Q&A: Athena Chen on Emerging Consumer Trends in Asia and How Brands Can Best Engage

We recently caught up with Athena Chen, Senior Trends Strategist for APAC at WGSN.

Though unfortunately locked down in Shanghai as the city fights to fend off a COVID outbreak, Chen took the time to talk about WGSN’s flagship Asia Shopper Forecast study that delves into Asian consumer profiles with the aim of providing brands better insight into emerging trends in the world’s largest consumer market.

Over the course of our conversation, Chen talks about the study results, how consumers are increasingly aligning their purchases with their values, eight consumer profiles to keep an eye on in 2022, the emergence of “East influencing East”, and more.

 
 

What’s been keeping you busy lately?

I’m currently based in Shanghai, and we’re now undergoing a citywide lockdown which is seeing me busy looking up and trying out new recipes at home.

I used to rely on China’s convenient food delivery service and this is a huge step for me. I’m also always on the lookout for interesting stuff to read and watch online – just finished Pixar’s super cute Turning Red with its Asian coming-of-age story totally hitting home!

WGSN recently launched its flagship study of consumers in Asia to provide brands with insights into emerging behaviors. Were there any surprising trends that stood out to you?

I think the optimism that the Asian countries have displayed despite the hardships of the pandemic in the past two years has been amazing. It is fascinating to see how Asia has still managed to grow economically despite all the disruptions – Vietnam is now becoming a global manufacturing powerhouse, and how Asian people have really remained very resilient throughout lockdowns and adopted digital habits in such interesting ways. I am particularly intrigued by how social commerce, and especially live selling, has been largely and swiftly embraced by Asian consumers.

 
 

At WGSN, we explore this in our Asia Shopper Forecast report, via the “Social Explorers” profile. We saw how consumers in Asia have really mirrored their offline behaviors while shopping online, and are bringing their love of chatting, bartering and creating personal connections with market vendors and neighborhood shops to the digital world. In the Philippines, for example, a whole set of internet slang has been created to streamline livestream selling.

There is also an interesting emergence of “East influencing East” creativity as explored in the “Creative Class” profile. We are seeing this pan-Asian wave of cultural influence happening, where non-Chinese speaking SEA countries such as Indonesia are now hooked on Chinese television series, loving K-pop more than western pop music, and also the amazing new wave of music artists coming out of Vietnam and gaining global airplay.

This is all opening up new possibilities for brand engagement that is more localized and relevant.

The report talked about how “A sense of optimism is also surfacing as consumers are aligning purchases with their values while seeking to deepen their connections with local culture.” Can you talk more about that?

 The pandemic has largely restricted mobility in the region and really forced us to value what’s close to us and rediscover what our cities and countries have to offer across all aspects of our lives, including shopping, eating, and entertainment. This is driving a new found appreciation for products and services that speak to one’s cultural identity and heritage.

“There is also a growing trend of homegrown super apps in Asia such as Line, KakaoTalk, or Zalo, which is now becoming a staple in the everyday lives, and is further creating new and differing digital habits and behaviors.”

Asian consumers are now also realizing that their countries are the most affected by current climate risks, and green consumption is beginning to correlate directly to economic development and progress across the region. Governments are taking the lead in pushing for a greener recovery and consumers are contributing to the rise of more sustainable mindsets – this shift is also key to connecting with the conscious-minded “Change Makers”  which was highlighted in the Asia Shopper Forecast report.

The report looks at eight consumer profiles to watch for in 2022. We were particularly intrigued by the “Joyful escapists” who are described as shoppers looking to escape from daily pressures and turning to the alternative realities of anime, which is driving IRL influence for novel products and experiences. Can you tell us more about them and how marketers can engage? 

Asia is a highly-connected and youth-driven region. When we look at Southeast Asia, both millennials and Generation Z – the youngest generation of consumers – are expected to make up 75% of total ASEAN consumers by 2030.

During the lockdown, the two-dimensional worlds of anime, comics, and gaming resonated deeply with Millennials and Gen Z in the region. Many found solace in the fantasy and escapism of their favorite anime shows from childhood and discovered new titles as a way to cope with pandemic anxiety. Japanese anime Attack on Titan recently became the first-ever non-English language series to earn the title of World’s Most In-Demand TV Show, according to Parrot Analytics. The wildly popular series is now extending its presence off-screen, with a hugely popular exhibition now happening in Singapore.

“Asian consumers are now also realizing that their countries are the most affected by current climate risks, and green consumption is beginning to correlate directly to economic development and progress across the region.”

This is also driving the rise in local popular culture for 2021, creating new visions and values for a post-pandemic world. The appeal of ACG (Anime, Comic, Gaming) content lies in its fantasy and escapism, which transcends mundane aspects of daily life and creates an exciting universe, providing ample opportunities for creative brand engagement and appealing to a wide range of fans.

Brands should tap into existing ACG communities to understand the emerging new tastes for visuals and interactions within online platforms, which can help brands stand out amid digital noise and cater to this growing group of consumers.

Collaborating with popular games and animations to situate products in larger-than-life scenarios helps to add flavor to brand communications by creating social appeal. Brands can also look into creating play-driven campaigns and drop limited brand extensions with collectibility in mind to appeal to the “kidults” interested in toys and collectibles.

Of the eight profiles, were there any in particular that you found interesting?

I find all eight shopper profiles very interesting and they really speak to the fast-evolving Asian consumer across many aspects. Each individual Asian consumer is probably a mix of more than a few of the profiles and won’t just solely belong to one profile. As the report covers a range of shopping trends and behaviors both online and offline, consumer sentiments would also span from the aspirational to the budget-conscious.

You have held content-related positions across several markets including, Japan, Taiwan, China, and the UK. How has working in a variety of markets shaped your approach to the work you do now?

Content is at the forefront of engaging and connecting with consumers today, and my previous work experience has really enabled me to understand how consumers create and consume content in different ways. For example, the way Japanese or UK users use Twitter is very different, and China has a completely unique digital ecosystem of its own.

There is also a growing trend of homegrown super apps in Asia such as Line, KakaoTalk, or Zalo, which is now becoming a staple in the everyday lives, and is further creating new and differing digital habits and behaviors across each the Asian market, that will eventually impact how brands can best connect with consumers online and through social channels.

“The unprecedented digital transformation driven by the pandemic is now offering a promising future for the region’s digital economy and growing creator class.”

All of the above has informed my current work, and I have adopted an ethnographic approach to understanding consumers – by doing the best I can to try and understand the lived experiences of consumers across different countries and markets as a starting point for my trend research.

Asia is an incredibly diverse region, yet the question that seems so often asked is what differentiates it. We are curious about your thoughts on the sometimes singular approach to “Asia” by the media and marketers?

The unprecedented digital transformation driven by the pandemic is now offering a promising future for the region’s digital economy and growing creator class. WGSN has been tracking a growing crop of local creators and talent informing popular culture in Asia with their creative pursuits. Asian musicians and local-relevant micro-influencers are a key cohort to watch, as the growing popularity of pan-Asian pop is providing new opportunities for brand endorsements that foster hyperlocal connections with a regional audience.

“Collaborating with popular games and animations to situate products in larger-than-life scenarios helps to add flavor to brand communications by creating social appeal.”

We always make a point to emphasize how the Asian community is geographically diverse, with varying preferences across the region. With this creative renaissance happening on the ground, it’s crucial for global brands to deep dive and understand emerging cultural trends via social media (social listening) and local-relevant digital platforms (e-comm/ content streaming consumer data).

Understanding and forming authentic partnerships with the local creative community is an effective strategy for brands and businesses to connect in a culturally relevant way. Brands can experiment with creative engagement by tapping into local memes, music, and pop culture to present themselves as early adopters, and help create new cultural narratives.

To truly resonate in the long term, brands would also need to ensure their campaigns and creative content are actively involving and supporting emerging local talent across Asia.

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