Breaking the taboo: Brands in Asia need their own approach

Emily Sheen

At a global level, companies are making increasingly bold attempts to address social issues. Only recently we’ve seen Gillette hold fast amid a sea of controversy in its stance against toxic masculinity, and Barbie has raised awareness of the need to “close the dream gap” between girls and boys. These initiatives have had tangible impact in Western markets, but in Asia tackling social issues will involve market-specific insight, innovation and investment.

Just as we tailor product marketing to specific audiences, a single-minded approach to social issues won’t work in every market. For starters, a survey by Kantar on the top five issues in each Southeast Asian country reveals stark differences in what is important. While Australia and Taiwan are most preoccupied with climate and gender, these issues barely make the top five in Thailand and Indonesia, with health and poverty ranking much higher on the list.

For the most part, we’re seeing an increasing rejection of so-called glocal marketing, especially with regards to emerging markets. But the approach still seems binary: either the social issue chosen by the head office back in Europe or the United States fits emerging markets in Asia, or it does not. If it does not, the issue is abandoned in that market with no apparent attempt to reframe it.

Take for example feminine hygiene, an area where an explosion of liberal communications and innovative product solutions have hit Western markets in the past five years. From Mooncup to Aunt Flow subscription boxes and Bodyform’s Blood Normal campaign (the first UK TV commercial to depict red blood on a pad), the once taboo conversation is now becoming normalized, straight-talking and overt. This approach taps into a female empowerment discourse, underpinned by campaign lines such as Tampax’s “power over periods.” In markets such as the US or UK where gender is a top-of-mind social issue, this discourse is helping brands gain serious momentum.

In Indonesia, religious and cultural beliefs often lead marketers to the assumption that the topic is best left untouched.

In Indonesia, Kantar’s data suggests gender is much lower on the priority list; and religious and cultural taboos mean the tampon is often cast as an enemy of the body, believed to steal precious virginity or even induce pregnancy. For marketers confronted with these cultural beliefs, it is hardly surprising they leap to the assumption that the topic is best left untouched. But what if we reframed the conversation?

A communications approach as bold and literal as Blood Normal is never going to hit the mark in Asian markets. In China, Durex has seen significant success with subtle, witty campaigns delivering a sexual health message by representing sperm as Apple AirPods. Where bodily fluids are concerned, use of metaphor and humor still wins out, wrapping the seriousness of taboos in a more acceptable tone, making it easier to broach the subject.

Lighthearted or serious, there is a clear opportunity in markets such as China and Indonesia to realign the product with more resonant social issues: health, hygiene and poverty. But for the conversation to have maximum impact it must be paired with innovation.

Investing in innovation around women’s needs in these markets while addressing cultural taboos could produce some impactful solutions. And, for three of the world’s most populous markets (India, Indonesia, China), investment in such sociocultural and market-specific innovation is a small price for the potential payoff, both socially and economically.

Forcing tampons upon markets where their very shape is loaded with superstition and religious significance will continue to be an uphill struggle: they’re expensive and intimidating, currently confined to the top shelves of premium supermarkets. But enthusiastic uptake of Thinx (period-proof underwear) in the United States proves that simple solutions can be just as successful. No doubt, there are many other options as yet undiscovered.

Thinx sell period-proof underwear

Indeed, the film Padman in India showcases one of the category’s best examples of market-specific innovation. The film celebrates the true story of a man who worked in secret to create affordable, safe sanitary protection for women who are forced to use rags and sand in the absence of sanitary materials. At the same time, costs were kept down so the product reached low-income women at the necessary price point.

Differing religious and cultural attitudes in each Asian market, as well as varied levels of income, mean women need options. But these options should not be cookie-cutter copies of those offered in the West, wrapped in feminist rhetoric and disconnected from the market’s top-of-mind issues.

Instead, for markets such as Indonesia, the right approach may be twofold: first, innovate solutions that work with and not against cultural and religious beliefs. Second, in order to drive engagement, reframe the conversation to discuss the brand’s commitment to health and education—reflected in everything from communications to product benefits.

It’s the responsibility of global brands in all categories to tailor their approach culturally to social issues across markets. Only then will they be able to offer consumers truly empowering choices. And in feminine care products, with some of the world’s most populated countries in need of better options, the companies that get it right will reap rich rewards.

Emily Sheen is a Senior Strategist at Landor, Singapore