Young Asian Consumers

“Let’s start with something WEIRD. WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic.

Almost every piece of social science research ever conducted has been conducted with these people (almost exclusively with North American college students).

Most of our assumptions about ‘typical’ human behaviour are based on these studies. It’s becoming increasingly clear that those assumptions aren’t true for the rest of the world. We are beginning to learn what makes these [other] consumers different: brands are important, technology adoption is rapid, women’s influence is crucial, and you shouldn’t ignore the bottom of the pyramid. But the most important thing for us to recognise is that it’s us that need to change. We need to examine and test our assumptions … and we’re just at the beginning of that journey.” Russell Davies

Why Asian youth? 
Simply put, they are too significant to ignore. Most of Asia is undeniably young – almost 70% of India is under 30; Vietnam and Indonesia have an average age of just 26, compared to 40 in the UK and Germany1. And in the last 50 years, the number of Asians under 30 has more than doubled2. Between them, China and India now have over 620 million young people aged 15 – 29. Their significance in numbers naturally leads to a greater significance of influence.

Youth shopping

What makes her so different from her parents?

This generation is better educated, better connected and better informed than ever before. And they love brands.
Faced with greater choices than ever before, young Asians have embraced consumerism, so brands now play a very significant role in their lives. That’s why, today, no global business can afford to ignore the youth of Asia. The way they feel about the world and themselves, what they want from life (and from the institutions and companies they interact with) will fundamentally affect the way global brands engage with them in future.

For brands and companies to succeed with the Asian consumer of tomorrow, they need to understand the youth of Asia today. What drives them, and what they expect of the world, is markedly different both from the generations preceding them, and from Western youth.

We often hear the simplistic definitions of ‘individualism’ vs. ‘collectivism’ when it comes to understanding Asian youth. The reality is much more nuanced.

Across Asia, the concept of harmony still reigns supreme, and within it, an understanding that many different elements play complementary parts to ensure the health and survival of the whole. For youth in Asia today, it’s less about choosing a single path between two alternatives (West vs. East, me vs. them, ego vs. duty, etc.). Instead, it’s about carefully creating a combination of values to help them get ahead – whilst staying true to themselves.

Understanding this generation requires a more detailed understanding of some of their key characteristics and needs. So we’ll cover three broad themes companies and brands need to focus on to succeed with the young Asian consumer. These are:

1. Big Dreamers: Ambition & Optimism
2. One of Us: Community & Belonging
3. Better, Faster, More: Innovation & Adaptability.

1. Big Dreamers: Ambition & Optimism 
This generation dreams big, because in their lifetimes, emerging markets have already produced some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople. Young Asians therefore see nothing as impossible.

They’ve been called the most optimistic generation we’ve ever seen – indeed, India, with its very young population, routinely tops the chart in global surveys of optimism. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project 2010, when asked how they felt about ‘the way things are going in our country today’, 87% of Chinese responded ‘satisfied’, compared with only 30% of Americans.

So the notion of the world’s centre of gravity shifting East is held not only by those in the West but, increasingly, by Asians themselves. When asked in the same research to identify the world’s leading economic power, less than half the Chinese respondents said that they thought it was the United States (45%), down from 48% in 2008. India, too, is losing faith in the power of the US, with 60% citing the United States as the world’s leading power this year – compared with 65% in 2008. These small differences tell a much bigger story of how today’s young Asians see their place in the world.

For them, success is imperative. Recognising their economic and educational privileges in comparison to their parents’ generations, they are keen to capitalise on these strengths to create their own success stories.

This trend is particularly strong amongst young Muslims, with Ogilvy Noor research conducted in 2010 showing that, globally, success is the ultimate goal of the vast majority of young Muslim consumers4. But their definitions of success are also changing. It’s not just about financial rewards, as young people start to assess where the greed of previous generations in developed nations got them.

Instead, “success” now includes a measure of responsibility towards others, and towards the environment too, as well as the achievement of a holistic work-life balance. The success of Coca Cola’s newly-launched LOHAS brand of water in Japan (capitalising on the Lifestyles of Health and Wellness trend and sold in biodegradable bottles) and its subsequent popularity in China, is just one small example of how the ‘green collar’ lifestyle is now an active choice for many.

For brands, the optimism of Asian youth (excluding Japan in this case) means they’re much more open to trying new things, and to consumerism in general. 73% of Chinese regard shopping as a fun leisure activity to look forward to, compared with just 25% of Americans – a phenomenon dubbed ‘retailment’5.

Brands need to play a leading role in embodying a fun, varied and interesting world in which these young people can engage, learning more about both themselves and the wider world at the same time.


Young Asians. Like it or not, they will be heard

Most of all though, brands and companies must embody the big visions that these youngsters crave. Rather than dwell on the past, the youth of today are focused on the future – and want to play a part in making it work.

Brands that can display a well-thought out point of view on the world, and are committed to a goal that’s bigger than their business – one that also includes the interests of their communities and of future generations – will stand to gain from greatly increased loyalty. This is a generation of cause aficionados; always seeking to back initiatives that they feel will make a difference. By giving them a way to get involved, brands can start to play a much more meaningful role in their lives.

2. One of Us: Community & Belonging 
In Asia, all achievements are seen in the context of the collective, and social capital is gained through ascending levels of belonging. What this means is that identity, even at the highest echelons of society, is always social in Asia. Some aspect of one’s worth is almost invariably measured by the quantity and quality of connections one has made in life.

The search for deep and secure belonging is a lifelong one, and one in which brands are beginning to play an important part. It’s important for brands and companies to remember the overwhelmingly social context of the way in which their goods and services are consumed, and even shopped for (over 90% of Indians always shop with a friend or family member, rather than alone6).

Young Asians often see brands as tools in the search for belonging, as well as for standing out just the right amount. Striking this balance is crucial, but comes naturally to them – standing out is great if it’s just enough to get you noticed, but not so much as to be marginalised as a social misfit. Young Asian consumers will be loyal to any brand that can help strengthen this unique style of belonging.

Just as the status of the individual in Asian cultures is relational (father of X, daughter-in-law of Y), so brands, too, must be aware of the relational bonds they are perceived as creating, or failing to create. In many countries, brands that are seen as actively ‘helping us’ are those that create unique social equity and benefit from long-term loyalty. According to Ogilvy Noor research, one of the most demanded character traits of good business in Muslim markets is investment in the community, following the Islamic principle of zakaat, or charity.

Education, children’s development and health are seen as particularly noble causes, as they help build a strong and healthy community (and workforce) for a more successful future. With Asia being home to 3 in 5 of the world’s Muslims (and with 175 million young Asian Muslims between 15 and 29), this worldview is becoming a crucial one for businesses to consider.

A continuous investment in human capital is also key to long-term success in Asia. Many companies have fully invested in superior talent management, providing education and training, clear paths of progress, etc. The 335-acre Infosys corporate university in Mysore is the largest of its kind in the world, and is just one example of how seriously Asian business takes its talent.

From a consumer point of view, this validates the perception that these companies have the community’s best interests at heart. And if they are global companies, the brands begin to be seen as well-meaning corporate citizens, investing in ‘my country’ and cultivating the talents of ‘my people’.

Patriotic pride is felt strongly across Asia by the youth of today. The images we saw during the Beijing Olympics – young Chinese cheering the games, tears streaming down their faces – were not out of step with the great sense of pride young Asians feel in their countries and cultures.

Any brand or company that understands this sense of pride or, better still, creates reasons


Pragmatism doesn’t mean goodbye to patriotism

for it to exist, will garner loyalty. In Pakistan, P&G’s Safeguard soap created an innovative new figure – Commander Safeguard. Loved by children and adults alike, he’s the first Pakistani superhero, teaching kids about hygiene as a fun exercise, while also managing to associate germ-killing success with the growth of a strong, future-facing Pakistan. A market entrant in 1995, today Safeguard is the market leader in Pakistan.

When it comes to marketing, it’s important to remember that Asian societies are relationship societies, which means that, in many cases, community comes first. In branding terms, this means having strong stories, an emotional slant, an inspirational leader, or investing in communities. Asian consumers will often buy into the cult of the personal leadership brand rather than the company alone – Indians buy into the names Ambani, Tata and Mahindra as much as they do their products. This also enables companies to offer a highly diversified portfolio under the same trusted umbrella brand/family name.

In advertising and communication terms, the emphasis on collective consumption means that creative work that lends itself to good word of mouth and recommendation does well.

3. Better, Faster, More: Innovation & Adaptability

Young Indians and Chinese have become young adults in a world where the latest versions of everything take days, not months, to be created, built from scratch and released. For them, innovation isn’t a luxury; it’s a basic survival skill. In this world, the tried-and-tested isn’t relied upon; the untried is embraced wholeheartedly and ideas are good until they are proven unworkable.

This can-do attitude seeps into everything, from the design of buses that skim the roofs of cars (Fastbus – a transport innovation to avoid Beijing’s traffic jams) to the design of lightweight tin stoves for Indian villages to avoid coal-fire deaths (the Philips Chulha stove).

Young Asian consumers feel as though the answers of tomorrow are just around the corner, and are inspired and energised by anyone who proves that it’s true.

Many Asian cultures hold established traditions of gradual improvement as a normal part of individual development. In Japan, the notion of gambaru, or tenacious self-improvement, has been around for a while. This can be anything from sashimi preparation to kabuki theatre to the daily application of women’s make-up. Within this, anything that one can do to improve oneself or one’s world using new and innovative technologies is approved of as part of a general cultural movement towards perfection.

Seen in this light, the significant sums spent by young graduates in China, Thailand and South Korea for cosmetic surgery before job interviews – and the amount of savings they hoard to purchase luxury accessories – become acts of self-improvement that are direct investments in the future.

Brands are also expected to constantly improve through innovation, and consumers want to see the benefits. ‘Scientific’ breakthroughs are often heralded, and intelligent solutions with longer-term benefits are very popular. Frugal innovation is appreciated – for example, GE’s handheld ECG device has reduced the cost of an ECG to $1 per patient. Modern technological solutions using materials that don’t bear a large impact on the environment are also popular. VNL’s mobile phone stations in India, for instance, run on solar powered batteries, giving thousands of people access to a new, ‘clean’ technology.

The newest technical breakthroughs are seen as evidence of corporate smarts on the part of the producer, while owning them is evidence of personal smarts on the part of the consumer. Young Chinese will often spend up to 3 times their monthly salary on the latest mobile phones in a bid to be the most up-to-date and to get ahead.

Young Asian consumers also expect companies to be innovative in their product portfolios, their distribution strategies and, of course, in their communications.

In India, Levi’s sells jeans to young consumers in instalments. That way, their desires aren’t restricted by their budgets. This kind of flexibility on the part of the brand is key in approaching the young Asian consumer – they want innovations tailored to their needs, and fast.

What they appreciate most of all is companies and brands which genuinely consider their needs, then create products to fit them. Since LG based its second largest R&D centre outside Korea in Bangalore, it’s enabled the company to identify the needs of Indian consumers first hand, and then create unique products to match those needs. Like televisions with superior speakers and washing machines with sari–washing functions.

Brands must also be prepared to innovate in ways that don’t dilute the brand’s core equity. BMW’s lifestyle stores across Asia use lifestyle accessories to make the brand accessible to thousands more consumers than could ever realistically own one of their cars. Gucci’s Shanghai store still sells more sunglasses than anywhere in the world – young Asian consumers craving a relatively affordable piece of the brand.

As Asian innovation goes into overdrive in the next ten years, the focus will shift from low-cost variants to products designed from scratch for lower-income consumers. These smarter variants will most definitely begin to appeal to cash-strapped, recession-bound consumers in the Western world too. The success of Tata’s inexpensive and fuel-efficient Nano – and the Western appetite for it – is one of the first such stories.

As innovation and creativity begin to thrive in Asia, the focus will also turn to superior design. Today, there are over 450 design schools in China. And the trend is moving from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Designed in China’.

Local companies, armed with detailed consumer understanding and using skills and technology that will quickly match their global competitors, are already best placed to answer their consumers’ needs with very tightly tailored products. Gone are the days when a simple locally flavoured variant would be enough to appease the tastes of non-Western consumers. Today’s young Asians demand the respect that leads to tailored innovation, and will experiment with many new products to find it.

Their better brand education and awareness will help them separate the brands that invest in their needs from those that do not. In future, it’s the former that will be rewarded with their allegiance.

To conclude…

Success with the Asian consumer of tomorrow requires understanding and a desire to align with the needs of young Asians today. In order to attract these consumers, brands must demonstrate real vision, with the potential to make big, generous changes for a better future.

This includes an ability and willingness to work hand in hand with their consumers (as Tata have done with their modular assembly kits for entrepreneurial mechanics) to bring them what they need. They must invest in creating a real role in Asian communities through hands-on development – the holy grail of brand positioning in Asia being that of respected leader.

Castrol’s work on irrigation education with drought-affected farmers in India has done more to bolster the brand’s popularity than any creative campaign. Other examples include Danone’s non-profit investments in yoghurt factories in Bangladesh and Nestlé Milo’s investment in youth sports and development throughout South East Asia – and its corresponding market leadership.

In Asia, these activities go beyond simple ‘CSR’ and affect the core brand, through the enormous ripple effect they have on consumer perceptions. Brands must also be flexible and open to change – ready to take on every innovation and answer every emerging need, so that they can constantly offer better, smarter, more relevant products, both through true innovation and continuous renovation.

1 CIA World Factbook 2010
2 Asia’s Changing Youth Population, East West Centre Study
The basic cultural differences between Asian and Western civilisations are by now, after decades of well-established research, fairly well-understood, with cultural anthropologist Geert Hofstede’s work in the 1980s perhaps providing one of the simplest frameworks through which to view them. According to Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, Asian cultures tend, on the whole, to have higher power distance indexes, meaning they are generally more comfortable with power inequality; they tend to be highly collectivist in their social structures and behaviour, compared with the highly individualist West; they tend to be fairly uncertainty-averse as opposed to risk-hungry, and they have much longer term orientations than their Western counterparts – meaning that their views on the world are likely to take into account generations to follow, as opposed to seeking immediate change and effect.
(PDI = Power Distance Index, IDV = Individuality, MAS = Masculinity, UAI = Uncertainty Avoidance Index, LTO = Long Term Orientation. Source: www.geerthofstede.com)
3 Grow, grow, grow: What makes emerging-market companies run, The Economist, Apr 15th 2010
4 Brands, Islam and the New Muslim Consumer, Ogilvy Noor, July 2010
5 McKinsey Quarterly, How Half the World Shops: Apparel in Brazil, China and India, 2007
6 McKinsey Quarterly, How Half the World Shops: Apparel in Brazil, China and India, 2007

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