by Jon Wade
November 5th, 2014

A large proportion of my working life is taken up by consulting with Western multinational clients to help them expand their operations into the Asia-Pacific region. For most of these clients, this is an exciting but nerve-wracking endeavor.

Brands that are tried and tested in the West often require some adaptation to make them work in the Asian melting pot of cultures, politics, and languages. That brand adaptation can take a lot of justification and evidence collection, to be able to convince the powers-that-be back in the headquarters in Europe or North America for the need for change. That justification is costly and time-consuming.

A case in point, Red Bull, looks and feels very different in China and some parts of Southeast Asia than it does in the West. Bling clearly works for Red Bull in China!

With a brand as well-known as Red Bull in the West, it was a brave (and confident) brand director that decided to depart so radically from the original brand to bring the drink to Asia in this form. I don’t work on this brand, but I can only imagine the large mounts of market research that would have been commissioned to justify such a shift, with focus group upon focus group being used to test out different packaging, logo designs, taglines, and, I would guess, taste of the beverage itself.

Some brands can afford this, some definitely cannot.

Third Time Lucky

For those that can’t or won’t spend the time or money, then digital communications can provide a ready-made test audience without delaying the commencement of actively marketing a brand. Digital communications provide the ability to test and learn on the fly.

That is to say, you don’t need to lock down the exact tagline or logo design or key message or whatever it is that you want to communicate before you go to market, unlike advertising or traditional public relations. Brands are not going to commit something indelibly to print, or onto film or on the side of a can of Red Bull at great expense.

What they can do is to change the RGB settings of a few pixels here and there on their online marketing assets. These can very easily be changed again if they prove to be unsuccessful, instantaneously, to some other configuration at the press of a button on a computer keyboard.

This freedom of creation and amendment allows brands to conduct a real-time experiment with their target audience by showing different asset variations to different audiences at different times. Importantly, the channel also then allows them to measure which variants drive results for the brand very easily. This in turn means that getting it right the first time isn’t essential. Second or third time lucky is a perfectly legitimate strategy in digital marketing.

Now, of course, there will always be some evidence that a test has been conducted. Someone somewhere will take a screen-grab of your website or Facebook post or whatever it was that was being tested that shows a slightly different tagline or logo treatment or color palette. So be it. There will always be real-world market research assets that find themselves thrust into the marketing limelight from time to time (the pre-production iPhone left in a bar in California springs to mind). However, that limelight typically only shines on those in the marketing industry or a very niche interest group, not a brand’s audience at large (perhaps with the exception of the iPhone left in a bar!).

Google has been employing this approach for years very successfully. As has Amazon. As has just about any online brand you care to mention.

This risk of getting it wrong and leaving some evidence is a very small price to pay when compared to the risk of losing, say, a first-mover advantage in a new Asian market, or the risk of carrying out insufficient offline market research of your brand because of budget constraints. So, think of digital marketing as a market research test-lab and consumer activation channel for Asia all rolled into one.

It doesn’t replace the need for offline market research, but where time or money or both don’t allow for adequate offline market testing, especially in Asia with its highly diverse markets, then digital marketing can provide a complementary approach that is quick and cost-effective. You just have to reconcile that you might only get it right on the third time.

Jon Wade is head of digital, Asia Pacific, at Weber Shandwick.

This article first appeared on the ClickZ website

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