When Myanmar was ruled by a military junta and isolated by the international community, Western brands were scarce in the Southeast Asian nation. Today, billboards advertise Coca-Cola, Pond's face wash and Nescafé coffee sachets. Even in Myanmar's rural corners, vinyl posters plugging foreign mobile carriers and Facebook access are everywhere—and villagers use them to waterproof their thatched houses.
Behind the bright billboards, though, the story has become complicated. A burst of excitement hit Myanmar five years ago, with big companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo returning when sanctions eased after the country embarked on a path to democracy. Today, foreign investment has slowed. And despite the big potential remaining in a largely untapped country of 54 million people, the heady optimism that prevailed a few years ago has cooled.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been in power for a year, but foreign investors are concerned about her government's economic plans and the military's persecution of the Rohingya minority.
Some big brands have held off. Burger King and Yum Brands' KFC and Pizza Hut are in Myanmar, long known as Burma, but McDonald's is not. Starbucks then-CEO Howard Schultz said in 2013 that he expected the coffee giant to enter Myanmar within several years; that hasn't happened yet. The brand declined to give a more precise timeline.
Ad spending on TV, outdoor and print ads is still growing, but not at its former breathless pace. Foreign brands spent about $108 million in such so-called above-the-line advertising in 2016, 8% more than 2015, according to Nielsen MMRD, a joint venture between Nielsen and a local research company. That's down from 66% growth in 2012 and 43% growth in 2013.
Those numbers don't take into account increased experiments in digital marketing or growing interest in below-the-line promotions, including events and direct consumer outreach, as a way to reach Myanmar's mostly rural population, according to U Thurein Nyein, Nielsen MMRD's managing director. But growth in above-the-line media has slowed as foreign investors maintain their "wait-and-see attitude" while Myanmar's policies and reforms evolve, he said, adding that currency fluctuations are also playing a role.