The World: Insider's View - Asia

Exporting ads based on Western thought ignores the fact that Asians are reading them with a different mindset, Charles Wigley argues.

This isn't a current issue, but it is a prediction of one.

If you look around the world, there is a remarkable homogeneity to the way advertising strategy and creative is developed.

Of course, ads often bear the hallmarks of national quirks - the French love of breasts, the German fetish for showing the nuts and bolts of a product, the Thai penchant for wackiness - but the fundamental building blocks remain the same.

Just as you can spot an advertising creative in a bar at 20 yards almost anywhere in the world, you can also be sure the agency at which he or she works talks about the primacy of the idea, the importance of focus, disrupting the category, 360 -degree communication planning etc.

The only real exception to this is Japan, where creatives often start their thinking from the setting and casting of the ad and then work backwards to the idea. But the Japanese are always dismissed with the vague implication that they are (a) too weird for words and (b) likely to have to change soon to keep up.

The question you may be asking at this stage is whether any of this actually matters. And here is where I'm going to go out on a limb with my prediction and say yes, it does.

The issue is this: the majority of marketing thinking derives from the US (and, to a lesser extent, Northern Europe - specifically the UK). It has been exported to the world by multinational clients and their accompanying agencies.

The cultures that developed this thinking are, however, very different from the cultures in Asia where it is being applied.

The US and the UK are individual-istic in nature, whereas Asian societies are collectivist. Western thinking derives its approach to the world from Greek philosophy and its penchant for categorisation and abstraction, while Eastern thinking has its origins in the pragmatic, down-to-earth social survival kit of Confucianism and a language - for the Chinese, at least - that singularly fails to categorise and simplify.

The impact of these factors on how Asians relate to brands and read ads is significant. Evidence suggests that the group orientation of Asian society leads to adoption curves that are slower to get in and quicker to catch up. Asians also have a greater ability than Westerners to read subtle social cues in communications, and have an interest in decoding abstract concepts.

Such issues are only now being recognised by practitioners. The academics got there years ago but, unfortunately for our industry, not many people listen to academics.

None of this will mean the end of multinational marketing or the powerful glue that global brand ideas provide. It does, however, suggest real change in how these ideas are developed and brought to life in Asia.

- Charles Wigley is the chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty Asia-Pacific.