Marketing to the modern Asian woman: Trends to watch

July 28, 2011

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Landor staff

I was recently asked by a marketing magazine here in Asia to evaluate what I thought of the new (or should I say, reinvented) Singapore Airlines campaign. The campaign, if you have not seen it, shows the familiar Singapore Girl–a lovely Singapore Airlines flight attendant–walking around various iconic locations of the world (Paris, Wuzhen, San Francisco, and Jaisalmer) with a serene look on her face, helping people as she goes.

After gathering opinions both in-house (from my team in Landor's Singapore office) and from others in the creative industry in Asia, I've determined this is a very polarizing campaign. To be clear: I like it. It's a pleasant commercial to watch in a media space cluttered with a lot of harassment, shameless credentialing, and cheesy, “hilarious” creative. And I know this ad is Singapore Airlines: The campaign ticks all the brand-building boxes and enforces its unique iconography without showing a single A380 or SilverKris (until the end frame).

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Most of my Singaporean female staff are apathetic about the campaign with an it’s-OK-nothing-new reaction. Our male teammates are more positively engaged. However, the rather passionate detractors (including both men and women) feel it's cliché, lacks emotional depth, and paints a picture of an Asian woman from days past which is insulting today.

What do you think? Is the new Singapore Girl campaign symbolic of the modern Asian woman, or is it an insult? Let's take a look at what typifies women in Asia today.

First, let me define what I mean by “Asian women.” You may be thinking in terms of either Chinese, Japanese, or perhaps Indian or Korean women, and forget about the Southeast Asian countries (of which there are 12 including the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia) and Northern Asian countries, like Pakistan. But it’s crucial to take all these various nations into account. It’s key to keep in mind that Asian women encompass a melting pot of ethnicities, each with their own cultural constructs. If for practical purposes we think of all Asian women as one group, what epitomizes a modern Asian woman? And how should brands behave to attract this increasingly sophisticated consumer and earn her loyalty?

Brands need to appreciate that Asian women live in the fastest-growing consumer market in the world. The distribution of wealth in Asian countries is also like no other region: On one end of the spectrum China, Japan, and India’s GDP puts them in the top five richest countries in the world.1 On the other side we have Afghanistan, which due to extreme poverty and civil unrest, has the world’s second highest infant mortality rate at 150/1,000 live births.2 This great discrepancy in wealth influences Asian women’s purchasing choices, whichever end of the spectrum they live in.

An Asian woman is more empowered in the market today than ever before. Whether she lives in an established economy like Japan or Singapore, enjoying product choices and the ability to buy everyday luxuries, or she lives in a developing market where she is offered the opportunity to start a small business through microfinance–women in Asia are active in the workforce and the marketplace.

Asian women work in a more equitable environment than their Western sisters. The gap between women’s income and men’s is closing far quicker in Asia than it is in the West.3 The often-quoted Chinese proverb states that women “hold up half the sky.” Now, in addition to fulfilling her traditional role in the home, Asian women have more disposable income than before and annually spend seven times the amount of money as Asian men.4 More Asian women are leading large companies and becoming the new captains of industries-such as Sung Joo Kim of Korea, the chairwoman and CEO of Sungjoo Group AG and MCM Holdings, and Yan Cheung “the recycling queen,” chairlady and cofounder of Nine Dragons Paper Holdings, who is reportedly the richest woman in China. Across Asia there has also been a steady increase in the number of women gaining tertiary qualifications.

On top of being well educated, employed in high-paying jobs, and enjoying more disposable income than before, today’s affluent Asian women are younger too. Eighty percent of wealthy women in China are under 45 compared to 30 percent in the United States and 19 percent in Japan.5 To get the attention of Asian women consumers, brands need to speak to a young, successful female audience. Think ages 18-25. Ambitious. Smart.

Brands must also take into account that Asian women’s shopping behavior is unique from her Western sisters. Shopping is a social activity and the goal is not necessarily to make a purchase. Group shopping is one of an Asian woman’s main hobbies-over 20 percent of Asian women go shopping every weekend with no expectation of purchasing. While she peruses the malls contemplating what to buy-either now or on some future shopping mission-the Asian woman is looking for brands to convince and entertain.

Both female and male Asian consumers are avid readers of product information on packs. They are also increasingly cynical about traditional advertising and research their purchases thoroughly. As a result, marketers tend to constantly reinvent their products and amplify their benefits with claims on packs like: “Better skin in seven (or five, or three) days”; or “Younger, slimmer, and more beautiful in just one week.”

Stores like Sephora, where cosmetics can be tried out prior to purchase, are increasing in popularity. In Tokyo, Shiseido built education centers where consumers can only sample products, not even buy them. These types of educational retail environments are seen as worth the investment in the competitive Asian beauty space where women need to believe in a brand’s promise. To attract the attention of Asian women out meandering the shops with friends, brands need to tell a story that describes relevant, functional benefits.

Asian women are spending more time online: 53 percent of her media consumption is online.6 She outnumbers her North American sisters more than two to one in terms of time spent online, at approximately 24.8 hours per month.7 She is more of an early adopter of digital innovations than her Western sisters too: 37 percent of women in China and Japan use their mobile phones to stalk–I mean, track–their friends versus 13 percent in the West.8

Like all busy “super women” around the world, an Asian woman has much less spare time these days for one of her favorite social activities-shopping. She balances a lack of time to visit malls with an insatiable appetite for shopping up a storm online. But not only is her shopping method shifting, the particulars of what she’s buying is too.

Contrary to popular stereotypes of Asian women being predominantly family focused in their consumption, 81 percent of purchases made online are for herself only.9 Her growing role in the business world and increased earning power mean she’s indulging more. However, she is not just purchasing the expected fashion or beauty items. As she takes more control of the household purse, her purchases include more consumer electronics, travel, and banking items. Marketers should focus media buying efforts on clever online use.

When brands compete in the retail space, marketing efforts should highlight functional benefits and offer “shoppertainment”–without corrupting the brand's equity, of course. Beyond shopping online, the Asian woman is researching brands, networking, blogging, and gaming more than her Asian male contemporaries.

On top of everything else, Asian women are putting more effort into their beauty routine than Western women. According to a recent study conducted by TNS Asia Pacific, 59 percent of Asian women feel it is important to put effort into looking good before leaving home in the morning compared to 39 percent of their U.S. sisters.10 And I believe it: Having lived in Asia for the past three years, I am constantly assaulted by offers to make my breasts larger, my skin lighter, my waist leaner. Despite Asian women being among the most educated in the world, beauty is still very important and perceived as just as critical to success as a good job and solid education. According to some newspaper articles, the Chinese plastic surgery industry has grown into a $2.5 billion industry, and South Korea is reported to have the highest rate of cosmetic surgery in the world.11

Now that the prevailing trends have been discussed, what do you make of the Singapore Airlines campaign and its demure portrayal of a beautiful female protagonist? While Asian women are no doubt beautiful, social, and caring, there's much more to them than a pretty face and helpful attitude. Remember her earning power, control of the family finances, and high level of education for starters!

Any marketer who hopes their brand will win the hearts and minds of Asian women should first consider the complexity of the Asian region, then take a rational, heavily benefit-led approach. It’s crucial to go to where she spends most of her time: online. Make sure brands help Asian women become more successful and more beautiful, gain credibility and status, and build a healthy family. Oh, and don’t forget: Brands must make her happy, too.

Easy, right?

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The following brands are making a successful claim in Asia.

SK-II

Japan’s best-kept secret SK-II targets the modern, successful Asian woman’s key beauty concerns: how to get radiant, blemish-free white skin following a simple, proven regimen. Its positioning is scientifically based; it has a clean, sophisticated visual identity system and speaks in a straightforward tone of voice. With relevant, believable celebrity endorsers whose radiant skin is tracked over the years as they use SK-II, the brand strikes the perfect balance between being a great product with proven benefits and one that’s associated with celebrity glamour.

Coach

Many luxury brands are a success here in Asia but few start a fashion revolution. Coach’s wristlets are the sought-after fashion accessory of 2011 for the practical Asian female shopper. In fact, when I mentioned to my team that I had never heard of a wristlet, I was looked at with what can only be discerned as pity! Fastened around the wrist, these mini purses with room for keys, phone, credit cards, and cash are perfect for a busy day at the market or mall. It’s a glamorous accessory with a practical application.

UOB’s Lady's Card

United Overseas Bank ran a campaign called “The men don't get it” for its women-only credit card club to attract female customers by offering them deals specific to their needs. The campaign could have been patronizing but the insightful positioning of its launch ensured it was well received. Its accompanying “Lady's Soulmate” app (available on most smartphone platforms) is pure genius. It appeals to the busy, modern woman and her desire to stay connected, allowing her to organize her life, connect with her friends, and track hot deals from her mobile.

Raoul

Singaporean fashion label Raoul, created by power couple Douglas and Odile Benjamin, began life in 2002 as a men’s shirt company. Later the duo added a successful women's line, and opened 30 stores across Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Raoul debuted in Europe during Paris Fashion Week in 2009.

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Alldressedup

Another Singapore-based fashion label, Alldressedup has been recognized internationally and is now sold alongside Marc Jacobs and Stella McCartney at online powerhouse net-a-porter.com. With 30 years’ experience in luxury fashion and lifestyle retail, founder Tina Tan-Leo believes her successful label appeals to the “bohemian-spirited traveler in every woman.”

Raoul and Alldressedup are proof that local Asian design talent is on the meteoric rise.

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 1 "Top 25 Richest Countries as Defined by GDP," CountryReports  (accessed 16 March 2011).

2 "Country Comparison Infant Mortality Rate," The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency (accessed 17 March 2011).

3 "Building Relationships with Busy Female Professionals," presentation by Lizzy Nolan of Mediacom at 2010 Marketing to Modern Asian Women Conference (Singapore, 29 November 2010).

4 See footnote 3.

5 "Co-creation with Affluent Asian Women," McKinsey & Company, 2009, presented at 2010 Marketing to Modern Asian Women Conference (Singapore, 29 November 2010).

6 "The Secret Online Lives of Asian Mothers Uncovered," from the presentation, Asian Mothers: Embracing Online Shopping by Starcom MediaVest Group and Microsoft, presented at 2010 Marketing to Modern Asian Women Conference (Singapore, 29 November 2010).

7 "What Women Want: Leveraging on Digital Channels to Enhance Marketing Campaigns to Asian Women," presented by Nikolaus Ong of MRM Worldwide at 2010 Marketing to Modern Asian Women Conference (Singapore, 29 November 2010).

8 See footnote 3.

9 See footnote 6.

10 Jessica Davey and Emily Walton, Ogilvy Action, at 2010 Marketing to Modern Asian Women Conference (Singapore, 29 November 2010).

11 Facts and Details, Jeffrey Hays, 2010. factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=136&catid=11&subcatid= (accessed 16 March 2011); Asian Plastic Surgery, asianplasticsurgeryguide.com/news10-2/081003_south-korea-highest.html (accessed 16 March 2011).

 

This article appeared in slightly different form in the Hub (May/June 2011).

© 2011 Landor Associates. All rights reserved.



Industries: Fashion, Consumer & household productsTopics: emerging markets
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