No, Asia is not behind the West in digital marketing

Asian-based marketers frequently have to contend with criticism that their content is safe and 'vanilla'. But how can they innovate both digitally and creatively when Western-based head offices still get the final say on content and budgets, asks LinkedIn's Daniel Hochuli

If you’ve ever worked in marketing in the Asia region, one of the most common apologies you hear is we are behind the West in terms of digital innovation and performance.

There is a prevailing sentiment that suggests Asia-based marketers, including those in India and Australia, lack a level of ‘maturity’ or ‘savviness’ on digital compared to the markets of the US or Europe.

Yet reality is that marketers here are no less innovative, hard-working or savvy than their Western-based counterparts. Rather, they have more hurdles to overcome when it comes to performing even the most mundane marketing tasks. This friction primarily sits around the delivery and distribution of digital marketing in Asia, not talent.

‘Follow HP’s example and give marketers the budget to be effective and reap the results.’

This friction is caused by a couple of key factors:

  • Asia-based marketers have to deal with the cultural and political nuances of over 48 countries, instead of one market with one culture, like the US.
  • They regularly have minimal say on the content creation or distribution process for their region because all strategic marketing decisions sit at ‘head office’ – normally based in the US or Europe.
  • Asia-based marketers have a fraction of the budget to work with to reach over 60% of the world’s population (4.6 billion people); compared to Western-based marketers who are given a much larger budget to reach just a fraction of that number (325 million people in the States).
  • Connectivity is still an issue in many Asian regions meaning distribution of marketing material is still a big issue with large black spots.
  • Asia-based marketers are hopelessly under resourced and are often forced to wear many hats just to deliver the basic tasks; whilst their Western counterparts usually have a much better resourced team – which includes the luxury of specialists.

The reason why regional agencies and brands are often underrepresented in many global marketing awards is this friction. It is not because marketers lacks ability, maturity or talent; it’s because they lack time and resources to make innovation and performance a priority.

Indeed, local Asian brands with properly resourced local Asian teams are actually creating some very innovative content including the examples below from Singaporean bank, DBS.

Consider what ‘Asia’ really is

One of the biggest mistakes Western-based brands make when they try and grow their markets in Asia, is they lump all of Asia into one big region (often called APAC or JAPAC). According to Wikipedia, ‘Asia’ is defined as any place to the east of the Suez Canal and Black Seas. This definition of Asia contains 48 different countries with 4.6 billion people (roughly 60% of the world’s population) speaking over 2,000 languages.

The level of diversity in Asia dwarfs that of the US. It is a region that houses countless languages, religions  – indeed over 31% of all Muslims are live in South East Asia – and political freedoms.

For the Asia-based marketer trying to be relevant to the very different parts of ‘Asia’, they have to ensure that their marketing does not offend any tradition, value, religion or political persuasion across multiple countries – or find themselves with a PR crisis on your hands.

Indeed, it is simply naive to think what works in Australia will work in Thailand (because of a different language) or in Malaysia (due to Islamic sensitivities) or China (due to political censorship).

These crucial considerations inevitably affect the speed and quality of the content delivered. And as a result, the region’s content is often dubbed ‘safe’ or ‘vanilla’ because it’s better to be bland than to innovate and risk offending in such a minefield. These are hurdles most Western-based marketers never have to jump to at the same level. It also means, without this friction, the West has the luxury to innovate, both with their resources and time.

Where does the decision-making and budgets lie?

For the Asia-based marketer working for a global brand, the fact that HQ sits in New York or San Fran or London or Paris is probably one of the biggest causes of friction in her ability to do her job. Often the head office has to have the final say on every piece of content that goes out in Asia; or (worse still) all the content is created in these regions for the Asian market.

It is hard to take seriously assets generated by creators who’ve never visited the market of their core customer.

Another reason why Asian content is often created in or curated from the West is budgets. It is easier and cheaper to scale and re-purpose Western-centric marketing material to Asia, than it is to have a separate Asia-based marketing team create new content for each region. But this push for scale comes at a cost to performance. Western-centric content is often irrelevant for the Asian market, which results in lacklustre engagement and regional performance.

The marketer often has no real power, resources or budget to then ‘rregionalise” that content, so it goes out to market – under performs – and that person is stuck defending their team from sentiments like ‘Asia is just not as mature as us’. The reality is her team is highly capable, if given the freedom to control what she knows is best for her market. But head office’s fear of relinquishing control to those in region causes a lot of friction on her team’s performance.

I would love to see a Western brands really place a lot of faith in their Asian marketers. Give them the budget to be effective in both creativity and in distribution and reap the results – just like HP did recently:

Give it up for the Asia-based marketer

There are no quick solutions to the logistical issues in Asia, but it must be recognised that the region is in no way the same as the West when it comes to marketing, sales and business. A broad stroke ‘global’ marketing strategy is often governed by objectives such as scale and cost rather than regionalisation and creativity; and perhaps that needs a rethink.

To the Asia-based marketer, be proud of your ability to operate on a shoe-string and your ability to juggle multiple market nuances with minimal support.

For those marketers based in the US and Europe, understand that you are lucky to have the freedom, resources and budgets to innovate and tap into your passion. It is not always like that in other parts of the world. I encourage you to come and work in Asia for a while – see the red tape, the friction and hurdles an Asia-based marketer has to jump through just to get the job done.

Daniel Hochuli is LinkedIn Asia-Pacific’s content marketing evangelist. The full version of this article can be viewed here


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