Book Review: Where are the great Asian Brands?

(There is a strong chance that there will be great brands before very long, as the adjoining story on Chinese research and development points out.)

The Asian Century is on its way, but if the region keeps failing to produce great brands it's going be a long time coming, reckons the author of a new marketing book.

In The Brutal Truth About Asian Branding (Wiley), Joseph Baladi argues that myopic and money-obsessed chief executive officers in Asia are clueless when it comes to taking their brands beyond the borders of their home countries.

While Asian businesses might enjoy the benefits of a low-cost workforce, speedy turn-around times, and fast-growing economies, Baladi says, numerous cultural forces ultimately hamstring their efforts at internationalization, including: a corporate culture in which the CEO is an unquestioned authority; a short-term focus on making money rather than building great companies; a continent of copiers rather than innovators; and substandard service from an advertising industry that itself lacks the expertise to help companies build strong brands.

Baladi, the head of Singapore-based marketing consultancy BrandAsian, told Asia Sentinel he's a passionate advocate of Asian brands, but brand owners aren't being told what they need to hear. "You've got all of this incessant talk about the Chinese or the Asian Century," Baladi said. "You can't have that effectively in the absence of not just good but great Asian brands."

Aside from South Korea's LG, Samsung, Kia, and Hyundai, it's difficult to name any brand to come out of Asia that has true international reach. (Baladi doesn't include Japan in The Brutal Truth, because that country enjoyed economic development at a much earlier stage than its Asian neighbors.) This is important, Baladi argues, because a region's global economic supremacy isn't complete without a corresponding cultural impact.

"If there's going to be a Chinese Century, the great prize lies in understanding that the real transfer will lie in the cultural sphere," said Baladi. "The real question about the Chinese Century is: at which point in time will Chinese brands define people around the world?"

The Brutal Truth attempts to address that issue by offering both clear-eyed criticism of the challenges facing Asian CEOs and marketing advice that often makes the book seem a little too didactic. Baladi's argument is that brand owners in Asia need a firmer grounding in the art of marketing and that this book provides it. The Marketing 101 instructional aspects of the book, however, do detract from the more-important and better-expressed ideas about what is wrong with the system in Asia in the first place.

Baladi asserts that he wants Asian CEOs to "get it". "I want them to understand the connection between building great brands and great companies."

The advertising industry is partly to blame for the lack, he said. A former vice-president at the McCann-Erickson ad agency, Baladi points to an absence of understanding and training within the industry in Asia as a reason for the continuing mediocrity. "You've got a lot of account executives, particularly planners, who really don't understand branding."

While there is plenty of grist for the gloomy, however, Baladi does ultimately see a bright future for Asian brands. "My point was not to disparage Asian brands – there are a lot of very good strong emerging companies and there are a lot of good brands that are sitting on the fence and are ready to move on to the next level."

Baladi also said the next generation of Asian leaders, many of whom have been educated in Western countries, hold great promise. "The inevitable evolution of Asian brands is in the hands of the next generation. They're going to come back with the benefit of at least different thinking."

Until that point, Baladi will face his own challenge: getting criticism-averse Asian CEOs to pick up his book.