The World: Insider's View - Cambodia

Cambodia's youth are leading a national boom, and foreign brands can capitalise if they're bold enough.

A sultry midweek April afternoon in Phnom Penh. The electricity's out all over town, the Mekong River seems more sluggish than usual, and even the tuk tuk drivers have given up touting for business from puffing, bumbagged tourists.

But the distant boom I hear is not the sound of monsoon thunder approaching. It's some young bloke with a manga haircut blasting bass-heavy Khmer hip-hop from his family's phone shop two doors down.

From the mid-town balcony of our elegantly crumbling colonial pile, I watch a teenage monk stroll by, chatting on his mobile. It's a neat analogy for the way things are here.

With around 70 per cent of the population under 25, it's no surprise there's a hunger for new cool stuff: Cambodian young people, especially the city kids, are not so different from young people everywhere. Sure, there are no suburb-sized, air-conditioned malls stuffed with $100 sneakers, iPods, ironic T-shirts and complicated coffees.

But that's just a matter of a very short time. Though their family lives are still defined by the traditions of a 1,000-year-old empire, and by the decimation of the Khmer Rouge, young Cambodians also see foreign TV, watch pirated Hollywood and listen to J-pop and hip-hop. They hang out in internet cafes and nightclubs, wear jeans and fake Baby-Gs.

They crave an education and good jobs, and while Westerners in love with the image of the exotic and untouched may lament the onslaught of the Colonels and Ronalds, it's a supreme cultural arrogance that would deny this new generation the chance to improve their lot. The baby-boomers of the post-traumatic 90s are now heading towards middle-classdom, with mortgages and car loans just like the rest of us.

So any big foreign brand ambivalent about establishing a meaningful presence in Cambodia had better get its skates on. Yes, it's a small place: 14 million-plus, with 80 per cent living in rural areas. But every year more young people move to the city, bringing energy and expectation. Annual growth exceeds 9 per cent.

New apartment complexes and office blocks sprout across on the skyline. There's a third international airport under construction down in Sihanoukville. The place is booming, and while most global brands rely on distributors to get their product ad hoc to consumers, this can't last forever.

Be bold and tenacious and you can still be first and best-loved. Cellcard, the country's first and now largest telco, has better brand recognition than Nike. The new KFC is the talk of the town. Others will follow, but they'll have to make up ground with engaging, long-term strategies and creative communication that truly connect to a ready and waiting market.

- Marianne Waller is the country head and executive creative director at Ogilvy Action in Phnom Penh.

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