McCann APAC research honcho Dave McCaughan on why celebrity matters, the varying definition of wellness, 2014 predictions, and why clients want to target Asia’s transgender community

Dave McCaughanDave McCaughan is one of the region’s most highly respected market researchers and strategists.

In this interview with Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks, the seasoned Australian – who recently relocated from Tokyo to Hong Kong to run McCann as managing director, and who has led the agency’s regional research operations for two decades – talks about the value of celebrity in Asia, the role of technology in family life, whether marketers are ready to embrace the transgender community, and why the World Cup will be massive across Asia regardless of which countries qualify.

So what research studies are you working on currently?

One of the things is a study of icons and whether using celebrities in advertising really works and how. As a region, we tend to overweight the use of celebrity.

In Japan, where the 15 second commercial is the most common form of advertising, and ad breaks are very crowded, celebrity is a way to become instantly recognisable. It is a creative shorthand. Westerners see it as lazy thinking, but it works because the choice of celebrity matters as a cue to popularity, assurance, and often borrowed brand identity.

What else have you been working on?

We are fascinated by the way technology is connecting you, or not. Another recent project focused on family and the impact of technology. My wife, my son and I often sit in our apartment messaging each other with our devices while in the same room. We all know that is not uncommon. Is technology pushing families together or pulling them apart?

I’m also interested in ageing populations in Asia, and how seniors connect and disconnect with their immediate families. One of the reasons Facebook has grown so quickly is because older people want to stay connected with their grand children. We want to go deeper to understand why and how this is happening.

We also are working on understanding gender diversification and what is accepted and what is considered taboo in Asia. It’s a big subject for clients, who want to know how attitudes towards sex and sexuality are changing. But we’re aware that if we simply put a survey together asking people about the intricacies of their sex lives, we could be shut down in some countries where discussion of subject like homosexuality is outlawed or very difficult.

For a big global advertiser, what is the risk factor for using a transgender person in an ad? How would people react to your brand? The reality is, many high-level client decision-makers in Asia are straight white guys. And yet many of the people they’re targeting have varied sexual orientations so we all need to understand better the acceptance of a world where gender is becoming a lot more overtly varied.

What about McCann’s work on ‘wellness’?

I think our Truth about Wellness study is the most interesting report we’ve done for a while – looking at how different people and companies define wellness. Many organisations are embracing the subject as the core of their business. Nestlé regards itself as the world’s biggest wellness company, and while many see them as producers of coffee and chocolate, they produce wellness on so many levels. Coke also positions itself as wellness company; they’re in the Happiness business. The business of spreading smiles and open happiness everyday across the world.

Brands are redefining wellness and are effectively capturing a wider spirit of what wellness means.

We interviewed 60 experts from around the world and surveyed over 9,000 people about wellness, in terms of economic, spiritual, physical and mental wellness. We found that different countries have different priorities. Surprisingly, perhaps, in Japan the definition is most likely to be physical. There is a perception that the Japanese are very spiritual, and that maybe true. But the Japanese think very practically, and as the oldest country in the world (Japanese women, on average, live to the age of 89.3), if you don’t have physical wellness, you’re in trouble.

There are huge variations by market, but generally people in the Asia region believe that we’re getting more well. But that is not unquestioned. Some wonder whether technology is making us more or less healthy.

Do you have any predictions for 2014?

We ask people across the region questions that take the temperature across different markets. This year, the big thing will be the FIFA World Cup. To be honest, the Winter Olympics are a bit of a goofy sideshow in Asia.

This year, the World Cup will be particularly big, because it’s in Rio de Janeiro and the carnival atmosphere implies to many a six-week party. Will Brazil do a good job of hosting it? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But the aura of Brazil will have huge appeal. It’s a super cool country. Everyone wants to visit Brazil.

Even for countries that haven’t qualified, there will be a lot of interest. In China, which hasn’t qualified for many years, they’ll be millions watching on TV. A number of years ago, just as China was qualifying for the first time in 44 years, we were doing interviews in Shanghai and across the country. One kid summed up a feeling I have encountered many times in the region, when he told us: “We have to make it because my country, while it has made many advances, can’t be a first world nation unless we’re in the World Cup.”

The World Cup is not just big for brands wanting to reach men. A third of the television viewership of the World Cup globally is female, whereas only ten per cent of the viewership of the English Premier League is female. All across the world, from Japan to Equador, they’ll be mixed groups of people watching. Of course, audiences will be bigger if your country has qualified. But for the big games, anyone will want to watch Messi compete with Ronaldo.

There has been a lot of political tension lately between China and Japan. How do you feel this tension is affecting brands and consumers in both countries?

At a brand level, I think in China consumers want to buy Japanese stuff, but don’t they don’t necessarily like the Japanese, because of historical and political reasons. I think that Japanese companies are – because of the islands issue [China and Japan are locked in a dispute over islands that they both claim as their own] – starting to see more of a squeeze, and may experience a longer term kick back, if Chinese consumers are aware that a brand has Japanese heritage. But the reality is, China is still a huge market for Japanese brands.

The relationship between brands and nationality is an interesting phenomenon. For 20 years, we’ve asked people around the world the question: if you could be born any nationality, what would it be? Perhaps you’d think the answer is always American. But it’s actually  Nordic countries that often come up because they are perceived to be safe and clean places to live in where there is a strong welfare state. Or Brazil, because it is a big party town. Interestingly, people love America, but they don’t want to be American.

In other global surveys which ask which country is most likely to cause the next world war, the answer is often the US. When asked which country is always stopping people from doing what they want to do in their own country, the answer is often America too.

Of course a lot of this is about softpower. A study on globalisation we’re working at will look at global brands and how well accepted – or otherwise – they are in other countries. We want to know how soft power works. American has done it with Hollywood. Britain is often discussed as to the effect of Cool Britannia. South Korea has done an excellent job with K-Pop culture as a way to increase interest in all things Korean. But what about Chinese and Indian brands as they cross borders? Watch this space…


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