Competitive Conformity: The Aspirationals in Southeast Asia

Sometimes you have to go see for yourself.
GlobeScan and BBMG first published our “Aspirationals” consumer market framework in 2012, in which style and status seeking consumers are shown to have widely adopted paradigm-shifting intentions that collaboratively embrace sustainable brands and socio-environmental equity. Since then, many of our colleagues in global B2C enterprises have enthused about its potential to unite the sustainability agenda with their marketing and product innovation powerhouses by which they are usually dwarfed internally. From higher altitudes, leaders see opportunities to catch the wave they’ve needed for decades to adapt their business models to a more collaborative and creative reality that is much more likely to ensure sustainable success in a highly volatile, interactive and uncertain market over the long term.
GlobeScan tested the veracity of its 2012 consumer model across 20+ countries in 2013 on its Radar platform. We found the same phenomena at play globally. The size of the Aspirational segment varied by country, of course, just as it did in 2012.
One pattern was clear in both studies. The Aspirationals are particularly present in Asian economies (see graphic to left). Not a small number have expressed their disbelief, pointing to the region’s rapid development alongside poisoning pollution as evidence to the contrary. Have you ever been there, is the perennial question.
During my current swing through East and Southeast Asia, I’ve sought insight either way. And it helps that I am here on a project that seeks to deconstruct motives for consumption of rare luxury goods. Among the cities en route: Honk Kong, Bangkok, Manila, Ho Chi Minh, Beijing and Chengdu. And my observations – some through the lens of structured qualitative research, others simply from being in dense, urban and social environments that overload all five senses, are reassurance that what we have found through remote, yet rigorous study, is as real as it gets.
Quite evidently, there is more at play here than the “rational” and “emotional” consumer behavioral traits that western marketers like to zero in on. As in any culture, and Asia has a dizzying variety of them, centuries of sociocultural transmission and transformation have created enduring social structures that mediate consumption choices, and especially those that are visible to others. It is no surprise that many western enterprises still find it difficult to gain an Asian foothold. Not entirely coincidentally, big western firms that bet on the eastern boom now face challenges with slowing growth and internal uncertainty.
Sociologists Wong and Ahuvia surmised more than 15 years ago that in general terms, western consumers orient toward an independent construal of the self where uniqueness drives identity. In the east, in contrast, interdependent selves are the norm, where identity is tied to that of one’s circle, and how members express their membership therein. Which means that visible branding and what it signifies is important not just to the individual’s identity, but to that of the group to which he or she belongs. One must maintain both “face” and pace. And “face” in East and Southeast Asia involves a good deal of material status and financial success, derived form a combination of hard work, good karma, luck and fortune.
The material status of a group (such as a professional or political echelon, a family, a set of peers) cannot remain static within economies that are growing at clips of 5% or 10%, let alone among those that are driven by new opportunities in income mobility. And of course, individuals have to keep up for the sake of the self and the group. Not only are individuals fiercely competitive, but groups compete among themselves, fueling a consumer market with high-octane power.
All signs of the above are unmistakably on display in each of the cities en route. So too are dreadful environmental conditions and socio-economic disparities.
This is where the rubber hits the road with the Aspirationals. While their material ambitions are impossible to miss, their social and environmental orientation is more subtle, even though it is rooted in daily experience (air and water pollution), religion (Catholicism, Buddhism) and civics (Confucius). And it is very locally focused as a result.
These two sets of values are often in conflict with each other, in a healthy way, I think. This isn’t Rachel Carson’s western environmentalism. Nor is it Mr. Green’s dish soap from your favourite 1980s CPG provider. Environmental motives run deeper and are often subsurface. The same sense of collectivism that motivates competitive conformity also feeds desire for healthier social and environmental conditions for the sake of one’s peers and progeny.
In focus groups in Manila, for example, when our moderators connected the dots between some forms of consumption and their upstream implications, reactions from participants emotionally evoked penance and spirituality as they realized that some of their behavior as consumers may be in conflict with their deeply held values about the planet, society and future generations—without them knowing.
In our Bangkok groups, consumers recognized a problem in their behavior and were readily able to justify it through a variety of enabling mechanisms—a sign that they knew something was wrong, and that they went to lengths to rationalize it.
In stylish Ho Chi Minh City, we found that to many, certain high-priced luxury goods were neither hip nor aesthetically pleasing. Other, less impactful, and often more shiny products performed much better at expressing their values—particularly among the younger set (and 60% of the population of Vietnam is 30 or less).
Most want to know which side is winning the battle for the consumer. Materialism or sustainability? From a distance, or on corporate balance sheets, or in census data, many would say the former. And because conspicuous consumption and social “face” are both so important in the region and so explicit, it is indeed easy to miss what is a strong undercurrent of long-term, collectively oriented aspirations focused on the social and environmental viability of current development trajectories.
My point here, however, is that if we continue to think that materialism and sustainability are mutually exclusive, business will miss this opportunity to escape from three decades of failure to unlock the market for sustainable offers and to propagate different and better business models. This is hardly a new conclusion, but we hope that our new data-driven perspectives on the marketplace can help tip the balance. Aspirational consumers want to be part of the solution, and they are ready to let companies lead. So if there is a place to make this happen now, East and Southeast Asia looks to be it.