The US and EU economies have grown by 4% over the last five years, while India’s economy grew by 40% and China’s by 50%. A western company without an Asian strategy risks falling behind permanently.
So how can marketers help their companies exploit the Asian opportunity? A suggestion is to analyse their counterparts: what are Asian marketers less good at? This shows a gap in marketing communications.
The evidence for a creativity gap comes from the Gunn Report, which records the 25 most creatively awarded countries in the world. Seven Asian countries make the list: China, India, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. The average creative score for these countries is 40 points. However, the average western country on Gunn’s list scores 110 points. In other words, an average western marketer wins more than twice as many creative awards as an average Asian marketer. Why is there such a huge discrepancy?
It’s not lack of local creative talent. On the contrary, Asian creativity has exploded on to the world stage. We regularly see Chinese authors top the bestseller lists. Six of the ten most valuable works of contemporary art sold last year were by Chinese artists. Chinese filmmakers and architects have global reputations. Asia lags behind only in marketing communications.
Nor is it due to lack of opportunities. Two of the three biggest advertising markets in the world are in Asia, namely China and Japan.
Why is Asian advertising so uncreative?
Asian marketers have both the means and the opportunity to run more creative campaigns. Why don’t they? A clue comes from research company Millward Brown, which carried out a content analysis of 20,000 TV commercials from these regions. Two clear differences emerged.
First, Asian ads are more likely than western ads to feature product demos. More than half of all Asian commercials use them. Secondly, and it’s a related point, half as many Asian ads appeal to the emotions as western ads. A typical Asian ad sells by demonstrating functional product benefits.
Chinese ads in particular are more likely than the Asian average to feature multiple product messages and to ram them home with both continuous voiceovers and written messages. Chinese ads are also less likely to have a distinctive creative style or to use the emotive influences of humour or music.
This type of product-based advertising (‘The more you tell, the more you sell’) was the standard model in the west from the 1920s to the 1950s. However, the creative revolution led by Doyle Dane Bernbach in New York in the 1960s, and the subsequent invention of account planning in London, switched marketing’s focus from the product to the audience.
Facts are not enough, Bill Bernbach urged. Facts don’t persuade. “The reader”, he said, “reads with his ego, his emotions, with his prejudices, his urges and his aspirations. And then he plots with his brain to rationalise the facts until they become the tools of his desires.”
Account planning showed that effectiveness meant understanding what the audience heard, not what the ad said. Rather than solely selling more of a product, western advertising today is used to build the brand too.
One would expect this to be a key role in China, where loyalty to brands is higher than it is in the west.
In short, Asian advertising seems stuck in a pre-Bernbach, pre-account planning, prebrand time warp. It is curious that China in particular, so keen to adopt the most modern and advanced techniques in many fields, seems content with an antique advertising model. But it has created a gap for western marketers to exploit.
Is there a market in the gap?
The next question is whether there is a market in the gap. We believe there is. Effectiveness is becoming a more urgent issue for companies in Asia. For example, this year’s Asian Marketing Effectiveness Awards attracted nearly 1,000 entries – twice as many as five years ago.
Analysis of campaigns in the IPA databank shows that if effectiveness is the objective, creativity must be the strategy. An average campaign increases a brand’s market share by around half a percentage point per unit of media weight. However, an effective campaign that also wins a creative award increases market share by around six percentage points. Other things being equal, creativity increases a brand’s market share 11 times more at the same media weight.
Of course, consumers neither know nor care whether a campaign has won an award. However, the mechanism by which creativity boosts market share seems clear. In the first place, creatively-awarded campaigns are more likely to appeal to the audience’s emotions than to try to convince them of a product’s rational benefits. Secondly, they are more likely to be shared and passed on via social media – they are more likely to be discussed and commented on in chat rooms, blogs and forums. The result of creativity, then, is greater exposure of a more potent appeal. That leads to higher sales. Does this mechanism work for Asian audiences too? We believe it does.
Ogilvy & Mather is the leading agency network in Asia. It tops both the creative and the effectiveness award league tables. It was therefore possible for us to replicate the IPA analysis using a similarly sized sample of our campaigns that had won both creative and effectiveness awards.
We found these campaigns worked in the same way as those in the IPA databank – in fact, even more so. They were even more likely to appeal to the emotions, and even more likely to stimulate brand buzz. We therefore have reason to believe that creativity is as important to sales effectiveness in Asia as it is globally.
Why are emotional appeals and brand buzz even more potent among effective Asian campaigns? To address this question, we need to understand Asian psychology. It is usual to contrast Asian collectivism to western individualism. Both have deep cultural roots. In the west, we look for intellectual foundations to the Athens of Socrates, who taught Plato, who taught Aristotle.
These thinkers were fascinated by the geometrical discoveries of Euclid. Through them, it seemed that frail, flawed human minds could glimpse an underlying reality of the universe, independent of human perception. Geometry led to logic, which led to mathematics, which led to physics. But there was no Euclid in China. Rather, Chinese intellectual culture looks back to Confucius. His teaching, at about the same time as Euclid’s, was based on societal issues, rather than abstract reasoning. His five ‘Classic Books’ are concerned with collective human questions: what is the correct relationship between parent and child, between ruler and ruled? How can people with different objectives live
There is intriguing new evidence from brain science as to why collectivism is a stickier idea in the east than in the west. There is something called a serotonin transmitter gene in every brain. It comes in three variants. One variant – technically, the 5-HTTLPR gene – is much more prevalent in east Asia. Two-thirds of east Asians have this variant, compared with one-fifth of westerners. People with this gene are more likely to be responsive to their social environment – to believe the group matters more than the self. Whether collectivism is due to cultural or physical differences, the result is the same: psychological differences in perception and attention. Asians are more likely to detect and respond to relationships, to seek a socially unifying middle way in disputes, and to perceive an object holistically as part of a total environment, rather than as a thing in itself.
Professor Richard Nisbett wrote in The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently that for Asians “to think about an object or event in isolation and apply abstract rules to it is to invite extreme and mistaken conclusions”. But hang on a moment. Hasn’t Nesbitt described a product demo ad? In product demos, we see the product in isolation, floating in a limbo set. Then blue ink magically appears (in diaper ads), or molecules start binding together (in shampoo ads). Then there’s an abstract argument: ‘If baby’s diaper leaks less, baby sleeps through the night. If baby sleeps through the night, it grows better. If baby grows better, you are a good mum.’ Or: ‘If your hair is glossy and shiny, you feel better about yourself and more confident. If you feel more confident, you make new friends
more easily. If you make new friends, you are more likely to find a mate.’
These sorts of sequences are so obvious and natural to westerners that we do not see a cultural bias. But it’s there. To repeat, Asians do not naturally consider an object in isolation and apply abstract rules to it. However, this raises a further puzzle. More than half of Asian ads feature product demos. That’s every second commercial in a break. Why are so many Asian ads inappropriate for Asians? We suggest there are three myths that Asian marketers are prone to call on when briefing or approving creative work. None stands up to scrutiny.
Myth one: ‘My audience responds to creativity differently from Western audiences’. There is no academic support for this prejudice. Tests reported in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology show that Asians and westerners respond to creative objects in the same way. If anything, the Chinese seem to favour novelty more than most, which would not surprise anyone who has visited China in the past 30 years.
Myth two: ‘My audience is less advertising literate than Western audiences’ In fact, Asians see 55% more TV commercials a week than westerners. For example, the average household in the UK sees 293 commercials a week. In China, the figure is 600 a week, and in Indonesia it is 1,000 a week. Asians are more advertising literate, not less.
Myth three: ‘This is a developing market and I need to convey basic product info’ While accepting the need to convey basicinformation, we would question whether TV is the best medium for this task. An average effective campaign these days uses seven media channels.
In-store activation campaigns, packaging, and the web are where people actively search for product info. TV is better used for emotive appeals.
In summary, we suggest that marketers looking for a gap in Asia consider creative marketing. Effectiveness is becoming more important in Asia, and creativity is the biggest driver of effectiveness. That’s the opportunity. Finally, we propose a five-point checklist for marketers who want to increase the creativity of their campaigns.
- Is your pre-test system obsolete? Quant pre-testing research is supposed to deliver effective campaigns. It does not, because it produces creative mediocrity. That is why campaigns in the IPA databank that underwent quant pre-testing produced lower sales growth than campaigns spared this pointless torment.
- Is your approval process streamlined? Many firms in Asia have massively complicated and bureaucratic approval processes. But committees endorse bland, seen-it-before creative work. Cut out the people who can only say ‘no’. Make sure the initiator is also the decider.
- Do you approve high production values? Many Asian firms like to make ads on the cheap. They’re missing an effectiveness trick. Academic studies show that consumers recognise high production values and respond more favourably to the brand. High production values signal that you have confidence in the excellence of your product.
- Do you incentivise for creativity? Most behaviour in business can be explained by incentives. If you treat creative awards with disdain, so will your agency – at least on your account. But if you make winning creative awards part of the bonus package, they will try harder.
- Do you practise pervasive creativity? Creativity does not live only in the agency’s creative department. Every meeting with your agency is an opportunity to challenge it to think more creatively, from the initial briefing, to the approval, to the preproduction, to the evaluation.