The first rule of marketing in APAC, is that you don’t talk about APAC.
As MD for Freedman International’s APAC team, Naomi Hama knows a thing or two about localising communications across the region. That’s partly as a result of her own high-level professional experience working for the likes of DDB and McCann, as well as the fact she’s lived and worked in China, Japan, and now Australia. Of all the insights she shared with LBB over the course of our conversation, one stood out as particularly crucial.
“It might sound obvious, but even now there are people who speak about ‘APAC’ as if it’s one big block with a shared culture,” she says. “The reality couldn’t be further from that. This is a region with remarkably different cultures, religions, languages, media habits, and values. It’s immensely diverse, so treating it as a homogeneous place is not likely to lead to a successful marketing campaign."
As part of its work across the world, Freedman prides itself on its ability to draw on insights taken from the ground in any region. Given the aforementioned size and diversity of APAC, that’s an immensely useful tool for clients - and an intricate challenge for Naomi and her team.
“Everything that we do is based on insight and delivering business goals,” says Naomi. “So it’s about combining our understanding of a marketplace with a client’s targets. For example, they might say to us that they want to target countries A, B, and C with a new product launch. Using our network and insights, we’ll be able to say ‘actually, if you only have a limited budget then you may not want to localise in country C because doing so would take up greater resources."
Despite the region’s unparalleled complexity, however, there are some notable success stories from whom we can learn. To ascertain the ingredients of a successful campaign in the APAC region, and how brands can apply them to their own communications, LBB sat down with Naomi.
Don’t Copy and Paste
“It’s a frequently-cited example, but what Starbucks has achieved in China is a great showcase for a winning localisation strategy,” says Naomi. “If you drill down to the basics of how they achieved that success, there’s a lot which any brand can learn."
At face value, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Starbucks brand was destined to fail in China. In the West, the US coffee giant has always played into an ‘on-the-go culture’ with takeaway beverages and bustling store locations. China’s culture, by contrast, is traditionally much more tea-focused with patrons more likely to enjoy sitting down to enjoy a peaceful drink rather than rush through an espresso in the fleeting moments between business meetings. When Starbucks opened up its first Chinese store back in 1999, then, the stage was set for a classic cultural mismatch.
Except, it hasn’t played out like that. Today, Starbucks operates out of almost five and a half thousand stores in 200 cities across the Chinese mainland, employing 60,000 people. The reason underpinning that success, says Naomi, is instructive.
“Starbucks succeeded in China because they didn’t just translate their existing business into Chinese. They made a long-term and concerted effort to understand the country’s culture, and to find their own place within it,” she explains. “They embraced a tea-house culture which has been part of Chinese society for generations. Rather than marketing ‘on-the-go’ drinks, you’ll find that Starbucks branches in China are more spacious, allowing room for customers to sit down and take time over their drinks. The result is that the Starbucks brand became relevant to Chinese consumers, because it fit into their lives.”
To get to the level they’re at now, Starbucks played the long game in China. Its founder Howard Schultz has conceded
that “we were not successful in the early years,” and that “there were many people, some inside the company and certainly outside the company, that said Starbucks would never succeed in China.” Today, however, China represents Starbucks’ largest market outside of the US. By taking the time to understand local culture and insights, the brand has succeeded where contemporaries such as Dunkin Donuts and Burger King did not.
To stay with the example of Starbucks, the true impact of the brand’s success in APAC runs deeper than in China, posits Naomi. “The remarkably smart thing about what they’ve done is how they understand the diversity of the region”, she says. “Before they started business in China, they actually opened up in Japan. But they used the insight of understanding Japan’s unique coffee culture to achieve success with a tailor-made strategy. They couldn’t have replicated that in China, and they didn’t try to. They’ve been successful with a case-by-case approach to each market."
Other brands, says Naomi, have enjoyed great results through a similar methodology. “McDonald’s is another example of a brand embracing APAC’s diversity,” she says. “Customers in Hong Kong can enjoy crayfish soup, whereas in Japan one can order a rice burger. Again, the lesson is that brands should figure out how to achieve relevance and offer value in each market."
That approach works best, explains Naomi, when localisation is built into comms strategies from an early stage. “If you’re serious about localisation, and serious about increasing your market share in these countries, then you need to think about integrated organisational strategy from the beginning,” she notes. “There’s a lot of nuance across all cultures in the APAC region. Some are obvious, but some are complex and you risk tripping up on them if you don’t prioritise localisation.”
Reflecting on the key lessons of her own career, Naomi tells LBB that the best advice she ever received was “to stay curious."
“That’s so important, both in terms of your personal growth and in the world of localisation,” she says. “What the success of these brands shows us is that curiosity is the first step towards success”.