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    Q&A: Gareth Richardson – Western Brands No Longer Have an Easy Ride in Asia

    Q&A: Gareth Richardson – Western Brands No Longer Have an Easy Ride in Asia

    Richardson is the Group CEO and one of the founders of Sedgwick Richardson.

    By The Staff - Nov 24, 2020

    We recently caught up Gareth Richardson, Group CEO and one of the founders of Sedgwick Richardson, to discuss agency life during the pandemic, the development of Asian brands, and the outlook of things ahead.

    Richardson leads the development of strategy from his office in Hong Kong. His long career has seen him work with globally recognized brands across a wide range of sectors from aerospace to financial services and technology.


    What’s been keeping you busy lately?

    Recruitment! The pandemic slowed our clients down over the summer but Asia is leading the economic recovery.

    We’re seeing increased demand, especially in our sustainability practice. We’re looking for people who share our belief that brands can create differentiation built on sustainable, regenerative business practices, products, and services.

    What’s your strategy for the growth of Sedgwick Richardson heading into the new decade?

    We plan to continue to grow our Asian network to serve regional clients. We have an established reputation in corporate branding and are now looking to grow our consumer brand portfolio. Consumer brands have the greatest potential to benefit from and contribute to sustainability due to the scale of their environmental footprint and supply chains.

    We are also looking to serve global brands in the region. This is something we have been doing quietly for the past 30 years from our hubs in Hong Kong and Singapore. As we grow we aim to offer a truly pan-Asian capability to contextualize brands for local markets.

    With more and more marketers looking for holding company “solutions,” what is SR doing to address this trend?

    We’re not focused on what the holding companies are doing, although we do see consolidation and integration of service offerings which is interesting. Our clients value our integrated capabilities and these include sustainability consulting and branding.

    “As we grow we aim to offer a truly pan-Asian capability to contextualize brands for local markets.”

    Traditionally, clients have looked for scale and security in their agency appointments, especially during times of crisis. Over our 35 years, we’ve endured several global and Asian crises. What feels different this time is the emergence of collaborative ecosystems. Being independent we can take advantage of this to offer our clients ‘best-in-class’ complementary services while playing the role of brand guardians.

    A great example is digital branding for banks, real estate players, and telcos. Driven by digital transformation, these complex assignments require digital branding solutions to be realized across multiple environments: virtual and tangible. This requires collaboration with diverse, specialist service providers from around the region.

    You previously wrote that “branding is essentially a western-originated concept that has taken time to be embraced by Asian CEOs”. Talk more about that and where you see the trend heading in terms of more brand-centric approach in the region.

    Industrialization gave western economies a great advantage and spawned the growth of branding along with ‘brand colonization’ of the East. Asian consumers were hungry to associate with western brands with their assurance of quality. Asian businesses traditionally focused on short term profits over making an investment in a sustainable, differentiated brand positioning.

    Today, more Asian brands are realizing they can create a competitive advantage by finding shared beliefs and defining a brand purpose that transcends borders and cultures at a deep level.

    Western brands no longer have an easy ride and often misunderstand local markets. Many have made missteps—for example using humor in marketing that perplexes rather than amuses. International brands need to understand the sensibilities of the local market. Products and services need to be tailored—sometimes literally in the case of clothing—to meet local consumer sizes, needs, tastes, and behaviors.

    “Western brands no longer have an easy ride and often misunderstand local markets. Many have made missteps—for example using humor in marketing that perplexes rather than amuses.”

    In China, there’s no access to Google and Facebook but consumers are immersed in WeChat. This is a playground where western brands have no inherent advantage. In fact, many Chinese consumers don’t know or much care about where the brand originated (save for a few specific categories such as Infant Milk Powder).

    In western culture individuals are heroes and this is reflected in the approach to brand storytelling. However, in Asia, the culture is more collectivist and storytelling celebrates multiple heroes. Asian brands should celebrate their cultural values. Examples include brands built on traditional values of Asian hospitality, such as Mandarin Oriental.

    There’s a paradox though. Asian culture is collectivist and yet Asian businesses are very hierarchical. There’s often a significant power gap between the C-suite and the frontline staff. This makes branding more challenging to implement even when its value is properly understood by the leadership.

    These cultural differences between East and West can be seen playing out in the response to the pandemic. In Asia, people have taken to wearing masks as a matter of community commitment, combined (in most cases) with high levels of trust in government. Contrast this to the US where the ‘freedom’ of the individual to choose is proving lethal. The West has much to learn from Asia!

    The tragic spread of the Coronavirus is top of mind for people across the globe. What advice do you have for CMOs in the Chinese market dealing with the effect it has on the China brand in the mind of global consumers?

    President Trump may have branded Covid-19 as the “China virus” but this is increasingly being seen as a cover for an inept US response to the pandemic. The reality is that Covid-19 is a warning that worse will come if we don’t mend our ways.

    “Today, more Asian brands are realizing they can create a competitive advantage by finding shared beliefs and defining a brand purpose that transcends borders and cultures at a deep level.”

    Any pandemic requires a globally coordinated response. ‘Build back better’ captures the opportunity in front of us, but ‘Build back together’ is what is needed for this to be meaningful. This requires a deep understanding of the interconnectivity of both human and planetary health. In an age of science, secularism, and scarcity we need a worthy shared goal for humanity to aspire to.

    Meanwhile (!), the advice to CMOs in China is to ensure the brand has a robust sustainability strategy, then stay true to authentic brand values, continue to invest in your brand, and keep an eye on the long term. Where your intention (purpose) and attention (strategy) are—you and your customers will go.

    Along with Greater China, you also oversee Southeast Asia. What are some trends in the region you are most excited about?

    The increasing influence of women in the economy and commerce! There’s a way to go yet but this is a new frontier that brands need to be prepared for. The cultural shift will be driven by a greater share of wealth, purchasing power, and decision making being in the hands of women.

    Looking at the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the results from Project Drawdown it becomes apparent that education—in particular of girls and young women—is the key to unlocking several of these interconnected goals. So progress here is good news for everyone.

    What is some recent work by your agency that you are most proud of?

    As Vietnam moves up the value creation chain to attract higher-value industries and economic activities, we are helping clients to transform in parallel. Becamex, for example, is transforming from a builder of industrial parks towards more sophisticated industrial and urban infrastructure such as integrated smart city developments. The Becamex brand has also been transformed to position Becamex as a modern and international player and made future-fit for digital applications.

    In Hong Kong, we’ve been working with Peak Re since their inception as a bold new reinsurer—Hong Kong’s largest-ever start-up. Recently we’ve worked with them to update their digital branding, creating a contemporary digital brand system and content strategy.

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