International media brands have much to celebrate in Asia. Two recent audience studies show that circulation and audience figures are growing and that the region's elite are finding the content purveyed by the likes of CNN, the BBC, Reader's Digest and Time is far more relevant and trustworthy than that provided by the local media.
The PAX (Pan Asia-Pacific Cross-Media) survey has charted a long-term growth trend for international media in Asia over the past ten years.
As Steve Garton, the director of media research for Asia-Pacific at Synovate, the company behind PAX, says: "Asia has come an awful long way in the past decade. PAX shows things have never been better."
The survey's most recent results report CNN as the television channel with the highest reach among the most affluent audience tier, closely followed by Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel. BBC World's audience figures climbed by 34 per cent year on year.
Print brands are performing equally well. The total audience reach of Reader's Digest tops the print brand survey, with 17.1 per cent, but this is split between the English-language, Chinese, Thai and Korean editions.
Just behind the English-language Reader's Digest were Time magazine and Newsweek.
On the back of this news comes data showing that average monthly incomes are rising and that consumer confidence appears to be returning to the continent. For example, total household incomes soared by more than $78.2 billion in the year to the second quarter of 2005, to top $1 trillion.
Estimates from Media Partners Asia suggest that the region's advertising market grew by 5 per cent in the past year, from $66.4 billion in 2004 to $69.5 billion this year.
The first Synovate Media Brand Values Asia survey, launched in October, gave a new twist to the plethora of data on Asian media consumption.Following on from the first European survey of its kind last year, the Asian survey examines the relationships between media and audiences. It reveals international and pan-regional media provide an environment for advertisers that performs well against local media across a range of qualitative measures such as being a source viewers and readers quote or refer to, or having too much irrelevant advertising.
One of the most important findings of the survey, Garton says, is the level of trust readers and viewers place in each medium. Respondents rated regional TV channels such as BBC World and Zee TV as far more trustworthy than local channels, with 71 per placing their trust in regional TV, compared with only 43 per cent who said they trusted local TV.
Garton says: "There is a lot of evidence to suggest that if there is a great deal of trust in the medium, the advertising is likely to have a greater impact and resonance with the audience."
In print, pan-regional publications such as Newsweek, Time and The Economist scored 59 per cent, compared with local print at 54 per cent - only slightly behind.
Seventy-two per cent of affluent Asians also describe regional TV as "enjoyable to watch", compared with 46 per cent for local TV, and only 42 per cent say local TV "has high-quality reporting", compared with 71 per cent for pan-regional TV.
Another important factor for business decision-maker audiences is whether or not they feel TV keeps them "ahead of the game". Pan-regional channels score 66 per cent, local TV languishes on 32 per cent.
The study also raises an interesting question: is there such a thing as the "Asian consumer"? While consumers obviously vary hugely across regions as diverse as India, China and Thailand, this study points to the emergence of a pan-Asian elite class.
Members of this class might be based in different markets, speak different languages, eat different food, follow different religions and live in differing political and cultural systems, but they share a few core values and attributes.
Avinash Himatsinghani, the National Geographic Channel Asia vice-president of advertising sales and partnerships, says: "Asia is very diverse in perspective and culture. Geographically, yes, there is such a thing as the 'Asian consumer', but psychographically that person is very difficult to define. However, if you put 'affluence' and 'business decision-maker' into the filter, you are predominantly talking to the same person."
Lyn Rogers, the Carat regional business director, agrees that pan-regional campaigns are possible within this limitation. "You are able to talk to Asians as a generic group if you are targeting a specific audience. It tends to work best when targeting senior executives and business leaders," she says. "They share common denominators that link to a particular mindset, such as their level of education and the fact they are well-travelled and consume pan-regional media regularly."
Will Swayne, also a regional business director at Carat, says the huge cultural differences between markets are highlighted when straying from this particular audience segment. He cites the example of Adidas, a Carat client in 13 Asian countries.
"The core target audience (for Adidas) is 12-year-olds," Swayne says.
"But there are huge differences between 12-year-olds in Australia and in Korea or Japan. The similarities are the fact that they are cool kids, into sport, like hanging out with friends and have an affinity with the brand. But in Japan and Korea, children spend a lot of time studying, compared with children in Australasia, who spend more time playing sport."
MindShare's global 3D study, which covered ten markets in Asia, drew similar conclusions. After five years of research into 6,000 brands, taking in the thoughts and feelings of 80,000 people and researching more than 150 media, the project identified some broad trends across the region and released the results in March this year.
While the report concedes that a "broad brush" approach to the entire Asian market is likely to fail, the allure of modernity is a trend worth noting. So too is a new-found Asian pride and confidence, illustrated by the emergence of Tokyo, Shanghai and Seoul as international capitals of style. Indeed, from a youth market perspective, Japan has a major influence on pop aesthetics and is seen as the trend leader. But this is still counterbalanced by the credibility of being Western - a Western stamp of approval is still seen as a symbol of acceptance.
Annette Nazaroff, the MindShare Consumer Insights director, says: "The region is going through dynamic and rapid change. Technological innovation, combined with the proliferation of media choices, is having a dramatic impact on the way communications are received, digested and acted upon. In addition, brands have transformed. People don't select brands only on brand performance any more, but make their choices increasingly on the basis of affinity, meaning and experience."
As an example of how important an understanding of cultural sensitivities can be within each market, MindShare's data revealed that Muslim women in Malaysia wanted to feel good about themselves while wearing head-dresses for religious reasons.
Nazaroff says: "When we uncovered this insight, we shared it with a shampoo manufacturer, which recognised the opportunity and developed a special shampoo and marketing campaign to appeal to Muslim women - it is now one of the shampoos of choice for Muslim women."
The danger of using a blanket approach across so many markets of such diversity was most recently demonstrated by Nike's global TV campaign starring the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball hero LeBron James.
Nike's "chamber of fear" ad showed James battling a cartoon kung-fu master, two women in traditional Chinese costume and a pair of dragons, and defeating all of them in turn.
This was a major faux pas among Chinese audiences. Dragons are considered a sacred symbol in Chinese culture, so the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television banned the ad on the grounds that it "violates regulations that mandate that all advertisements in China should uphold national dignity and interest and respect for the motherland's culture", according to its website.
But the pros and cons of local versus regional campaigns are explained by the Time Asia publishing director, Alan Lammin. He says: "Pan-Asian campaigns are highly effective when bringing across a brand's overall message and values, especially in targeting higher-demographic decision-makers and elite consumers across the region. English is the unifying principle and guarantees that an advertiser's message is being filtered for a suitable audience."
A pan-Asian campaign is only effective when targeting elite, affluent audiences, but for lower-demographic audiences advertisers require a different approach.
"Tactically, you still need to think nationally to target middle-management and mass consumers," the MEC Global Solutions managing partner, Connie Chan, says.
The advice from media owners and media agencies is despite Asia's huge population, a mass-market approach is not the best strategy for all brands.
And, although culturally and economically Asia is often regarded as vastly different from Europe and the US, some regional centres such as Hong Kong and Singapore resemble London and New York far more in terms of income and technological advancement than they do Beijing or Jakarta.
Himatsinghani says: "Don't get carried away by the sheer numbers of audiences available in Asia. It's more important to understand your core audience. If your audience is affluent and only represents 2 per cent of the population in Hong Kong, for example, it is safe to assume the percentage in India will also be low. But if you are mass-market, then you need to understand local markets first."
ASIA'S TOP PUBLICATIONS RANKED BY REACH Title Total business Senior audience executives % % Reader's Digest* 12.4 17.1 Reader's Digest English 7.5 10.6 Time 5.7 9.3 Newsweek* 3.9 8.7 National Geographic 6.3 8.1 BusinessWeek 2.7 6.0 The Economist 1.9 5.2 The Wall Street Journal Asia 1.0 3.9 Financial Times 1.5 3.8 Business Traveller 1.6 3.6 Fortune 1.5 3.6 Reader's Digest Chinese 3.1 3.1 Forbes 0.9 2.3 Yazhou Zhoukan 1.3 2.1 Asiamoney 0.7 2.1 CFO Asia 0.5 2.0 International Herald Tribune 0.7 1.5 USA Today 0.6 1.0 Asia Inc. 0.4 0.7 Source: PAX Q3 2004 to Q2 2005. Notes: Average issue readership. Ten markets total (Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Taipei, Jakarta, Manila, India, Seoul and Sydney). Total sample universe = 8,653,000 (sample size = 18,453). Top management universe = 372,000 (sample size = 5,980) *All Asian editions. TV CHANNELS RANKED BY REACH Title Total business Senior audience executives % % CNN 17.6 23.5 Discovery Channel 20.7 19.6 National Geographic Channel 15.0 14.7 ESPN 10.7 12.3 BBC World 9.5 12.1 CNBC 6.2 10.7 Star Movies 10.5 9.8 Star Sports 9.5 9.7 MTV 11.9 8.2 Animal Planet 8.3 6.8 Discovery Travel & Living 7.1 6.1 AXN Asia 6.4 5.0 Star World 5.3 4.5 Channel NewsAsia 3.9 3.7 Channel (V) 4.6 3.5 Bloomberg Television 2.0 3.4 Hallmark Channel 3.3 2.9 Phoenix Chinese Channel 3.1 2.3 Sport-i ESPN 1.2 0.8 Channel (V) International 0.6 0.3 Source: PAX Q3 2004 to Q2 2005. Notes: Past seven days viewership. Eleven markets total (Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Taipei, Jakarta, Manila, India, Seoul, Sydney, Tokyo) Total sample universe = 13,455,000 (sample size = 19,915) Top management universe = 676,000 (sample size = 6,520)