Advertising in Emerging Markets: Lessons For Global Brands on the Tightrope of Risk

My peripatetic upbringing, moving around Asia and Africa every year, clearly rubbed off on me professionally. I am not as Asian as the continent I was born into, nor as British as the boarding schools I went to, nor as American as my parents, nor as African as the people I employ today. I belong nowhere. 

Yet I am incredibly interested in everywhere. So, it is probably of little surprise to those who know me best that I ended up accidentally founding a branding and advertising agency that helps globally-aspiring brands achieve a foothold in the high growth, emerging markets of my childhood.

The World Bank forecasts that Africa, Latin America, Middle East and Asia will drive global growth in 2018 with 5.4% expansion, outstripping predicted growth in the US and Eurozone at 2.1% and 1.7% respectively. Despite this opportunity, many American and European brands find it hard to break through in bleeding edge emerging markets and many of their global advertising agencies are yet to get serious about providing world class creative and strategy in such markets.

The World Bank forecasts that Africa, Latin America, Middle East and Asia will drive global growth in 2018 with 5.4% expansion, outstripping predicted growth in the US and Eurozone at 2.1% and 1.7% respectively.

Africa offers marketers potential access not only to the next billion consumers, but to the last billion consumers. Epic, continental, growth will never happen again once brands have conquered Africa. McKinsey predicts that the value of Africa as a market will increase in value to $400bn by 2020. So, the opportunity for western companies to seed their brands in new and fertile soil is huge.

But so is the opportunity for companies in emerging markets to take their brands beyond borders. Look at most lists of top 100 global brands today and you will see that 90% of the world’s most valuable brands are Western. Of the 10% that are non-Western, all are East Asian, mostly Japanese and Chinese. Whilst a handful of Japanese brands have been in on the various lists for many years, the Chinese brands are recent additions and gaining ground each year. But what will it take for an Indian, Indonesian, Rwandan or Kuwaiti brand to make it into the top 100?

Look at most lists of top 100 global brands today and you will see that 90% of the world’s most valuable brands are Western.

The era of American corporate and global brand dominance is coming under fire from exciting new companies with their origins in the East. So far China and India, so reliant on their own vast domestic markets, have been poor at exporting their brands. But the Middle East, with its investment in technology, tourism, real estate, destination brands and gold standard airlines, feels poised to begin exporting world class brands. Africa is hothousing many increasingly pan-African brands some of which, I believe, will become successful global players in the next decade. South East Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe are already creating brands that are becoming household names around the world.

Yet the barriers to entry for Western agencies looking to do serious business in some of these markets are considerable. Fear and ignorance, sadly, top the list. Some people in London and New York are afraid of the world. I was sitting recently with an ex-Goldman Sachs banker who, upon hearing my strategy for going into ‘bleeding edge’ emerging markets, asked how many years of risk assessment I undertook before setting up in a market. I fell off my chair laughing. If she could only have seen us taking laptops out of boxes in a serviced office and hiring a team and starting work within five days of being awarded a contract in Bahrain. And Muscat. And Juba, in the midst of the civil war. Yes, we evacuated the office twice. But we didn’t hesitate to set it up in the first place. There are benefits to working for oneself. I could never have got WPP to sign off on my trip to Baghdad outside of the Green Zone. Although, if I had been working for a big agency I probably would have had a PA who would not have let me forget to take my visa with me to Iraq (but that’s a whole other story). Since our inception, we have donned our hijabs and worked in Saudi, been in car crashes in Chad, gone to work on the back of pickup trucks with goats in Arusha, Tanzania, had people set fire to our film sets in South Sudan, conducted research in the slums of Nairobi, been shot at in Beirut, drunk super premium rums in Hong Kong, and done our very best to gain a little cultural understanding along the way.

Not everyone in an office in London or Paris or Columbus, Ohio is culturally curious. Yet, much to the annoyance of many clients in emerging markets, most are happy to pontificate about their branding expertise. The Kenyans laugh, bitterly, about the “Great White Saviours” who fly in and tell the Africans that only they can build a brand for them. Then they go back to their studios in Soho and churn out wildly culturally-inappropriate ads at inflated prices.

The next ten years will mark the last great expansion of brands into the least known corners of the world.

None of us really understand other cultures until we inhabit them for a bit. At Seven, we try to know that about ourselves and ask questions and learn and set up local teams who can advise us not to put bikini-clad women drinking cocktails with their pet Chihuahua into ads for Saudi Arabia. My team are all amateur anthropologists. We are incredibly interested to learn how differently youth order booze in bars in Dar Es Salam (they order bottles of spirits for the table rather than drinks for the individual), how banks are designed around the uber rich in Singapore (with waiting areas for the servants), how billboard ads are designed not to offend conservative women in Saudi (the models don’t make direct eye contact with the viewer in case she is female) and where rich people in the capital of Angola go for dinner on a Saturday night (Johannesburg, South Africa… there is nowhere for them to spend their diamond wealth in Luanda).

With increasing regional transparency, stability and democracy helping these countries emerge, the need for super smart branding and advertising that understands how different consumers are around the world has never been greater. The next ten years will mark the last great expansion of brands into the least known corners of the world. And it will see brands emerging from the most unexpected places. And Seven hopes to play a useful part in all of this, helping our global clients connect with local consumers, helping local brands go global and helping me spend time where I feel most at home… everywhere.

Jasmine Montgomery

Jasmine Montgomery

CEO & Founder at Seven Brands
Jasmine Montgomery
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