Next big thing-spotting

Jason Oke shares a view of the future, from Asia.

By Jason Oke

Full disclosure, I dislike articles about the next big thing. Let’s be honest, if you or I actually knew what the next big thing was, we would get rich doing it.

So what gives me any right to make a few predictions? For the past three-and-a-half years I’ve been a Canadian working in Asian countries, from China to Myanmar to India, where I’ve had an up-close look at some of the recent huge shifts. Many of the so-called “developing” markets are no longer playing catch-up; they are starting to leapfrog the “developed” markets in consumer behaviours and tech adoption. I’ve come to believe that if you want to see the future, you should look to Asia.

Like much of the emerging world, Asia’s later start in development means it has been a generation or two behind in infrastructure (like electrical grids, mobile networks and internet access). However, when the infrastructure does get built, it tends to be with the latest technology, so consumers don’t start with dial-up internet or clunky mobile phones like we did. Companies and consumers have no legacy tech behaviours or investments holding them back.

For example, in most of Asia, the majority of internet access is already on mobile devices. In India, the Philippines and Indonesia, more than a third of the population access internet through mobile. So Asian brands can design mobile-first experiences, not a scaled-down version of flashy desktop experiences. Many western brands could learn a lesson from that.

Likewise, many of the e-commerce kinks and security issues in the West had been worked out by the time it took root in Asia, allowing digital purchases to grow very quickly. Last year, one Chinese website sold out of 300 Smart cars in less than 90 minutes. This year, China passed the U.S. as the world’s biggest e-commerce market – 13% of all global electronic transactions now happen in China – and if trends hold, it will represent a quarter of global e-comm within three years.

China has also seen a rise in group buying, where friends, neighbourhoods and communities come together to purchase online and in bulk to share the savings. With North America’s continued economic uncertainty, watch for group buying to take off here soon.
And with many Asian brands recently rolling out NFC-enabled phones, mobile payment is expected to take off quickly too.

Brands around the world could also look to Asia to see how companies have found more substantial ways to address real problems.

For example, Coca-Cola in India has distributed solar-powered kiosks to local retailers. These solve two challenges: powering coolers to keep Cokes cold in areas that don’t have regular electricity, and providing power outlets for local residents to recharge their phones. This also turns the vendor into a neighbourhood gathering place. It’s a win for Coke, the vendors and the community.

Brands have talked for years about providing “utility” to their users – going beyond advertising to help people solve problems or accomplish tasks easier. Unfortunately, these often end up being marketing gimmicks rather than real solutions to problems.
So with infrastructure crumbling in many parts of North America, and local governments slashing budgets, could brands step in to fill the gaps?

Look out as well for the ascendanceof Chinese brands. Just as Japanese electronics dominated in the 1980s, and Korean brands like LG and Samsung have leapt from relative unknowns 15 years ago to global leaders today, Chinese brands you may have never heard of are now poised to break out globally.

Electronics companies like Taiwan’s HTC, and China’s HuaWei, Haier, and Hisense, among many others, have plans to become global leaders. They’ve manufactured components and even devices for other brands for years, honing their expertise and efficiency.
In recent years, these firms have also had large-scale recruiting drives in Silicon Valley and even Canadian tech centres like Waterloo, ON. and Ottawa.

They already have Chinese sales and users in the hundreds of millions, and are expanding rapidly into emerging markets like Africa and Latin America. In some cases they have the backing of the Chinese government.

So if you sell TVs or phones, watch out.

Hong Kong-based Canadian expat Jason Oke led the launch of WPP’s Red Fuse Communications in Asia, helming a team that worked on Colgate-Palmolive brands in 10 countries. He is regional managing director (Asia) of Red Fuse and also runs the Hong Kong office of Y&R.