Marketing key to SMEs going regional

Marketing key to SMEs going regional

There are many opportunities for SMEs to expand into the Asia-Pacific region and across the world. According to official data, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) contribute heavily to the GDPs of our neighbouring economies. They comprise more than 95-99 per cent of all business establishments, and also generate between 51 per cent and 97 per cent of employment in the region.

In addition, governments in this region are also making a huge push to encourage SMEs to venture abroad by providing the physical and financial infrastructure. However, they only account for 30 per cent of exports in the region.

What this means is that opportunities abound for SMEs should they wish to expand and look for new opportunities beyond the confines of their own shores. Indeed, the local companies that are successful and holding up against the headwinds that everyone is facing now are those who took the giant leap forward beyond their shores.

Besides capitalising on the infrastructure that provides the pull factor for them to venture out, one thing is clear: these SMEs have adopted a marketing communication strategy so that their brand, and/or their product is able to stand out significantly from others in their "market" that they are selling it in. By standing out, it also means that their products and companies are visible in the crowded foreign marketplace they are targeting.

Some understanding of the communication and culture of the market you will be going into is essential. For example, the Filipino market requires celebrity endorsements for a product to be visible. The Filipino Inquirer cited Kris Aquino, a talk show host and from a political dynasty, as one of the top celebrity endorsers in the Philippines. The Inquirer also states that "an endorsement makes brands real" and allows identification and association with the person endorsing the product.

In Indonesia, the market is big on digital and online advertising. In 2015, noted that the digital and mobile internet advertising growth in Indonesia was the largest globally. Emarketer's data and forecasts show that currently, digital's share of the market is still in the single digit, and it estimates that in 2016, "more than one in 10 ad dollars in Indonesia will be spent on digital channels - including mobile - and in 2019, the share will exceed one in four".

With regards to Malaysians, they need to see products on billboards. According to, for something to be credible there, consumers need to see the brand on a signboard - this signboard preferably has to be huge and clearly visible, and located alongside a busy highway or on a building. supports this claim by sharing that "out-of-home advertising accounts for 2 per cent of ad spent in Malaysia, but this is growing at over 35 per cent per annum" and was worth in excess of US$30 million in 2015.

Besides knowing the market and its modalities, the campaign must at the same time carry the "essence" of the brand or product. While a campaign can be localised, it also needs to stay "true" to what it stands for and not deviate too much to suit the local conditions. In this respect, embarking upon simple research to discover how your brand is perceived in the market helps to give you a peek into the mindsets of your consumers.

In other words, the enterprises should be guided by a clear and well-thought-out marketing communication strategy that seeks to understand the marketplace they are penetrating. This understanding includes a systematic process of identifying who their audience are, how to speak to them and how to listen to what they want. And this is not rocket science either, as pointed out by Charles Wong of popular local brand Charles and Keith.

In an interview with IE Singapore, he shared his understanding of the market by taking his clients' feedback seriously. He revised the designs of his shoes and even their pricing based on this feedback. A clear effort is made by the company to provide the market with what it needs while at the same time creating demand for its products. And more importantly, this basic process of listening and responding can be replicated in all markets, thus allowing the product and brand to become universally recognised and desired.

Without a MBA or a huge marketing team, there are also systematic ways of finding out who your audience are, what they want, and then translating this knowledge into a good product or service for them. This is called planning for a good marketing strategy. For a start, it is important for the SME to understand the capacity of its own setup and what is involved when putting together a marketing communication strategy for penetrating the region.

Who is the best person to drive the project? What do they understand about it? Is it all "smoke" and "fluff" that anyone with a point-and-shoot camera or some basic understanding of the free software Picmonkey can be an "expert" in marketing? Yes and no. Yes, it is "smoke and mirrors". But no, in that there is thought behind how "smoke and mirrors" are used to achieve the right ends. The "smoke" is well calibrated to make sure that it helps you dazzle customers. The "mirror" is positioned in a way that deliberately gets your customers excited about the product.

And more importantly, you need experts whom you trust to create this so that you do justice to your brand, product and service wherever it goes.

This article was first published on May 24, 2016.
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