The future of business and consumerism in Asia, at a time of populism, polarisation, and post-truth presents an opportunity to build brands that are a force for good.
The business landscape today is an avalanche. Every day startups are launched, business models are re-invented, industries are disrupted, and hordes of products, campaigns, as well as brand messages are rolled out, all vying for consumers’ attention. As the pace of innovation accelerates, the pressure to stay ahead of the curve is higher than ever.
To complicate things further, throw into the mix the current state of markets and consumerism: one marked by populism, polarisation, and post-truth.
Populist and Post-truth Consumers
According to the Edelman Trust Barometer in 2017, trust in institutions (think government, businesses, media, and NGOs) are at an all-time low. Sixty-two per cent of people are worried about globalisation and what it entails—immigration and the ‘loss’ of jobs to foreigners, the erosion of local values and heritage, and more. Overall, 53 per cent think the ‘system’ is failing.
Real-world ramifications of these sentiments have also never been more felt at a global level. The events of 2016 left many reeling, most prominently Mr Donald Trump’s rise to the US presidential seat and the EXIT vote in the UK.
What about Asia, you wonder? The region has had its fair share of events as well. The election victory of hardliner President Duterte in the Philippines, bringing to the fore his extreme tactics against drugs. The impeachment scandal of ex-president Ms Park Geun-hye in South Korea was marked by one million-strong street protests.
In the business landscape, signs of protectionist sentiments and retreat from the global innovation race abound. In India, a ‘start up war’ is being waged as local players Ola and Flipkart demand the government take protectionist measures against foreign rivals such as Uber and Amazon. Meanwhile closer to home, the Sing-apore government just passed a law making Airbnb and other similar platforms officially illegal.
For businesses, the biggest question remains the same: how to stay ahead of this changing landscape? What’s the future of business and consumerism in this era? How to continue serving consumers in 2017 and beyond?
The answer in a nutshell: the future still belongs to those who believe in progress. And progress comes via innovations.
The key to staying ahead is to create innovations that resonate with consumers. This comes from tracking emerging customer expectations and innovating to meet and surpass those expectations.
Businesses traditionally do this through several ways, but all share the same concept: looking at consumers. Many rely on conventional market research such as surveys and focus groups. The biggest problem? Consumers don’t know what they want. Their answers in a questionnaire and their real purchase behaviours are usually poles apart.
Another alternative is field studies and days spent observing and analysing consumer behaviour. However, these studies require a lot of time and resources—assets that many businesses cannot afford to spare in the relentless race for progress.
So marketers turn to big data and hard numbers. And there is richer consumer data collected today than ever before. This plays a big part in advising business decisions. But when it comes to innovation, data merely informs, it does not inspire.
Trend-driven innovation, however, is a fresh way to approach the age-old subject of innovations: stop looking at consumers and start watching businesses instead.
Every day, innovations—new products, services, campaigns, and business models are being launched into the market. Each one signals a future direction of travel for customer expectations. So take these and ask the question: what does this innovation say about consumers and what they will want next?
In that vein, to understand what 2017’s angry, distrusting, polarised, and change-demanding consumers want, look towards all the best-in-class consumer-facing innovations today. These point out the emerging customer expectations that businesses should innovate around. And patterns in these emerging expectations tell us that amid all the change and uncertainly, a set of core consumer truths is still as relevant as ever.
The Future is Still Empowerment
One of the most prominent truths in Asia is empowerment. Why empowerment? Institutions in Asia are historically notorious for being untrustworthy and non-reliable, but connectivity is supercharging a new wave of citizen networks, enabling individuals to participate in realising the systems they want to see.
This is fuelled by the emergence of disruptors and innovators—from unconventional government figures to visionary start-up founders—who have inspired a fresh wave of trust in the populace that change is possible.
So individuals are leveraging the availability of transparent and timely information to make informed decisions and affect significant change. People are using social networks to connect with peers in their extended network to create shared value. The result? Power is flowing out of gated institutions and into the hands of many connected individuals.
Indonesia-based startup Code4Nation developed Kawal Pilkada, a mobile app that empowered individual citizens to bring crowdsourced transparency to Jakarta’s local elections in February 2017. On voting day, people could sign up to police the vote counting at their local polling station and upload photos of the final result. The collected data was processed, verified, and displayed in real time, allowing citizens to compare reported results with actual votes.
Meanwhile in India, CashNoCash is a crowdsourced online portal that tells people whether a nearby bank or ATM has cash available to dispense. Individuals could contribute information on cash availability and queue conditions and waiting times for each ATM. The app was developed in response to the demonetisation policy in India.
Such innovations around individual empowerment also extend to the business landscape. In November 2016, South Korean beauty E-commerce platform Peach & Lily empowered customers to have a tangible say in its products. The brand developed a line of sheet masks based on input from its community via E-mail, surveys, and social platforms like Instagram in order to match the sheet mask wish-list of its customers.
The truth is that empowerment might be old news, but there are countless exciting ways to innovate around it. Consumers’ expectations around how businesses should serve them in better, more efficient, and more meaningful ways are accelerating.
Remember that trends travel and expectations transfer. When consumers see beauty brands developing products based on crowdsourced consumer input, they will start wondering why your brand doesn’t listen to them in the same way, or why your offerings aren’t tailored to their needs.
The lesson here? It does not matter if a business sells potato chips or construction materials, customer expectations about what brands and businesses should stand for will change (if they haven’t already). So start today to build a future where brands are a force for good—exceeding expectations, creating value, and ultimately empowering consumers to realise better lives for billions in the Asian consumer societies.
Copyright © 2017 Singapore Institute of Management