Branding Individualism in “Collectivist” Asia

04 Feb 2006|LiAnne Yu

It’s commonly believed that Asians value collectivism over individualism – and that’s what differentiates them from Westerners. This dichotomy is attractive because of its simplicity (and its subtle implication of Western superiority), but fails to capture the complexity of modern-day Asian consumer lifestyles. Our ethnographic research across the region has captured many of the tensions between the traditional values of group conformity and the increasingly potent desire to lead modern lifestyles based on self-expression. The most successful brands in Asia have captured the spirit of Asia’s unique forms of individualism.

In Japan, business culture continues to be highly collectivist. Individuals are not meant to stand out or challenge the hierarchy. When it comes to the private sphere outside of work and school, however, Japanese of various ages value freedom, self-expression, and uniqueness. Cell phones are highly valued for what they say about the person and the image they project, and not just for their functionality – in fact, the “I” in I-Mode reflects the idea that this is “my space, my identity, my time.” Even the most serious Japanese businessmen will decorate their cell phones with cute mascots and stickers. For them, the cell phone represents connectivity and self-expression. Ads for DoCoMo (Japan’s #1 carrier) emphasize freedom, not functionality.

In China, collectivism is certainly a traditional as well as Maoist value in terms of prioritizing the needs of the group over the individual. Yet if you look at the consumer revolution in China today, it’s all about self-expression and defining one’s modern identity. And in that sense, brand concepts that highlight individual success resonate very strongly. While people are certainly savvy about features and functionality, what they are looking for are those higher level experiences that brands can convey, such as luxury (Louis Vuitton), success (BMW) and modernity (McDonald’s). The media stars from Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, and the West that frequently grace product ads convey the cool and unique lifestyles that consumers aspire to. Even local stars like Li Yuchun are beginning to represent the new cool in China – which is all about nonconformity.

So while collectivist values are certainly a part of the histories and traditions of different Asian countries, this doesn’t mean that your brand needs to convey group or family values in order to be successful. It is important to deeply understand the role of individualism in Asia, how it differs from market to market, and how you can leverage it to tap into the desires and aspirations of Asian consumers.

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