In this Spotlight SEA series, WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo examines why the melting pot diversity of Southeast Asia is the ideal case study for multicultural marketing amidst the modernisation of Asia and the growing movement of DEI.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on multicultural marketing in Southeast Asia. Read more

Around a decade ago when global brands started setting up shop in Southeast Asia, many regional or local marketing briefs were synonymous with simply “adapting global assets”.

Fast forward to today and this homogenous approach is no longer an effective strategy in capturing the opportunities that our diverse and enormous region can offer. According to an Adobe report, two-thirds of APAC consumers think negatively about brands that make assumptions about them or form stereotypes.

Not only do Southeast Asian consumers want more authentic representation and are calling out brands for promoting outdated stereotypes, but it makes business sense too. Our spotlight infographic shows that Southeast Asian consumers increasingly prefer local retailers, with the greatest desire coming from the Philippines (68%), Thailand (57%) and Malaysia (54%).

It’s clear that being local or at least creating a perception of “local” is key to winning over Southeast Asian consumers. This narrative is nothing new as brands have long employed multicultural marketing tactics to resonate with local audiences of different ethnicities and cultures.

But with the importance of diversity and inclusion growing, how does this influence the global gaze on the region? How does global connectivity shape the values of Asian consumers who are grappling with both local and global influences? Are there new levers of “local” that marketers can tap into?

For this spotlight series, we use the melting pot diversity of Southeast Asia as a case study to push the boundaries of what multicultural marketing could be.

Global connectivity is blurring the boundaries

By trying to speak to more diverse communities, multicultural marketing tends to create more demographic silos or a “marketplace of discrete communities”.

However, global connectivity, which by nature exposes people to new worldviews or experiences, is blurring the traditional boundaries that marketers might typically use to think about their consumers. Attributes such as values, attitudes and behaviours cannot as easily be compartmentalised by demographics or geography alone.

One just has to look at the US$184 billion consumer market for halal commerce in Indonesia or modest Muslim consumers in Southeast Asia as a testament to these more fluid lifestyles.

In our deep dive on halal marketing in Indonesia, McCann’s Imperia Oktabrinda (Pimpim) writes: “It is true that we cannot measure the depth of one’s faith. However, we can measure the spending and growth of products related to the Muslim way of life.”

Indonesia is just one example of “liquid Islam”, a fast-changing consumer landscape sweeping Southeast Asia that Wunderman Thompson’s Chen May Yee sheds light on with her piece that deep dives on the modern Muslim consumer.

While globalisation is creating new matrixes of meaning, marketers must be even more discerning about balancing Western versus Asian values.

Quantum’s Ri An Quek cautions: “We must be mindful of the difference between individualism and individuation. The former is an ideology that emphasises the needs of the self at the centre of decision-making and the latter is about independence with a healthy appreciation of interdependence – the collective needs still matter.”

Overcoming the global-local tension

For brands in Southeast Asia, the challenge of blurring boundaries usually manifests as navigating the tension between “global” and “local”, which many marketers face in their bid to scale and grow their brands across the region.

Crowd DNA’s Caranissa Djatmiko, Ariel Malik and Catherine Rozario argue that this tension is exacerbated by “whitewashing practices” perpetuated by deep rooted histories of colonialism in Asia.

“Brands tend to struggle with striking the balance between telling culturally specific narratives that reflect the unique and nuanced lived experience of Asian communities, and the need to maintain universalism that transcends differences in order to attract a more global audience. The latter is usually prioritised at the expense of the former, with brands ultimately representing Asians through the Western gaze.”

This begs the question of when, why and how to localise in a way that is authentic and does not appropriate cultures.

Virtue’s Elly Lau, Zoe Chen and Huiwen Tow offer guidance. Global strategies establish credibility, while hyperlocal strategies build audience affinity. “This entails three key tactics: cultivating authentic inclusivity through representation, strategic local partnerships and taking a community-first approach to brand-building.”

But what do brands usually get wrong?

Dione Song, CEO of Love, Bonito says it’s altering the product too much to suit the new market. “Instead of localising extensively into one specific market, brands should be getting more mileage for what they’ve developed. They should evaluate best-selling features in current products and find customers in other cities or countries that have a lot in common with the current customer and market.”

Building bridges, not silos

So what could a more fluid definition of multicultural marketing look like in this new world of global connectivity? Instead of creating more silos, can multicultural marketing be used to be a bridge across cultures?

According to an Adobe report, 62% of APAC consumers feel closer to people who share their passions and interests than those of a similar demographic.

In our interview, Diageo’s Grace Astari says: “Of course, when you have a really specific regional deliverable, then it’s important to stay authentic. But for global launches, it’s about a shared human nature… By approaching culture with shared humanity, can we begin to connect the dots.”

Goodstuph’s Jeremy Chia and Fajar Kurnia write about how remixing cultural influences can be an effective strategy to bridge the gap between different cultures.

“One example is Pocari Sweat in Indonesia, which created an anime-style commercial (global) but featured local scenes and characters. As a Japanese brand, using anime felt right but it was the addition of the local scenes of Bali and Jakarta that got people talking. Indonesians felt seen.”

Leveraging new levers of local

Beyond representation, our contributors also share how media strategies can benefit from more multicultural or hyperlocal approaches.

Mindshare’s Helen McRae writes: “For the most part, marketers are focusing much attention on understanding the diverse nuances of consumers and cultures across SEA. However, there is still an underutilisation of local or regional platforms and channels in driving this growth at scale.” While Southeast Asians tend to use global platforms, our infographic shows that local apps such as Kumu in the Philippines have 19% usage among consumers. These homegrown platforms are also goldmines of insight for locally nuanced behaviours and attitudes.

At the end of the day it’s not efficient to localise every touchpoint, but one effective channel to localise is in influencer marketing, which is key to building trust and more “personal and profitable connections with consumers”, writes Nielsen’s Arnaud Frade. “For multicultural influencer strategies to be effective, marketers should allow for market-specific content preferences to inform their influencer content strategy.”

Influencer marketing is the perfect medium for multicultural marketing because “it is synonymous with heroes that represent specific cultures and influence and it plays a critical role in building the right brand equity for that culture”, writes Essence’s Yasser Ismail about how multicultural marketing builds brand equity.

Areas for improvement

Multicultural marketing is complicated because humans are multifaceted. Growth in this area is simultaneously about improving its discrete elements (ie more representation in race, ethnicity, etc) and employing more holistic approaches that acknowledge how these dimensions intersect.

For example, while strides are being made to talk to Mulsim consumers in the beauty category, McCann Indonesia’s Imperia Oktabrinda (Pimpim) says that more can be done to depict diverse skin tones.

Nielsen’s Arnaud Frade says that “age is a critical component of cultural diversity and a dimension of multicultural marketing that has often been overlooked”. When it comes to online influencer marketing, he says that “social media is no longer a space just for young people”.

While the region has some ways to go, as a melting pot and nexus of different cultures, Southeast Asia provides a natural playground to evolve what multicultural marketing could be.