The do’s and don’ts of marketing in Myanmar

Coke in MyanmarkJust a few years ago Myanmar, a country abundant in natural resources with a population of 53 million, was out of bounds for international brands (at least publically). Now every client and their agency seems to be piling in. But are they moving in too soon before this young market is ready?

Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks was in Yangon to interview Lynn Lynn Tin Htun and Aye Hnin Swe, the bosses of one of only a handful of ad agencies operating in Myanmar – Mango Marketing – to ask them about the obstacles they face in an industry still finding its feet after years of uncertainty and ongoing political upheaval.

Everyone is talking about Myanmar as Asia’s next big emerging market. But what’s the reality here right now? Is the market being talked up too much?

Lynn Lynn XXX and Rose XXX

Lynn Lynn Tin Htun and Aye Hnin Swe

Aye Hnin Swe (who heads up Mango’s media and PR operations): We’ve been seeing rapid growth every year for the last five years, but the rate of growth has slowed of late. But I think it will pick up again soon.

Multinationals are entering the market rapidly, and of course local companies are feeling threatened.

We always advise local brands not to worry about their rivals, to focus on the quality of their products and think about formulating a sound marketing strategy. In the past, local brands didn’t spend on marketing at all. But now, with international brands coming in, they are being forced to. They can’t sleep anymore.

Can you give us an example of an a great ad or advertiser in Myanmar?

Lynn Lynn Tin Htun (who runs Mango’s creative operation): Unilever, which connects with Burmese people everyday, everywhere. Also, EAC Europe Asia Commercial, which knows the market well, has strong distribution channels, and a good rural strategy.

How about examples of advertising that hasn’t worked locally?

Lynn Lynn Tin Htun: When [BAT cigarette brand] 555 entered the market, they used the slogan ‘Smoothness above all else’. But that did not translate well into the local language. It was seen as alien. Although people saw it as a premium brand, it was perceived as distant and aloof.

Coke had similar issues with the ‘Open happiness’ slogan when they re-entered Myanmar last year. No one knew what they meant, although it was seen as a premium brand because it was priced at US$1.50. Now it’s available for 50 cents, and the advertising went back to basics, based around taste and refreshment.

Ad spend in US$; source: Y&R

Ad spend in Myanmar, 2007-11 in US$; source: Y&R

What is the most popular advertising medium?

Aye Hnin Swe: Television to reach a mass audience. Generally speaking, football for reaching a male audience, Korean dramas to reach women and reality shows to reach young people.

Digital is still very much in its infancy. The country only has two per cent internet penetration, or perhaps up to seven per cent if you include mobile internet penetration.

What are the taboos in Burmese culture that advertisers should avoid?

Lynn Lynn Tin Htun: The use of monks is taboo. The use of pagodas is ok, but never monks, even as actors in commercials.

Colour is important. The use of black is inauspicious, but red represents bravery, and yellow evokes a sense of happiness and prosperity. Over the last 12 years, political parties have used these colours to their advantage, and advertisers do now too.

Also, in keeping with tradition, women are rarely portrayed in a position higher than men. When doing the laundry, for example, certain items of men’s and women’s clothing are not mixed, and women’s clothing are positioned lower than men’s when hung to dry. It’s not a hard and fast cultural rule, but this sense of hierarchy is something that needs to be respected.

And comparative advertising – directly depicting one brand as worse than another in an ad – should be avoided.

Talent is a big issue all over Asia, but particularly in a young advertising market like Myanmar. Where do you find people you need?

Aye Hnin Swe: In PR and media, it’s very tough. First, we’re looking for good people from within our own community. Now, we’re getting a few local people from markets such as Singapore, who went there to study and want to come home and be part of the incredible change we’re seeing in Myanmar. They’ve had international exposure, and speak both Burmese and English, which is a huge advantage. Of course, they lack a bit of local market experience when they return home, but that’s not difficult to catch up quickly.

Lynn Lynn Tin Htun: Client servicing is also difficult. We’re even looking at people working in the hotel industry, and similar service sectors, whom we could train. With creatives, you need to have talent to begin with, but training is critical too. It’s no good poaching people from other agencies – we need to grow the talent pool. Then, it’s a matter of keeping people happy and nurturing their career advancement.

Aye Hnin Swe: As a local agency, we’re limited in a sense. We can create a happy working environment, but we can’t send people to another country to train them overseas – although now through our partnership with JWT [Mango formed an affiliate partnership with JWT in April 2013], we have can send some people abroad and develop them through workshops. Also, since we handle Unilever, Mindshare [a WPP media agency and sibling to JWT] Thailand visit us a few times a year, and that helps too.

I always tell our managers that everyone should help our newcomers. I’m handling operations – I can’t focus on management issues alone.

What are the other big challenges for ad agencies in Myanmar?

Mango's ad for GP Watch

Mango’s ad for GP Watch

Lynn Lynn Tin Htun: Burmese are a very emotional people. But as communicators, we are not yet in a position to show how a brand can have an emotional benefit, because the needs of most Burmese are still fairly basic. Advertising, at this stage in our development, should be kept simple. We have a lot of advertising on TV in Myanmar, and there is very little time for people to remember each ad. However, the time spent watching TV is not a lot per consumer. We need to tell a story of how a product can benefit a person physically or give them status, either visually or through a narrative voice, without being too complicated.

Aye Hnin Swe: Also, there are not enough TV stations to accommodate advertisers. Currently the regulation is for TV stations to run nine minutes of advertising every hour, but that is often breached. The two TV stations with nationwide coverage are government-run channels, and they’re struggling to develop content. It’s a seller’s market and advertisers are desperate to buy airtime, but there aren’t enough slots.

Privately-owned print publishers are also struggling. They have good distribution in cities, but do not have national coverage, whereas government-backed newspapers are subsidised and have broader reach.

Measurement is also an issue. Media monitoring is limited among TV stations and publications, but clients are demanding it. Once we have greater access to data, can the industry grow further. The whole industry has a lot of growing up to do.

What about PR?

Aye Hnin Swe: The PR industry never really existed until a year ago. PR in the past was about getting press coverage for a client’s event, and providing facts and figures to journalists through a press release. We’re still very much in the learning stage. The industry is only just beginning, and it’s becoming more complicated, technical and interesting as the media landscape develops.

How developed is the ad agency scene?

An ad agency?

An ad agency?

Aye Hnin Swe: There are ad agencies like us, but there are really only five or six agencies in the market, including Today, Riverorchid, Y&R [one of the first to launch a majority-owned agency here], FutureCom, Red Line, Spa and Sail. But there are those who say they’re agencies, even if their business is simply to paint a logo on the side of a truck.

Who would you say is the best among your peers?

Aye Hnin Swe: Probably Today. When I worked at Bates, which was seen as a school for advertising in Myanmar (many staff at Mango used to work at Bates), Today was already established. They are 20 years old and were around at the birth of advertising in Myanmar.

What do you see as the main obstacles to growth of the ad industry in Myanmar?

Aye Hnin Swe: We must wait until the elections in 2015. Until then, ad spend will continue to rise at a comfortable level. But after then – if everything goes well – the ad industry will go crazy.

Lynn Lynn Tin Htun. Acquiring local talent. There are many people coming into the industry, but we still have to recruit more people from overseas. But then we also need people who understand the local culture.

Localisation is important, not just for advertising but for agency culture. We had a company retreat last weekend, and we took our staff to the beach. When we arrived, the two groups split into groups, locals and foreigners. This is an issue. When our local staff relax, they don’t want to talk English. Burmese culture won’t change overnight, so our international staff have got to localise.

There will be more agencies coming into the market, but what will separate us is genuine local understanding.

How would you define Brand Myanmar? And what do you think it means to the outside world?

Lynn Lynn Tin Htun: Friendly, warm and unique. Curiously, Myanmar is a non-brand; people don’t know what this country is really about – but it has very high brand awareness. It has an element of mystery. It is still developing its own identity, its own brand, and that will take time.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing