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Made in Asia: rethinking diaspora marketing

Diaspora marketing is an often-overlooked marketing approach that can tap into culturally rich markets. Is it experiencing a revival?

The middle-aged Chinese man wears a body sign that reads: “We Buy Gold Diamonds & Watches”, expertly weaving his way through the sea of hustling vendors, overflowing trash cans and seafood buckets. This is Canal Street, in New York’s Chinatown; home to cheap dumplings, souvenirs, knock-offs and, more recently, the Tiger Trading Co’s pop-up shop.

The brand activation, which took over a retail space for two days in June, showcased via curation the best products in Asian fashion, art, design and technology, and challenged the stereotypes normally associated with ‘Made in Asia’ products. The experience is the brainchild of the Asian premium beer brand, Tiger Beer, and a unique take on diaspora marketing – a strategic approach that capitalises on the local expression of a brand, based on its identity, culture and values.

Diaspora defined

The word ‘diaspora’ comes from the ancient Greek word that means ‘to scatter about’, and it describes exactly what the people of a diaspora do – they leave their homeland to settle in places across the world, spreading their culture along the way.

Michael Czinkota, a professor at Georgetown University, defines diasporans (individuals living in the diaspora) as those who still maintain a relationship with their countries of origin and, as such, a potential target market for growth.

While diaspora as a concept is not new, its applications have been adapted over the years to reflect cultural trends and changing attitudes. As the Tiger Trading Co. example reveals, brands seeking to engage with diasporas will need to carefully consider today’s global consumers.

A reflection of the times

Despite recent political shifts, the rate of immigration does not seem to be slowing. We are becoming increasingly mobile citizens.

According to a recent United Nations report, the number of international migrants, defined as “persons living in a country other than where they were born” reached 244 million last year, a 41 per cent increase from 2000 figures.

Of course, affordable travel and the rise of the sharing economy (think Airbnb and Uber), plus our increasingly connected communities are all contributing to this trend.

As groups of people disperse, there is conversely the ability to unite these diaspora communities through shared identity, values and culture. Many brands are realising that diaspora marketing could be the way forward in growing audiences, brand building and foreign expansion.

‘Salad Bowl’ audience segmentation

A research study by David Burgos and Ola Mobolade, Marketing to the New Majority, uses the food metaphor of a “Salad Bowl’ and ‘Melting Pot” to articulate these two theories on cultural assimilation.

The ‘Melting Pot’ theory views a nation’s cultural identity as “an amalgamation of ethnicities, blended into a uniform elixir”. In comparison, the ‘Salad Bowl” views it as a mix of distinct but complementary cultures – the “individual taste and appearance of each ingredient remain intact” even after being mixed.

Nirmalya Kumar and Jan-Benedict E.M. Steenkamp, of the much-cited Harvard Business Review study “Diaspora Marketing“, offer segmentation profiles to assess the suitability for this type of targeted approach.

Kumar and Steenkamp believe that the “biculturalists”, a group that has accepted both their host and home countries as part of their identity, and the “ethnic affirmers”, who are loyal to their home countries, have the most potential for brand building.

It is easy to see that for content marketers, these segments could be used to inform personas when targeting these communities as a way to grow your brand on foreign shores.

An entry-market strategy

The Harvard Business Review cites Alibaba, Tecate and Nando’s, among others, as brands that have successfully applied diaspora marketing in varying ways.

Tecate had great success when it launched its brand in the US to target first-generation Mexicans living in the States, while Alibaba, a well-known Chinese marketplace, showed off its country’s reputation for enterprise and mass production at scale.

Meanwhile, Nando’s, a South African fast-food chain known for its peri-peri chicken, initially targeted South African diaspora communities in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Down the track, the food brand had to pivot its strategy to grow audiences beyond these communities. However, as an entry-market strategy, targeting South Africans allowed them to penetrate markets that arguably may not have been so receptive.

In content marketing terms, a brand also needs to adapt its strategy to ensure its content is ideal for each market, paying heed to idiomatic translations and linguistic nuances. The Chinese technology giant Lenovo has applied a local approach to its global strategy because it recognises that one size does not fit all.

As is evident in these examples, diaspora marketing is an effective strategy for emerging brands to break into major markets. However, the size of the diaspora community needs to be big enough to justify this narrow targeting, or at least be part of a broader strategic approach.

What’s your country’s brand?

Sweden is a great example of a country that has built a global brand for itself, bolstered by the likes of IKEA, Scandinavian minimalist design and high-profile fashion labels, from giant retailers such as H&M to the more advanced contemporary players, like the uber-chic Acne Studios.

However, it’s not the first to brand itself – there are smaller-scale iterations, including the popular “Made in” moniker (normally adopted to signal trade benefits) by almost every nation and city, such as Made in Australia and Made in NYC.

The opposite also occurs. China is (historically) a nation synonymous with exporting mass-produced inferior products and counterfeit items. But as the Tiger Trading Co. activation reveals, there is always a potential for a rebrand.

In fact, the tide is turning for one of the world’s fastest-growing markets. As reported by Forbes in May, Chinese brands are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance, with consumer sentiment favouring Chinese brands. In 2011, the top three smartphone brands in China were foreign to the country: Nokia, Samsung and Apple. And last year, eight of the top 10 were Chinese brands.

A McKinsey 2016 report paints a picture of the well-heeled and upwardly mobile Chinese consumer sect who are trading up for premium products over mass products, with half seeking the best and most expensive products.

Circling back to Tiger Trading Co., the short but memorable activation proves you can challenge age-old assumptions. While we don’t have access to metrics, we can safely assume that the experiment has contributed to building brand awareness, improving the perception of the category and engaging with new audiences – that’s what we call a marketing trifecta.

Cultivate not stereotype

The takeaway? Be culturally sensitive and expand responsibly. Because nobody likes a stereotype. Diaspora marketing is complex, but when done right it can help businesses overcome the obstacles in building a brand on foreign shores. Arguably it’s the brands that don’t pander to cultural stereotypes that can be most effective in diaspora marketing. The ultimate sign the approach is working for you is when a diaspora community adopts your brand as a form of local expression – a sure sign of global success.