Asia's Century Begins

Urbanization and Income Growth Spur Region's Development

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Dave McCaughan
Dave McCaughan
TOKYO -- It's a decade late, but this is Asia's century. Asia is now the game that matters. And I don't just mean Wii (though I would argue that Nintendo did invent the real game-changing technologies of the "aughties").

You only have to look at the changes in the auto industry to realize Asia is the place to be. The Nano (the Tata one, not the Apple one) has changed the world as every major car company tries to crack the model for "cheapest." China is the place to be to see growth in everything from Cadillacs to the new home of the Hummer, and a range of domestic brands that are booming in the rest of Asia.

So I'll start the year with a few thoughts on the trends driving those potential Asian consumers we all seem to be chasing.

Having been trained as a librarian, I am of course skeptical about Google searches getting me anywhere fast. But whenever I start looking into any subject I have found it instructive to start with a Google images search. Around mid 2009 I did a search for "Asian trends 2009." The middle of the worst economic year for decades, right?

Guess what came up? A picture of G-dragon, a member of the Korean boy brand Big Bang that appeared as the cover of a men's fashion magazine for an article on the latest hairstyles. Surprising, maybe. But not so strange when you consider that Asia is a region that is all about going forward, being entrepreneurial and "getting everything you can." Seoul has been the growth center for what is "cool" for a decade. The exuberance of Asia's music scene has seen the growth of Taiwan pop, with Korean Rain maybe the highest-selling artist of the decade. India's Bollywood continues to expand its influence and Manila and Jakarta are the new hot beds of music exports. Maybe not on your iPod, but certainly it's what is being pirated across the biggest growth region of the world. So let's keep in mind a few things that continue to shape Asians' lives and influence their consumer behavior.

Income growth continues: One recent MasterCard report suggested that emerging Asia will contribute 7.8 times more to global demand than the U.S. over the next five years. Those new consumers will experience the massive changes and expansion of retailers offering them record numbers of new products.

Urbanization is booming: The shift to the cities means greater "education" opportunities. That includes both formal education for children and perhaps more importantly the informal education of media and retail environments that are changing fast as peoples' incomes grow.

"Asian Century" pressure: The new middle class that developed in the '90s and the last decade, and today's young urban Asian, have been "educated" to expect that this will be the time when Asia leads.

To that end, reducing the number of children becomes the norm, not just in "one-child China" but across the region, driven either by a conscious decision to reduce costs and focus all family efforts on fewer children (as in Thailand), or by women rejecting the need for family (Japan and Hong Kong).

Now we're seeing the second generation of this new middle class. Twenty years ago, their fathers aspired to work for a multinational corporation to grab a piece of a better life, and to learn and copy the best of the West. In every survey we did, the most admired person in the world was not a sports or music star, it was Bill Gates. Now, their children are entering the workforce eager to create their own futures, start their own businesses, and emulate local heroes like Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dave McCaughan is executive VP, regional director of strategic planning, McCann WorldGroup Asia Pacific, and a Tokyo-based trend spotter.
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