INVESTMENT, NOT ADS, SOARING IN VIETNAM

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Investment spending in Vietnam is going through the roof, but ad spending hasn't kept pace.

U.S. companies including Visa International, American Express Co., Coca-Cola Co., Pepsi-Cola Co., Mobil Corp. and Gillette Co. almost quadrupled their investment spending in the span of a month-to $78 million in May from $20 million in April, according to Vietnam's State Committee for Cooperation & Investment.

The rise comes after February's lifting of the U.S. trade embargo, with the U.S. now ranking as the country's 18th-largest investor. No. 1 Taiwan was far ahead with $1.5 billion and Hong Kong with $1.4 billion.

But the big bucks foreign companies are investing don't extend to advertising, estimated at less than $5 million total this year by local agency executives.

"You go in and expect to see big billboards all over the place, but there aren't that many" in Vietnam, said an agency executive based in Thailand. "The truth is there is not that much to buy. [An advertiser] can get good national coverage for $50,000 a month."

The exceptions are the cola giants. Both Coca-Cola and Pepsi are using splashy, big budget ad campaigns including TV, radio, print and point of purchase.

AmEx is limiting advertising, to outdoor boards, one in Ho Chi Minh City and another in Hanoi, handled by Ogilvy & Mather Thailand, Bangkok.

The boards have "a world currency theme," said Elisabeth Coleman, VP at AmEx's Travel Related Services Co., New York. "Our thrust right now is to build an infrastructure so we can provide high quality services to our corporate card and business travel customers."

AmEx accounts for 75% of Vietnam charge card purchases, she said. The card is accepted by 40% of the restaurants, hotels, car rental services and retail stores in the nation.

Visa is using outdoor ads themed "Welcome to the world of Visa," said a spokesman in San Mateo, Calif.

It's just a matter of time before other marketers follow suit. San Diego-based Vietnam Investment Information & Consulting held an April trade show in Hanoi, attracting 50 major U.S. marketers. Pepsi, Gillette, General Electric Co., Kraft General Foods, Carrier Corp. and Otis Elevator Co. were among the exhibitors.

More than 100,000 people attended the four-day show, said Richard Pirozzolo, whose Pirozzolo Co., Wellesley, Mass., handled communications.

The success spurred plans for a Ho Chi Minh City show.

A Coca-Cola spokesman in Singapore said the company is importing U.S. creative and has some ads created by McCann-Erickson Thailand, Bangkok. Outdoor boards are done locally through Vinexad, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's state advertising enterprise. The campaign's theme is "It's great to be back."

"This is a grass roots promotion that has gone on from" the day the embargo was lifted, the spokesman said. "We started in the centers of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and spread out to the suburbs. Now we're moving into the other cities and towns."

Coca-Cola and Vietnam National Foodstuff Import-Export Co. are partners in a $20.4 million bottling plant being built south of Hanoi.

Pepsi is also running a heavy schedule, with $1 million being spent on ads and promotion. During a major sampling drive in February and March, 1 million samples were given away in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.M

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