Putting Bhutan on the map

Bhutan - Located between India and China, two of Asia's major markets, the relatively smaller country of Bhutan has been off the marketing radar of brands and agencies.

Starting out as a strict monarchy, the market has kept to itself since 1865. However, when Bhutan decided to rework its political system and implement democracy in 2008, the market began to pick up, causing others to sit up and notice.

The 2012 Bertelsmann Stiftung's Transformation Index (or BTI), a global assessment of transition processes of market economy, democracy and political management of developing countries, reported Bhutan had seen its urban population grow to 35.6%.

Media outreach has also been gaining traction in the market.

According to Bhutan's Ministry of Information and Communications' Media Impact Study 2008, there has been a stark increase in the market's access to media from its previous study in 2003. Radio and cable TV has doubled its reach in the four years, while the number of Bhutanese households with access to televisions grew from 35,000 to 47,125, according to a 2007 Bhutan Living Standards Survey.

The study in 2003 was commissioned by the ministry to analyse the impact of media on Bhutanese society. This seminal work formed a basis for policies to nurture professional media and to enable the media to play a constructive role in Bhutan's overall development.

As such, brands looking to enter the market could tap into these highly accessed media platforms to reach potential consumers in the future.

Currently, radio is the most pervasive medium in the upcoming market, reaching about 62% of households. Cable TV subscribers have also doubled to reach 30,000, the Ministry of Information and Communications of Bhutan reported.

Even social media networks have been growing in popularity, opening up doors for social media marketing. According to Socialbakers, a social media analytics platform, Facebook has roped in more than 80,000 Bhutanese users over a six-month period, rising from only 9,360.

In fact, Singapore has also recognised the economic potential the market holds.

Perhaps that's why Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) International inked a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in infocomm technology (ICT) with Bhutan in October 2012, setting the stage to develop ICT manpower and expertise in the market.

Yeong Wee Tan, head of Southeast Asia and South Asia at IDA International, says Bhutan has been actively attracting overseas business and investment, especially in the information technology sector.

"The Bhutan market has been growing healthily over the past few years, posting one of the highest GDP per capita in the South Asia region," he says.

Some global brands and media networks have also recognised its market potential. Broadcast network ESPN Star Sports, for example, has already established a presence in Bhutan to reach sports fans in the market.

Yet, for Bhutan to continue growing, it will need to welcome overseas brands and businesses to its humble abode.

"The ongoing support from the government, the local industries and foreign investors will be crucial in growing this market," Yeong says.

What's more, IDA International is making plans to work with Bhutan's government agencies and private organisations to further develop its ICT market.

However, the market is facing a lack of diversity.

BTI reported the private sector was relatively small because of a high monopolisation by the government. This was because of a lack of a culture of regulation, which posed a major challenge to the development and application of competition laws.

At its increasing rate of economic growth and transformation, Bhutan is on the right track to reworking its regulations and can soon confidently begin to invite more brands onto its shores.
IDA International's Yeong said Singapore was also playing a part to develop the market.

"We are currently engaged with Bhutan on a capacity development projected supported by Temasek Foundation," he said.

"With the signing of the Singapore-Bhutan ICT MOU between IDA Singapore and the Ministry of Information and Communications Bhutan, we look forward to more ICT collaboration with the Royal Government of Bhutan."