Late last year, global PR firm Edelman released its inaugural Cultural Connections report focusing on consumer trends in Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia.
The extensive “on the ground” report has the comfortable look and feel of a travel magazine and offers interesting takeaways on consumer attitudes and brand trends in Southeast Asia.
Heading up the Cultural Connections team was Maxine Gurevich, Senior Manager for Global Insights and Practice Development at Edelman.
“This was more of my side project where I really just wanted to get dirty and be in the frontlines of research, and it was that much more fascinating and exciting, especially being on the ground with the experts.”
Outside of some initial research Gurevich’s approach to putting the report together was to plunge in as the typical outsider taking it all in for the first time.
“For outsiders, specifically Westerners, landing in Southeast Asia for the first time can feel jarring,” said Gurevich. “I wondered if I felt this way, how must other marketers feel when they arrive in these markets?”
Gurevich relied on the guidance of native-born and experienced expat Edelman staff to lead her along the research path.
“In each country, we brought together local Edelman experts who led us on a trek through their cities so we could get out from behind our screens, be on the ground and witness local trends.”
Branding in Asia recently caught up with Maxine Gurevich at the Edelman offices in New York City.
Why did you choose to focus on Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia?
The first reason, to be totally honest, was that our offices are based there. I only wanted to make sure we brought out the awesome insights that they have on the ground.
We also wanted to make the most of our resources and highlight our people and thinking on the ground. I would have loved to do all 10 [Southeast Asian] countries, but our first goal was to just focus on three. We found so much inspiration that if we were to do another round, or the next iteration in Southeast Asia, we could divide it by themes or other regions that we didn’t have time to look at.
I was looking at a previous report you did covering 12 countries, 11 sectors, 200+ brands. Was it nice to only working with three countries this time? Were you able to wrap your head around it more easily?
Yes, generally at Edelman we are known for these enormous Intellectual Property (IP) studies. Our annual consumer marketing IP this year was titled Innovation and the Earned Brand, which discusses the speed of innovation and how it’s actually moving too quickly. When we do our annual IP, we need to make sure that we get enough of the population, that we’re representing the right nuances, so I support that initiative with our chief global chair.
In this case, Cultural Connections was more of my side project where I really just wanted to be on the frontlines of research, and it was much more fascinating and exciting, especially being on the ground with the experts where we had the ultimate tour group lead the way to tell us, “Okay, this is what the perception of the region is, and this is what’s really going on.”
Were there any surprises?
In Singapore it was different experiences for different areas. I had watched a lot of documentaries on Singapore and I felt like I got it, but once I was there it was completely different. It was as if I’d landed in the future, quite literally. I wasn’t expecting that feeling, after only watching and reading about Singapore and the excitement for consumerism and brands.
I hadn’t felt quite like that in the US, because I feel in the US, we’ve hit a plateau in terms of what we expect from brands and our excitement with brands. Whereas, in Singapore it was just all about this excitement for consumption and growth
“You have to have seven marketing plans in Malaysia, because you have so many different types of cultures here and you have to speak to them very differently, and they’re incredibly fragmented.”
n Vietnam it was a whirlwind, especially being American. I was pretty sensitive given the history, and I had not anticipated that I would feel that way. The excitement, speed and majority of the population being under 30 was mind blowing and pretty amazing.
Then in Malaysia what I found to be most interesting is the diversity, but the nuance in that diversity – how friendly Malaysians were, how warm they are and their optimism. I think that not only are Malaysians influenced by global markets, but they are starting to influence global markets the other way around. That’s exciting to see.
In the introduction to the report you wrote, “there has been little reporting of the variety and nuances of these cultures and its people, which is vital to address.” What are some of the things that you think other reports might have missed?
When I was attempting to do research before I had even gone to Southeast Asia, what I mainly came across was a lot of reasons why, economically, you should invest. Why, business wise, this is an opportunity for you in these areas.
There was some light research in terms of qualitative data, but I still felt like it was missing the nuance. I wasn’t really getting a clear representation of its people and the local taste, the cultures and their attitudes. I felt like I had to do my research through travel books and get a very different perspective on it, or I had to go totally down the business route. I didn’t really feel like there was anything in between.
So I said, “Maybe this is an opportunity for us.” Maybe there were one or two reports that I found, but I just felt like we needed to represent the people a bit more.
Let’s say you’re at a party and you want to impress someone with an interesting little tidbit you found. How about Vietnam?
For Vietnam, I think the energy is palpable when you get there. It’s a very unique energy. Some of it has to do with the motorbikes. The way they navigate traffic, which is on its own a great depiction of their culture of “This is what we’re going to do and get out of the way if you’re not coming with us.”
Even navigating; they don’t have traffic lights half the time, which is just fantastic. The other aspect of Vietnam that I wasn’t prepared for is the excitement for global brands; specifically Western brands. They’re everywhere. Vietnamese, especially the young Vietnamese, eat them up, literally.
What about Singapore and Malaysia?
What I found most interesting was when we were talking to our experts, they felt like they were overwhelmed by the speed of innovation at which Singapore was moving. In the last decade or so, that innovation heavily pressed on the next generation – this obsession to build and to grow.
A lot of Singaporeans told us that they felt a lack of identity because of that. They felt that it was really necessary, for them and the government, just to slow down while they really rethink Singaporean values, especially because it is so diverse. That was such a great insight, I thought, into the people.
A lot of people think Malaysian and Singaporeans are influenced in the same ways by the level of diversity they have. Actually, the local nuances have become so important with all of the different ethnicities in Malaysia, and they told me that a lot of marketers come to them and think they can have a single Malaysian marketing plan.
Malaysians told me that you have to have seven marketing plans in Malaysia, because you have so many different cultures and you have to speak to them very differently. That, I thought, was really fascinating.
You can see the full Cultural Connections: Southeast Asia report here.