Letter from Asia: Crossing Borders

By David Kilburn

Marshall McLuhan was right: The world is a global village. Foreign brands are successfully establishing their own awareness and consumer image throughout Asia. As a result, multinationals are mastering a delicate partnership–global branding married to local sensibilities.

‘The big idea must travel, but that doesn’t mean the execution has to be the same,’ explains Grace Atkinson, deputy regional director, Asia/Pacific, J. Walter Thompson. ‘Our job is to make sure the brand is intact.’ It’s a sentiment agency professionals share. ‘We aren’t trying to build a brand image so much as maintain it,’ agrees Larry Rinaldi, a management partner at Ogilvy & Mather in charge of IBM for its Asia/Pacific division. ‘People in China recognized the brand name. They knew it was big and international.’ Unilever’s Lux, a mobile brand like Coca-Cola and Levi’s, enjoys the same recognition. ‘Lux has a tremendous reputation in China and Vietnam and developed this well before our marketing began,’ says Howard Belton, managing director, detergents at Nippon Lever in Tokyo.

In fact, getting three factors right–imagery, relevance and innovation–can translate into an advertising and sales bonanza abroad. For example, when J. Walter Thompson used American stars, including Demi Moore, Liv Tyler and Brooke Shields in advertising, Lux successfully extended its product range in Asia. The ads’ star appeal proved universal, although the product range differed in each country: In Indonesia, Lux is a soap; in China, Taiwan and the Philippines, it’s a shampoo; in Japan, it’s everything from soaps to shampoos.

And variety pays. Dentsu reports that Lux’s media spending in Japan last year was nearly $27 million, but since Japan represents 61 percent of Asia/Pacific ad spending, sources estimate total ad spending there to be at least $40 million.

Conversely, a technology company like IBM capitalizes on a product’s relevance to further marketing opportunities. Says O&M’s Rinaldi, ‘The key is to make sure what you articulate in advertising is relevant to the technical maturity of the market. Similar images trigger different responses in different countries.’

A memorable IBM spot created for Japan is a case in point. It shows two kimono-clad women in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, talking about information technology. In Japan, a kimono evokes a world of traditional values and ideas that have staying power. A customer leaves and the owner performs her calculations on an abacus, another symbol of stability. The second leg of the campaign, which starts this year, will focus on IBM solutions and will be tailored to each market, say industry sources. They report that IBM spent a total of $115 million in Asia/Pacific in 1996. Of that total, roughly 50 percent was

earmarked for brand advertising. The rest helped sell a range of IBM products.

Like IBM, Timotei shampoo, a Unilever brand, has also tailored ads to distinct markets. In Japan, Timotei’s advertising, based on images of a blond girl washing her hair and a market position as a shampoo that offers superior mildness, proved successful when the brand launched in 1985. But in Taiwan, the ads ran into problems. Raven-haired Taiwanese girls found it hard to relate to blondes. Some even wondered if Timotei would change the color of their hair. For a time, the campaign was changed to feature black hair.

‘It’s a balance of global strategies with local sensitivity,’ says Atkinson. De Beers diamonds packaged diamonds as the gift of love. But the campaign’s images drew negative reactions in China and Korea, she says, so JWT decided to use local love stories. ‘There is no such thing as a brand that cannot travel across borders.’

Given this, Ogilvy’s first global campaign for IBM, in 1995, used different TV spots to unify the brand’s global image. It allowed each country to tailor the campaign, while maintaining a consistent approach. Still, sales is a two-trick pony. First, perfect the image, second, master the art of innovation. For instance, as living standards have risen across Asia, so has an interest in personal care. From 1994 to 1996, the value of the total hair-care market in Thailand alone jumped from $247 million to $310 million!

Thailand is crucial for Western marketers because it influences the tastes of its less-developed neighbors: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. ‘Recently, we’ve made a major effort in Southeast Asia to launch Organics shampoo. The technology and packaging were developed in France, but Thailand launched the brand first in 1993. Today, it’s marketed in Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore and China,’ says Nippon Lever’s Belton. ‘It carries the same name and packaging, though the contents vary. We need to deliver the same benefit to consumers in markets where there are differences in hair quality.’

Constant innovation is also at the core of IBM’s technology marketing. Here, too, an international reputation can help, especially in Japan, where IBM has strong rivals. ‘Reliability and quality are hugely important in Japan, and IBM scores well in these areas,’ says Rinaldi. Moreover, innovation can change the rules of the marketplace. In 1987, when Kao Corp. launched Attack, a compact detergent, consumers switched rapidly, making Kao the market leader with a 52 percent share. Ten years later, Kao still dominates the market with a 40 percent share. In Belton’s view, the biggest gains, despite the risks, occur when a marketer suggests radical cultural change.

Consider the case of Domesto in Japan. The concept of Domesto is that it cleans and kills germs. The emphasis in Japan is more on cleaning than germ killing. In building the brand, Nippon Lever spent 10 frustrating years on hygiene education. ‘The idea that germs could remain even if something looked clean had little impact,’ says Belton. All that changed in 1996 when a nationwide food poisoning epidemic caused by poor hygiene made thousands ill. During the epidemic, people remembered Domesto was advertised as killing hidden germs. The end result: Sales doubled.

‘The role of communicators has become more complex,’ adds Marcio Moreira, McCann-Erickson Worldwide’s Asia/Pacific regional director and chief creative officer. ‘The need to communicate a cohesive central idea about a brand is bigger than ever.’ Enter relevancy, another key element in successful advertising, and a lesson IBM has taken to heart. ‘It’s a combination of branding, the level of product advertising and how it’s coordinated,’ says Rinaldi.

‘Consumer needs are amazingly similar market to market,’ Atkinson concludes. ‘The challenge for the agency is to touch people with a message.’

Copyright ASM Communications, Inc. (1997) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED