Strategists often benefit from an outsider’s eye, observes David Tiltman, Content Director at WARC, as he explores the story behind SK-II’s Marriage Market Takeover: this used an element of Chinese culture so ingrained as to go unspoken as an emotional springboard for a stunningly effective campaign.

I was recently in Singapore for the culmination of the 2017 WARC Prize for Asian Strategy. In its seventh year, this competition has really grown into a showcase of the best of Asian strategic thinking. 

I’ve always thought that, if there’s one thing Asian strategists excel at, it’s teasing out cultural insights and nuances that can fuel powerful marketing ideas. This has been a recurring theme of the Prize since it launched in 2011. And in some ways that’s no surprise – Asia is a huge, culturally diverse region. The best multinational marketers long ago figured out that a one-size-fits-all strategy for the region simply won’t cut it, particularly against aggressive local competitors in tune with their customers.

So it came as a surprise when the winning paper went to an agency with no pedigree in Asia whatsoever. In fact, to an agency with no office or staff members in the region whatsoever.

The 2017 Grand Prix went to Marriage Market Takeover by Forsman & Bodenfors – a Swedish agency hired by a Japanese client (SK-II) to build its brand in China. Forsman & Bodenfors had never worked in China before. It was hired because the client liked the look of the famous Epic Split ad it had developed for Volvo Trucks. So a team from the Swedish agency set off for China and set about researching the beauty market.

From these seemingly unpromising beginnings came a really fascinating campaign. SK-II built a campaign around sheng nu, or “leftover women”, a term used to refer to unmarried women of a certain age. There is a tension between the expectations placed on these women, and the changing social context they are living in. It launched an online film featuring real unmarried women, and took over a ‘marriage market’ in Shanghai (where parents post pictures of their children in a hope of finding them a match).

Speaking at the event, My Troedsson of Forsman & Bodenfors pointed to the power of an outsider’s view. “We saw the communicative potential in something that all Chinese were aware of. But no one had ever thought of it as a vehicle to drive communication and conversation. Sometimes it can be easier to see the potential when looking from the outside.”

That was a statement that really hit home with the senior strategists I spoke to in the room and in subsequent meetings in Singapore.

What struck them was not the originality of the insight – the sheng nu phenomenon is nothing new, and is not even China-specific (there are similar expectations in Japan) – but the ability to view something obvious through fresh eyes and recognise it as a useful strategic hook.

As one of the strategists I spoke to commented, if one of their team had suggested a client focus on sheng nu, he would have rejected the idea as something too obvious or too ingrained – “that’s just how China is”. But when looked at through an outsider’s eyes, it was something curious, and something that just didn’t seem right.

As Troedsson writes in WARC’s new Asia Strategy Report: “When we learned about the sheng nu stigma we were both baffled and intrigued. It was the perfect stepping stone: something people really cared about that SK-II could tap into with credibility. A vehicle strong enough to drive the conversation.”

Forsman & Bodenfors, it’s worth pointing out, has subsequently landed more Asia business, recently launching a campaign for Uber. The agency still does not have an office in the region – though it does have some planners with very impressive Air Miles accounts.

It’s a reminder that, when looking at culture, it’s sometime worth getting the outsider’s view, as well as the insider’s.

Good news for smart independents like Forsman & Bodenfors – as long as there are clients as brave as SK-II around.

But it would be great to see the networks using their planners around the world to encourage more of this thinking.

This was what the planners I spoke to were contemplating – how to use the smart minds at their disposal around the world to best effect. As well as Swedes in China, it would be great to see more Asian planners spending some time in London and New York (or Forsman’s home cities of Stockholm and Gothenburg), pointing out all the things that European or American planners take for granted - but to an outsider seem full of potential.