Interview with Vibrant’s Gardner: Trends in the Asian Market

Recently, we spoke with Vibrant‘s director of communications Jonathan Gardner, who took a trip to Thailand and Taiwan and shared with us some of the trends he noticed while he was there. Gardner worked in Asia between 2001 and 2009 and has held positions with Hill & Knowlton in Hong Kong, Edelman in Taiwan (he was an MD there), and worked at media organizations in those countries as well as Bangkok, Thailand.

During our conversation, Gardner talked about the importance of social media and the impact that the concept of “guanxi,” a term loosely translated to mean “relationships,” is having. And Gardner talked about the impact that the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is having on other parts of the region.

“In certain markets, including Taiwan and Thailand, Japanese pop culture, Japanese consumer electronics, Japanese food, all of these things have huge brand equity and have always been very popular,” he said. Charitable donations are being collected in high-traffic areas across the region.

Finally, we discussed the importance of thinking in local terms. In Taiwan, even Starbucks, Gardner notes, had to take cues from a local coffee purveyor in order to keep up.

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How has Asia changed even since you were there?

Facebook is seeing tremendous growth in Taiwan — I think 30 to 40 percent growth in the last six months — and it’s now at [about] 43 percent penetration, which is basically the same rate of penetration we have in the U.S.  It’s a market where culture helps to dominate social networks. You have very close-knit social groups. It was naturally a place that was predisposed to be accepting of social networks and ways of socializing with your networks. On Facebook for example, it’s something that you can create as big or small a social network as you want to.

There have been other attempts, especially in places like China, to create things like Facebook or some other social network. In Japan there’s something called Mixi that’s very popular and Facebook is trying to compete with them.

But in Taiwan, what I’ve seen is a huge escalation in the use of Facebook and not yet a deep understanding of how we’re going to use that for marketing or communications or PR. Of course, we’re still trying to understand that here. So nobody has figured that out in Asia either but it seems like based on what I’ve said about culture and society, it’s the perfect market. You have Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Japan, all of these North Asian societies where a lot of marketing has always been word-of-mouth. So the potential is immense. I wouldn’t be surprised if 10 years from now, it’s a much bigger business in Asia than it is here.

Recently, I spoke with executives from the Worldcom network and they talked about social networks in the EMEA region, specifically in Europe, and how many of them are local. For instance, where Facebook and Twitter are making inroads, in-language and local social networks are already very popular. Is that something you see in Asia as well?

Yes, you absolutely do. The simple uninformed way of looking at is they see Facebook, they see Twitter, and they just copy it. Well yes and no. The basic idea of social networking is a similar concept. But there are often localized versions of it. Mixi is huge in Japan, they got an earlier start, local market knowledge, and Facebook is trying to compete in the market.

China is a special situation where the government has a lot of say in what kinds of communications services are going to be able to operate in the market. Because of that they don’t really have Facebook and Twitter and there are local versions that have taken off. For various reasons, you see a lot of strong local players. What’s really important is… being relevant to your local market.