’ve actually done a few episodes in recent times focused on China. There’s a slight twist in this particular episode we’re going to speak with Martin Roll who is a business and brand strategist at his aptly named Martin Roll Company. He actually spent a very long period of time, something like 15 years in Singapore, and flying between Singapore and Copenhagen. His interest is how do we develop brand strategies in Asia, he’s written books on the subject, Asian Brand Strategy and The Future of Branding. Just sort of quickly throwing ahead, I love this idea that he’s mentioned is that brands are a promise well delivered so how do you do that in Asia?
NM: Let’s find out.
MJ: If you’ve got a question you’d like us to answer on the show, just tweet us @CMOShow or use the hashtag #TheCMOShow. We’d love to hear from you.
MJ: Thank you for joining us on The CMO Show. Our very special guest today is Martin Roll, business and brand strategist at the Martin Roll Company. Thank you for joining us.
MR: Oh, you’re welcome. Glad to be here.
MJ: The Asian branding landscape has changed a lot in the last five years, how?
MR: I think it has changed in the way that you see more and more Asian firms realising the power of branding, or they probably started to do that 15, 20 years ago, and the first 10 years was kind of the learning phase. But now, they’re getting much more sophisticated and they’re starting to compete effectively at the global landscape. So I think you see a different mindset in Asian firms in terms of realising brands is really what they need in order to go to the next level.
MJ: And just to get specific, when you think of brand, there’s a couple of components to it of course. There’s the story that a brand tells in the market, but there’s also the, if you like all the intrinsic values that a brand embodies. How do you see it, and particularly how do you see it in Asia?
MR: I think you need to split it up. Brand is basically a promise, well-delivered. Look at Singapore Airlines, is a good example. The Singapore Girl was created in 1973 based on a promise of a great way to fly, great service and obviously through technology. And all of that, they’ve always been the first with the latest aircraft, and all of that. But you know, you got to make sure that promise is delivered throughout the organisation. So it’s not only about for Asian firms to come up with a promise, you also need to make sure that the entire organisation, your delivery system is behind it. And that’s why brands become quite interesting, because it’s not only storytelling in itself, it actually relates very closely to leadership, to management, to touch points, journeys, and all of that. So it’s a much more complex construct in order to get this going.
MJ: Yes, and I love the idea of embodying the brand. Is that something that you’ve seen has changed?
MR: Yeah, I would say in the early years it was very much an attempt to do a bottom-up exercise. So you had very junior people in the organisation because nobody at management level believed in branding in Asian. They were all manufacturers and they did very well in that aspect, that’s what created modern Asia. But if you want to be effective building brands, it’s a top-down exercise, meaning it has to be sponsored and led by the top, and it has to be executed by everyone. So it’s a much more organisational endeavour, and not just isolated to marketing.
NM: Can that be extended to customer experience? That philosophy of it needing to be everywhere?
MR: Yeah you have to, I mean, customers first, it’s a popular saying, but in many instances it’s kind of company first, so if you want to create a really good customer journey, you need to make sure you really know what that journey is and whether brand fits in.
Branding in Asia today
NM: How is that happening in Asia? I want to know whether Asian brands really understand customer experience the way we’re being told generally worldwide brands need to.
MR: I think the brand toolbox is the same, but I think it’s probably fair to say that Asian firms are a little more novel to building brands. If you look at the Fortune 100, these guys have done it for I guess 100 years, the Cokes of the world, and all of that, but you have beautiful examples in Asia. I mentioned Singapore Airlines, look at Samsung that 10, 15 years ago was a very, very different company. And now you even see some of the Chinese firms coming out, and these are very new to them. So a customer journey is basically the same, you just have to be very careful what you stand for, what makes you different. So it’s not like, I’m just another brand. You’ve got a different shade, and in that sense you’re going to look at your customer.
MR: I think Singapore Airlines is a wonderful example. I know it’s a service experience, and that is not a typical product sitting on the shampoo shelf in a big hyper-market, because that’s a different situation.
NM: It’s a premium experience – and a new model for branding in Asia.
MR: It’s a very premium experience and it’s different in the way that you have people in your airline, you have them in your own environment, you actually do control the experience. It’s very, very different when you have fast moving consumer goods.
NM: What about if you’re not in a premium experience? What if you’re one of the low-budget airlines?
MR: Same thing. If you’re in AirAsia, Tony Fernandes I think has done a remarkable job out of KL originally, and now he’s flying across Asia and even had his kind of stints with long-haul. As much as it’s low cost, you can create the same type of experience, as long as you don’t promise people premium. But I think in the end, they actually use a lot of the same tricks in terms of foods and welcoming, hospitality and board, it’s just a different price.
MJ: What do you think is the catalyst for a resurgence of interest in brand across Asia?
MR: I think it’s done by the driver that manufacturing and low cost is not a competitive edge for Asian manufacturers anymore, so there has been this kind of drive to build their own brands. It used to be very cheap to produce in the Eastern coastal region of China, they moved to Vietnam, and who knows, it might be in Indonesia, or Africa one day. So Asian firms have been realising that they need to move up the value curve, and one of those ways of doing that is to build their own brands.
MJ: A quick tangential question here by the way, something that has always greatly amused me, particularly dealing with American multi-national firms who use the word “Asia” like it’s a giant block. Which of course, we know, it couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s many, many cultures, many, many distinctives, and it’s a complete melting pot. So maybe, what are some of the distinctives that you’re seeing, you’re talking to a trend that ostensibly cuts across an entire region, but there’s got to be some pretty interesting, if you like, localised trends going on here.
MR: Yeah, it started with the Japanese in the 50s and 60s, they built the first-tier brands, the Sonys and the Toyotas of the world. You saw the Koreans in the 90s starting off with Samsung, Amore Pacific, and all of that. Now the rest of Asia is kind of mirroring and getting inspired from what happened in Japan and Korea, because they were really the first frontier movers. So what you see now is a totally entire different confidence.
MR: One of the key trends I see is, is becoming more localised in the sense that, for the last 30, 40 years in Asia, anything that came out of the Western world were in very high demand. So quality perception of German cars and cosmetics out of Paris and dreams out of Hollywood, I think Asians and Asian managers and Asian firms are realising, wait a minute, we’ve got a lot of local content, popular culture, look at the rise of Korean pop stars and music and videos and all of that. We had Bollywood, and I think Bollywood is still around out of India. You have had the Cantonese pop stars, and who knows what’s going to happen tomorrow. It might be the countries around ASEAN. Chinese pop stars for that matter, one day, will start to make in-roads. That’s where Asian firms can truly differentiate, because they’re not just going to mirror what they saw in the Western world and what the Fortune 500 companies and brands necessarily have done before them.
MJ: Yeah, that’s right. Well, I just know experientially, in Australia, there’s plenty of K-pop and J-pop fans.
MR: There is still a big Korean wave, I recently wrote a 6,000 word article on the Korean wave, and it’s still hard. And you ask most Koreans, they’re like, “What’s the big fuss about, is it really that fancy outside Korea? Because Koreans love it?”, but it is, you’ve go to China, it’s one of the biggest trends in China right now.
NM: It’s so distinctive, that culture. It’s vibrant. All of their media is amazing. I just think that it’s kind of cool, and also I find that when people are talking about connecting with customers in Asia Pacific, they to be on different platforms for different regions, and I wondered if you had any insight on that.
MR: I mean, look at China for example. WeChat, I mean anyone underestimated it because I think a lot of people use other types of messages, but WeChat is not only a conversational platform, it’s also an eCommerce platform and all of that. So a lot of Asian consumers, younger consumers, people reaching into the middle class, are digital natives. The Philippines, they went into SMS years back with banking, micro-finance, all of that. Look at what’s happening in China right now, and these people, younger consumers, never, they didn’t grow up with traditional media. And because they kind of leap frog through some of technology frontiers, they are just digital natives. For example, on WeChat, which is an incredible powerhouse in China, still a very Chinese phenomenon, but it’s reaching outside.
MR: Then you got obviously search platforms, the Baidus of China which is very powerful, and then you have a lot of local platforms around Asia, but they tend to very local, kind of native to Singapore or Philippines, whatever. Very local phenomenon somehow, which I think is getting mixed and matched with the global platform, the Googles of the world, the Facebooks of the world, meaning the Chinese ones are more localised. It’s a landscape which is evolving all the time.
NM: In Australia, at the moment, we’re very excited about the upcoming launch of Amazon here. I wonder if it’s a storm in a teacup. I wonder if, compared to what we already buy online through Wish.com and on Alibaba, whether really it’s not such a big deal. What are your thoughts?
MR: I think it’ll make in-roads, but I’m not sure necessarily Amazon is going to be successful everywhere. They sure would have their run for their money in China, you’ve got Alibaba, I mean Jack Ma has done a very good job. So I think, this is still very early stage in terms of new platforms and eCommerce, and I think it will evolve, and I don’t think it’s going to be a win-lose relationship. I think actually global platforms meet local platforms, it’s going to be the future, but we’re not there yet, it might take another three to five years, but it will come pretty quickly.
MJ: To tie that into the brand conversation, how well do you think Amazon and Alibaba have done from that communicating the promise perspective?
MR: Amazon, Alibaba are brands in themselves, but if you think about it, they’re very transactional. And you go to Amazon and Alibaba, there’s really not a big brand experience, and you can also argue, is it actually Amazon’s job to create that? It’s a transactional platform, and it’s pretty much price-driven. Maybe convenience as well; you sit at home, you order five pair of shoes, return four of them, and you keep the right ones. Perfect, consumers love it. But you don’t get the brand experience. It’s totally different.
MR: That’s why I believe in the future you’re going to see this merge of omni-channel between off- and online. And definitely retail is under pressure. But in the end I think we’re human beings; we are used to being part of social constructs and being in tribes. E-commerce is a very isolated; it’s a very lonely endeavour somehow. And I think along the way, consumers do want to re-engage in a physical environment. You’re just going to find out, what’s a balance between the two.
MR: Good example, and I know that’s a very controlled environment, but you look at Zara, the Spanish retailer. Quite successful in blending of the offline, in terms of all the brick-and-mortar stores that it opened up, I think, 6,300 and counting. But they have also created a pretty strong e-commerce franchise, and that’s where the brand, you meet the brand in both environments. Obviously easier when you are Zara, because you do control it. Zara would not be on Amazon, so that’s kind of one thing that makes it a little different to the majority of brands.
MJ: So what have you learnt from Asian companies that are combining the online and the offline, perhaps that we can apply here in Australia?
MR: You’ve got to be seamless. Everyone talks about omnichannel, but it’s actually hard to get right. You’re going to look at, from a manufacturer, from a brand point of view, you think about off and online, but think about the consumer. He or she doesn’t think that way. She thinks brand; she thinks convenience; she thinks price; she thinks availability, assortment. Where would you get that? Whether that’s on Amazon, your own online platform or I walk into your physical stores.
MR: I think where many brands are failing is they make that division. Consumers don’t think it that way, because smartphones are part of our life; I want to go shopping; I want to do this. Plus we mix and match; sometimes we’re very price sensitive, sometimes we’re very premium-driven. You do fly Singapore Airlines and you do AirAsia at the same time. That’s kind of the modern world of consumers, and brands have to adjust to that.
MJ: So, what are your predictions then for the year ahead? What’s coming and what can we expect in the Asian region?
MR: More disruption. But also more maturity, because we are still in the middle of it. I think this will take another three, five years, maybe a few years to play out to kind of find a balance because everyone is embracing technologies and AI and VR. Alibaba coming in; Amazon launching. Local platforms under pressure, brands. Everything is up in the air right now. And I think people are going to have a fairly long term lens to understand where this is all going to end.
MR: So I think for next year, it’s still embracing new technology. I think, the key thing next year is going to be AI. You see that coming in everywhere. For brand, for example, in customer service, you know, airline support. Support from banks; there’s a lot of tasks that can get automated, maybe a lot of the mundane tasks. I think more sophisticated stuff would not get on AI right now, but who knows, in the future it will.
MR: So I think for next year, one of the key buzzwords I think is “AI.” And we’re still figuring out how to make use of this artificial intelligence. I mean, what does it mean for my company?
MJ: And connecting the, if you like, the disruption angle there, with story, the brand story, what do you think companies need to do to make sure that they bring their customers along the journey with them?
MR: Not to get carried away by technology. And I think we are at a juncture where many brands are risking of failing because they’re getting carried away by technology. And one has to understand, people do not buy technology. I’m not intrigued by a brand because it’s very digital or technology-savvy. I’m intrigued by a brand because it resonates with my needs, my life, my pains, what I need to do in life. And I think we are at a juncture where technology’s coming in everywhere; it’s almost like technology becomes the end. We have to remember that technology is just a means to something, to a better life, a richer life, whatever that is.
MJ: Well Martin, we’ve really enjoyed hearing a little bit of an insight into what’s happening in the region, and a particularly unique perspective you were telling us, you know, you spend your time moving between Singapore and Copenhagen. So you bring a really unique perspective to this conversation; thank you very much.
MR: You’re welcome.
NM: And now we have to come to the, important part of the show.
MJ: Very quickly before you go, what are you grateful for?
MR: I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been travelling over the last 20 years to so many countries in the world. And you know, for our keynote speech, consulting, all of that. So I think that has been an amazing first-hand experience to really experience a lot of cultures around the world. And I think that’s very enriching.
NM: Have you got a favourite book?
MR: I have. The Alchemist was given to me by, Paulo Coehlo, Brazilian author. I think he won one of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s all about, how do you find happiness in your life. It’s an amazing little book that he wrote. And I’ve read it many, many times; given it to a lot of people. Fantastic book.
NM: It sounds like good advice.
MJ: Martin if there was one thing you could change about the marketing industry, what would it be?
MR: To elevate themselves to become more managerial-led. I think marketing is still an isolated, siloed function hidden somewhere in the organisational diagram. And I think marketing, in order to become really effective, they have to enter the boardroom. They’re going to sit at the table. And I think in reality, marketing does not sit at the table. In order to be there, and in order to do what we talked about today, I think marketing needs to have a place at the table, but you’ve got to make yourself invited to become part of that tribe.
MJ: Martin Roll, thanks for joining us to talk about branding in Asia.
NM: That was awesome.
MR: You’re welcome.
MJ: So, a lot of great insights there, Nicole.
NM: Oh particularly about the brands and the move to premium brands…
NM: … being so, so popular and so influential now.
MJ: You know, it’s fascinating just, I don’t think we really have a perspective for this in Australia, just the size of that middle class and upper class consumer in China is just enormous.
NM: I think of a large population as being a little slow moving but it’s anything but. This is a very fast, you know, very quick to adopt a trend, very quick to adopt a fashion, ‘love it or hate it’, ‘use it or don’t’, sort of environment and I feel if you’re getting in, if you’re marketing into a chat app or dealing with a particular platform… if you hit that mark and you get that right note, you’ll be fine, you probably won’t be able to keep up.
MJ: Exactly right, and also making sure you know WeChat, WhatsApp, other social channels that don’t get a lot of play, necessarily, in Australia, as being sort of strategic from a marketing point of view.
NM: Yeah! I’d be interested to see how you, what you do, do your basic storytelling technique, how you execute on a platform like that. What do you have to tweak?
MJ: And perhaps that’s something for another episode?
MJ: [Laughs] Well we’ll leave it there…
NM: Sounds like homework…
MJ: It sounds like homework, yes.
MJ: We’ll leave it there, thanks for joining us on this episode of The CMO Show, and we will speak to you very soon.
NM: Like us, love us, find us, download us, listen to more. Bye!
MJ: Now a special thank you as always to our fabulous team, our producers: Tom van Leeuwen, Candice Witton and Ewan Miller.
NM: And our engineering wizards: Jonny McNee and Daniel Marr.
MJ: Thanks for joining us!