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There is no Asia

The constant babble of conversations floating down the brook of leadership development is endlessly focused on developing Asian talent. I had the privilege to work in global communications roles in three continents, and for the best part of 15 years, this has been the perennial question: “How do we develop Asian talent?”

What if we applied that sentence to “European talent” or “American talent”? It just would not stand up. The Asia construct we work within today as marketing companies is a bloc created in the early days of advertising with formidable companies such as JWT creating “outposts” in far-flung markets to help brands develop and market their products.

These regions, much like the artificial construct of “Africa”, now stand to cause more harm to marketing companies, their clients, their products and the communities they serve.

As they taught me, wisely, at Unilever, there is no global consumer. People live in villages, towns, cities and countries. The definition of Asia (which in itself is contrived: Asia Pac, SEA, Asia ex-Australia, Asia, including South Asia, etc) by itself is nonsensical. It is time for marketing businesses to think local and act global. Moreover, this applies to business en generale.

A prime example of this is the personal care market. To put it bluntly, global advertising campaigns, perhaps with the exception of Dove (which let’s face it, is a bit long in the tooth) simply fail to connect in differing cultural markets in Asia. A hair care commercial beautifully shot in the Philippines will not work in Thailand. Thai women do not want to look like Filipino women.

Multinational companies are desperately averse to localising content. Why? The answer is simple: cost and brand control. However, by retaining this myopic view on what their brand should signify, they miss the single biggest benefit their consumers could give them: “I know this is for me.”

We live in a me world. Me is where I live: my family, my needs, my aspirations. If we continue to homogenise how we speak to the “Asian consumer”, we risk losing all. And it’s well known that a number of global FMCG companies are currently struggling against domestic powerhouses, losing margin and market share.

How did we get here?

  1. The post-colonial hangover

The Asia construct is a post-colonial hangover. However, a brief context is crucial here. Asia was created by largely western interests as a command and control mechanism to allow trade to move in, work in natural resource extraction and in return (in some instances – albeit limited) introduce social welfare and some form of representative government and legislation. Historically, it was one bloc of markets with ownership of resources, labour and a history of effective trade.

Asia is a Euro-centric construct of an “owned” region. Some might say opened up, some might say pillaged by old friends, ergo the East Asia Company, the Dutch East India Company and others.

  1. Consolidated financials reporting

It is over-simplistic and somewhat lazy for companies to continue to report their financial results as “Asia”. It is convenient; it represents billions of the “bottom of the pyramid” communities who are slowly evolving into a rising middle class (the greatest growth opportunity).

However, we have to be cautious about what “middle class” means from a global development perspective (Euro-centric definitions are often redundant here). This does not mean owning a Toyota, a small business or a big house. In this context, middle-class is mostly defined as a “living wage”.

As such, to report returns on Asia in its entirety is fundamentally at best simplistic and at worst patronising. Is Japan the same as Myanmar? Of course not, but they are all seemingly in what we call Asia.

  1. Neglecting cultural capital

Driving talent into these markets takes deep insight, deep connection and deep understanding of what makes each market tick. Here is an example from training I undertook on subconscious bias. The word ambition in Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines carries a negative meaning. This destroys the community and team ethic in these markets, where individual ambition is second to group success. If your first hiring question is, “what’s your ambition?”, you will probably lose the candidate.

  1. Trust deficit in local leadership

Finding the right local talent to run individual markets is substantially more important than MNCs looking to import regional leaders. Companies need to evolve to create collaborative, equitable and representative leadership teams across Asia, where all voices and cultures are observed and respected.

  1. Denying cultural diversity

Simply dropping global marketing campaigns into “Asia”, dubbing and continuing to make foolish patronising changes, will offend communities and drive away loyalty. For example, Unilever Indonesia is identified as Indonesian by most of the population. The company has spent more than 80 years pushing back against the global mother ship to build local brands with local experience and local talent, while never deviating from Unilever’s global vision, values and purpose.

What this boils down to is two words, and a shameless plug (would you expect anything less?). The following two words are exactly what STAND represents.

Cultural capital

The fusion of a global organisation that invests heavily in local talent, empowered to defend local needs, insights and influences, alongside global capabilities, is the only way to build credible human capital development throughout “Asia”.

STAND believes the five rules for hiring marketers in “Asia” should be:

  1. Do they fundamentally understand the company’s global vision, goal and growth agenda regardless of where they are based in Asia?
  1. Do they have deep local knowledge and the courage to push back when they believe campaigns, activations and advertising will fail to connect with local cultural morès?
  1. Have they lived, breathed and experienced the market or have they spent too many years living, studying or working overseas to return as a virtual foreigner in their home country?
  1. Do they have a point of view and believe their work can influence positive change for their country?
  1. Finally, are we genuinely attracting new blood? We have markets in Asia with substantial and growing competing domestic brands: this is the new competitive set. Are we pulling from the right talent pools or continuing the historic churn of employees, simply rotating from one MNC to another?

In conclusion: there is no Asia.

There are many markets in Asia and each one will stand for something different, sometimes oppositional. Until corporates break the mould, invest in local talent, respect and respond to local needs, their very existence remains unsustainable.

Markets deserve better, communities and cultures deserve better and tomorrow’s local talent deserves, at the very least, equal recognition and reward afforded to incoming outsiders on expensive and isolationist expatriate deals.

It is time to dispose of this “Asia” construct, think country and communities, moreover respond to each market’s diverse needs and work towards establishing long-term sustainable growth programmes that stand for what matters: not where brands are born, but where people live.

Jonathan Sanchez is the managing director and co-founder of STAND Limited, a consultancy business for leaders in business, politics and sustainability, based in Bangkok and Singapore.

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