The diversity of Asia means there are certain things you must understand if you’re to deliver results that actually matter
I’ve been very fortunate to travel in my life. I haven’t ventured as far or as frequently as some, but I’ve seen enough to get perspective. I’ve holidayed in North America, Europe and Asia, but more importantly I’ve worked in Canada, Germany, England, Singapore, China and Thailand. I also lived in India for a short while. I feel blessed to have done this because I know it is an absolute privilege to experience such diversity in culture. It is a rich tapestry of humanity and it is amazing. Even more so, I understand it is a rarity afforded to few when you think globally. In business we just expect to get on a plane every few months. It’s not the case for the great majority of the rest of the world. So it is with this respect and appreciation I write this post.
As an Australian that has worked in the technology space for most of my career, I know that multinationals aren’t often born here. Actually, I’ve worked for Japanese, South African, and American companies to date and while each has a different go-to-market model, they’ve all had to grapple with the same challenge – how to tackle Asia. Why? Because most of the world’s population calls it home and it is growing faster still. Of the seven billion humans on the planet, 4.3 billion live in Asia. It means for businesses that get their approach right, the Asian region could be highly profitable. For those that get it wrong, it could be fatally expensive.
These four principles are what I believe are the most constructive ways to mitigate the risk of the markets in Asia while maximising the impact of your regional comms program. They are rather elementary, because truth be told, people study whole Degrees focused on getting this right, but these are practical learnings, rather than theories. Whether you work for an organisation from inside the region, or outside it, there are some fundamentals you simply must understand. To be clear, the success of your enterprise hinges on your communications strategy. I’ve seen lots of them, and these are the central tenants to the ones that work best.
Understand, Asia defines big: There are approximately 52 different countries in Asia, so you can’t treat it as one audience. I say approximately, because it depends on how you define Asia. There are lots of different views on this, suffice to say, it’s BIG. Regardless, the cultural nuances even within countries are abundant. The region is massive and teaming with variety. This means patience is a virtue. As a Comms Pro you know only too well that people have different ways they like to learn. Magnify that complexity by 1000 in Asia. The key to getting a regional comms program right in Asia is firstly to understand concepts and technologies develop and resonate at different paces, depending on the distinct market they are being positioned in. Consideration cycles therefore need to be mapped out before you do any other influencer canvassing in Asia.
There is no universal language: English may be the international business language, but… there are 2,197 languages spoken in Asia. English at some point needs to be translated, so you best get used to it, regardless of whether it has been mandated that your internal meetings be conducted in English. It is arrogant to think otherwise and this can be a tricky thing to get your head around. It’s unlikely you will be able to offer translation for everyone, but just because it’s a precarious obstacle doesn’t mean you give up. Singapore is often seen as the key to Asia, and most Western organisations will set up a regional office there. Making the most of the multi-lingual talent in hot beds like Singapore is important. Don’t be so foolish as to think people will adapt to you, regardless of how impressive your offering is. Asia is a self-sustaining economy in many ways. With the huge populations of India and China, they rarely need to bend for an outsider. Japan is also another interesting example. Unlike in “The West”, silence is an acceptable response in Japan. They aren’t encouraged to fill any void with words. So, understanding that people’s native tongue needs to be front and centre of your thinking, but also how they use this language is ultra-important. I’ve been on lots of awkward teleconferences where colleagues from countries outside Asia wait hopelessly for feedback on their presentations.
Telephones don’t work: Well, they do, but they don’t – not really. You still need to jump on a plane to spend face time with people in the Asian region. In my time living in India it became apparent quickly, like silence is an acceptable response in Japan, “no” is not an acceptable response in India. Culturally there is a tendency towards always saying “yes”, even when the opposite may in fact be true. It’s not a lie, so much as a position. Shame makes for an interesting dynamic in different parts of Asia and seeing the whites of some body’s eyes is more telling than a phone conversation. Comms Pros should think about best practice sharing of colleague’s strategies and tactics to be done in neutral, personal ways. Despite the best of intentions, linking teams throughout the region rarely works well when the conduit is the phone line. Video conferencing isn’t much better because it’s about the environment not the medium. This is what brings communication to life cross-culturally. It might be a little more expensive, but you need to factor in the cost of the message not getting across, as well as the understanding, ‘economies of knowledge’ work in much the same way as ‘economies of scale’, ie. there are value drivers to balance out the costs.
Priorities differ in the developing world: Communication is about motivation by its very nature. You try and initiate a response of some kind because that is what makes it two-way; even if it’s as simple as speaking and being heard. While the growth in Asia has somewhat slowed and matured in more recent times, it is still far and away a powerhouse for development. Knowing what this means is to understand that there are different motivating factors for people within the region. These motivations are sociological and political. One key way this manifests is through the relationship between the individual and the State. If Government Relations is not part of your program, you may as well be talking under water. Time and time again, organisations and comms pros seem to come unstuck because they don’t get this. Even the approach one would adopt is quite unique when communicating publically versus privately in Asia. It is quite different to programs that you might otherwise drive outside the region where lobbying on the back of criticising those in power is generally accepted. In Asia this approach is counter-intuitive. It’s just not how you get things done, even compared to Australia, which is often included in the Asia region. This is a contentious issue, especially as more digital companies expand into the region; and those businesses that have made their names from the free flow of unbridled information look set to face off with steely opposition. It’s a challenge not likely to die any time soon. Still… it makes for a great segway into my next Blog post: Pitfalls and tips for getting social right in Asia!