The World: Insider's View - Hong Kong

Marketers would do well to take note of the increasingly independent voice of Hong Kong's seven million inhabitants, Neil Cotton says.

Marketers who think of Hong Kong and mainland China's consumers as placid Confucian collectivists would do well to take note of Hong Kong's ongoing "Silk Revolution" and ponder marketing to people with an increasingly independent and demanding mindset.

Hong Kong people are nothing if not resilient. In the past ten years, they have weathered the Asian financial crisis; the handover to China; Sars and the threat of avian flu; and are today living in the shadow of the world's biggest market. All this with little fuss or bluster; like the Energizer Bunny, Hong Kong's seven million people just keep going.

Little fuss or bluster, that is, with one exception: their demand for greater freedom and democracy.

Long heralded as the world's most open market, Hong Kong's record on political freedoms has been less impressive. Today, the much-heralded "one country, two systems" approach adopted by Beijing before the 1997 handover is showing some cracks.

Two-and-a-half years ago, in an unprecedented show of public defiance, half-a-million normally orderly and un-revolutionary Hong Kong folks - many of them middle-class families - took to the city's streets to demonstrate against Article 23 - a sort of shorter, milder version of George Bush's Patriot Act.

Taking the administration, and its now "early retired" patriarch and chief executive Tung Chee Hwa, greatly by surprise, the public show of force succeeded in shelving the controversial bill and saw the city's leader summoned to Beijing for a fireside chat with his boss.

But it didn't stop there; the 1 July demonstration has been repeated annually, sprouting a further demonstration in December last year to demand the right to universal and equal suffrage.

So what does all this have to do with us marketers and, more importantly, you folks back in the West? Maybe I'm wrong to read too much into a demonstration where half-a-million Hong Kong people stand around in 90-degree heat and 90 per cent humidity for hours on end to fight for democracy, but I don't think so. This newfound voice and confidence is, I believe, a strong leading indicator of the fundamental changes in consumer power that are going on here and across Asia.

Marketers who spot this and begin to figure it into their thinking will likely do better than those who don't; and doing better in an extended market of 1.3 billion consumers would seem to be kind of important.

If social changes of this magnitude sound like an interesting opportunity, hop on a plane and come see what's happening in Hong Kong and across the rest of Asia.

- Neil Cotton is the head of strategy for Asia and the deputy managing director for North Asia at Lowe Worldwide.

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