Asia: Bird’s-eye view

SAMIR MARDOLKER describes a few unique characteristics of some South East Asian markets to gain an understanding of the Asian consumer.

believe the hoo-ha created around the complexity of Asian markets due to differences in culture, language etc. is legit to an extent. However, I believe there is merit in exploring a simpler view; one that highlights a few unique characteristics of each market and allows us to get a basic understanding of the Asian consumer.

Most strategists who I have discussed this idea of ‘unique market characteristics’ have not been excited about it. As they explained, “Clarity for the sake of it i.e. without the depth of understanding that Asia needs, is of no use”. I disagree – there is merit in a simpler explanation of what makes an Indian an Indian, Chinese a Chinese, a Thai a Thai and so on. Such an understanding provides a simple starting point for brands to begin the journey to navigate the region. If already present in the region, it ensures that their repositioning and touch point experiences sync up with what the essence of each market is.

So here is my take on each market basis work done here and chats with insights and strategy professionals. Of course, open to your comments. Just hope that there is nothing below that anyone takes any offense to as that was never my intent.

Singapore: One interesting observation about Singapore is how our national anthem talks about progress and growth. This theme in the anthem stands out versus all other national anthems in Asia which largely glorify the history of that nation and/or the culture. Perhaps it is not surprising that progress and growth often manifest in Singaporeans as a desire to get the best of everything. You may hear of this as the ‘kiasu’ attitude (fearing of losing out) but it is less about the fear of losing, I believe, and more about winning on all fronts.

Implication: Doing business here, by far, is most challenging with clients, customers and consumers having high expectations and tough Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). If you want to dismiss us as a small market, think again – as we are probably what the rest of South East Asia will morph into at least in the service/tech sector. Therefore, learning to succeed in Singapore is what will help you keep your competitive edge in Asia.

India: The omnipresence of chaos, constraint on resources and the difficult living conditions most people face, keeps being resourceful a survival need. The resourcefulness results in Jugaad (, the survival instinct gives rise to a Chalta hai (let us live with it) attitude and together they result in a different type of demanding market – one that has absolute disregard for process and discipline and believes and expects that everything is possible.

Implications: Businesses need to acknowledge this aspect about India and enable customisation in their value proposition. A one size fits all service may not succeed. Service propositions which particularly thrive on Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are likely to fail in a country which struggles with people genuinely believing that even societal rules/regulations/process can be broken if the situation demands and that anything is possible.

Philippines: One outstanding trait of Filipinos is their friendliness – big smiles, welcoming personalities, and constant desire to be of service. Any foreigner meeting a Filipino can be assured of this warmth, and any local too anywhere in the world – it is the kababayan (fellow countryman) spirit. Such friendliness probably translates to deep empathy for a situation or a person. They are happy to follow the law if that is what it takes and they will happily bend the rules (if it can go unnoticed) to accommodate a friend. Another aspect of Filipino’s is Bahala na meaning ‘come what may or leave it to God’, a lightly fatalistic attitude which is good in a way but may also result in a perceived lack of sense of urgency.

Implications: Being friendly and warm coupled with good command over English (on average versus other nationalities in the region), makes Filipinos a talent asset in delivering service value propositions. Notably, as customers, the Bahala na does not necessarily make them more ‘accepting’ of service lapses – rather, they might just smile and walk away from you if you fail to delight in your service offer.

Thailand: Sabai (being comfortable), mai pen rai (don’t worry, be happy) are guiding principles of Thai consumers. Thais greatly value sanuk, the idea of having a good time for its own sake. All this manifests as being non-confrontational. So it will be very unusual for a Thai to argue with you or express his/her discontent. They would either ‘let it go’ quickly or if it continues to manifest, they would walk away and you will never know why.

Implications: Notice the subtle difference here between the Filipinos who you may find also walks away from a bad service experience versus challenging the same. This may be driven by their subconscious acceptance that the ‘service experience gap’ they feel is at least partly on account of their own initial over-enthusiastic sign up for the service – having an inflated view of what it would do given all the warmth and friendless lens they bring to every interaction. The Thais walk away because confrontation is simply not in their genes.

Korea: One of the biggest inconveniences Koreans experience after going abroad is the waiting time when getting served. Be it dealing with public service institutions or any other process, speed is of essence and Koreans greatly value ‘action’. They need to see agility and optimal processing time. Another unique characteristic of the market can be expressed as Jeong to be interpreted as ‘warm and intimate feeling’. This is not just limited to relationships with family or close friends; it refers to unconditional favours to even those who you may not be close to. It means being a helping heart.

Implications: International service brands have to constantly review their processes and strive to be efficient. Front line staff needs to proactively find opportunities to show warmth. The former can be enabled with technology while the latter perhaps still requires human intervention. A successful Korean service delivery can be a great model for the rest of the world to understand how to strike a right balance between AI/tech enabled delivery and human intervention. More on this here:

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