Winning in Southeast Asia means paying attention to complex cultural diversity within the region as consumers’ everyday life choices and behaviour are caught in a web of cultural meanings they themselves have spun (Thank you Geertz!).
Here is an example of how it might play out.
Choices rooted in webs of cultural meanings
Imagine you are a middle-class Vietnamese parent with growing kids, aged six to twelve years-old, searching for lunch options in Ho Chi Minh City.
On your right, the famous golden arches call out to you – a sign of accessible modernity, fast food to delight your children, perfect for a happy meal with a collectible toy for the little one to brag to her friends in school.
On your left, a local shop, offering the national dish, Pho, which can be eaten for all meals, comprising rice noodles in broth, and topped with vegetables, herbs, and meat.
Today is different, a Sunday when you have just picked them up from English language classes. Your itinerary is packed full for the day, with family gatherings next on the list. You will not lose world’s best mom award for choosing fast food as a well-deserved reward for their consistent good behavior.
You turn left.
Food culture in Vietnam, like in many markets across Southeast Asia, is layered with rich meanings. Yes, food is fuel for productivity, but it is also an expression of warmth associated with home-cooked food.
Sometimes, care means choosing what is best for your children – an expression of tough love, rooted in discipline and authority. This does not necessarily reflect aspirational ideals of progressive parenting.
We often find ourselves in a web of cultural meanings where what we think we know about food-linked choice-making is not what actually happens. McDonald’s opened in Vietnam in 2014, but they have not been doing well. McDonald’s banked on the draw of relevant Vietnamese cultural codes in status and experience experimentation in its launch, but it soon lost lustre as it simply wasn’t good for the kids’ nourishment.
Understanding domestic cultural values and priorities are key to create winning strategies in Southeast Asia.
Common misconceptions about localisation
There is a tendency to adapt global strategy into a regional strategy – this results in regarding Southeast Asia as a monolith, believing that what works in Thailand may also work in Vietnam or Indonesia.
Reality is complex but can be simplified when we grasp fundamental cultural truths. In one multi-market study, our aim was to craft market-entry strategy for a milk brand, that targeted mums, through a deconstruction of nutritional choice making for their kids.
The brand promised progress, however its manifestation across SEA was as diverse as it was rich. Progress for Vietnamese Mums meant status achievement and mobility, with the promise of better standards of living for the whole family. As such, the promise for Vietnamese mothers was one of investing in their child’s intellectual development to ensure educational achievements.
However, in Malaysia & Indonesia, it skewed towards important religious dimensions. Mothers in these markets felt just as, if not more reassured when their children demonstrated moral development, marked by behaviour consistent with religiosity such as praying frequently as they grow. This suggests we may need to showcase how the brand & product helps accelerate progress in the context of behaviour development.
Through globalization and influences of popular culture from the west, assume Southeast Asian markets are on a similar trajectory towards celebrating individualism.
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 center of decision-making, and the latter is about independence with a healthy appreciation of interdependence – the collective needs still matter.
When helping brands retain youth cultural fluency across SEA, we commonly encounter tensions among Gen Z in search of creative ways to express their individuality without transgressing moral sensibilities and social norms.
In Thai society, students are expected to conform to strict appearance and behavioral standards, with standardized uniforms a norm even in university. But when they are out of uniforms, Thai youths have more breathing space to be themselves, by making personal fashion statements when they experiment with athleisure, trashion, and urbanwear, to name a few options.
Sometimes, this breathing space has to be in private – fully shielded from judging public eyes. For our tech clients, leveraging the principle of privacy meant providing safe and permissible spaces for our consumers to experiment with alternate identities and authentically express themselves without the pressures of social judgement.
Southeast Asian consumers face financial and infrastructure constraints, limiting their access to premium goods.
Southeast Asian populations, especially lower middle-income segments are still mired in hardships, with limited disposable income to spend on discretionary goods. However, we found people in this segment to be quite resourceful.
In Vietnam, premiumness is a core driver. Every small progress buys a hope of mobility, and if you might not buy a high-end phone outright, other strategies such as micro-loans, buying second-hand, or saving up and sharing within the family always prevail.
Lifestyle-linked tech devices are a high-value investment for the Indonesian lower-middle class. Sophisticated design tends to be a go-to sales strategy for most brands. However, our experience has shown that aesthetics alone is not enough to justify premium, there are pragmatic considerations such as usability in tough conditions that takes primacy. They need a device that marries premium design cues with durability reassurance, better warranty support, and payment plans that help justify a long-term investment.
In Philippines, we learnt that mothers in lower socio-economic classes had to make do with limited budgets, based on their husband’s weekly wages. They couldn’t buy in bulk, or even bigger SKUs for daily items like sugar drinks, candy, and snacks that we often take for granted in the Global North. But they still value aesthetic delight from the packs they buy, little bundles of joy they can provide for their children and family, a momentary escape from the harsh realities of constraints. In the context of plastic pollution being a battleground for advancing sustainability goals, how might brands offer product and packaging innovation that meet consumers’ needs while being sustainable?
So, what? Strategy rooted in culture
Our aim is to push beyond superficial consumer personas, pen portraits or typical insights that are based on articulated rationales. Rather, focus should be on collecting thick databy immersing in real life contexts to collect rich descriptions of social phenomena and unlock fundamental drivers that shed new light on human behaviours.
Doing so will allow you to identify new narratives that syncs brand promise with localised cultural truths. Here are some principles for localisation in SEA:
- When conducting insights work, go deeper to identify core, immutable cultural codes for each market. This helps to identify a north star against which future navigation can be set. For example: brand positioning platforms, new innovation, etc.
- Meaning matters. New launches must be contextualised to speak consumer language. A brand pivoted around progress, might land differently across SEA. For example, progress has many faces – moral development vs. material success – identifying the right platform will position your brand more meaningfully across SEA markets.
- Individuation is not Individualism. Steer clear of lazy stereotypes of Gen Z (or any Gen for that matter), which tends to be skewed towards Western conceptions. Southeast Asian youth still wish to conform to cultural norms, whist exploring alternate identities. Gain deep insight into their immovable collectivist core and the dynamic individuated liminality.
- Design without compromising premium aesthetics, but design to preserve and enhance value within lower-middle-income consumers’ lived realities. Identify pragmatics of financing, usefulness, usability and sensible packaging to craft pockets of premium experiences for SEA audiences.
 Wang, Tricia. (2013). Big Data needs Thick Data. Ethnography Matters.
 Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures : Selected Essays. New York :Basic Books, 1973.