Key Messenger

A critical eye on communication, by Tom Poldre

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ASEAN Economic Integration: Corporate Brand Implications

The final installment in a series of excerpts from an article I co-authored with Patrick Rekart at Black Inc Group, for the January 2015 edition of the Thai-American Business magazine.

Famed marketing guru Peter Drucker once stated that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” in the context of organizational culture, but clearly the observation has relevance in the regional context as companies continue to broaden and deepen participation across the ASEAN cultural mosaic.

In terms of corporate communication and brand marketing, we all know that new levels of regional integration will introduce “Thai-family” and Thai-based corporations – many of them multinationals – to a range of new audiences.

Insightful marketers know better than to see these audiences as one homogenous group of consumers, B-to-B customers, or business partners, and will quickly adopt new, highly targeted ways of identifying discrete market segments and deploying communication strategies specific to each.

Yes there will obviously be country-specific strategies, but new models of “cultural segmentation”, transcending national boundaries, will reflect a keen awareness and understanding of indigenous ethnic and national identities.

A potential partner or prospect might self-identify as Malaysian, for example, but are they the twenty-six percent of that population who consider themselves Chinese, the fifty-three percent who are Malay, or the eight percent who are Indian? Consider the fact that the Vietnamese government recognizes fifty-four distinct ethnic groups. The AEC presents a rich ethno-cultural prism (actually, a kaleidoscope) through which to view the regional marketplace, and corporations must insist that their agencies and planners reflect these cultural segments in their outreach strategies.

With new opportunities come new complexities and an enhanced need to understand the nuances of the ASEAN cultural mosaic. Core values serve to unite the members of the AEC, while even the subtle differences between national personas have now been charted and analyzed for greater understanding.

Take this new level of acumen and sensitivity among executives who are “hard wired” with the requisite “soft skills”, equip them with a compelling corporate narrative that conveys differentiation yet familiarity, and the key elements will be in place for cross-cultural comfort in the new pan-ASEAN reality.


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Defining the Pan-ASEAN Leader

The following are edited excerpts from an article I co-authored with Patrick Rekart at Black Inc Group, for the January 2015 edition of the Thai-American Business magazine.

Multinationals based in Thailand, especially those continuing to look outward with an ASEAN perspective, will need to critically examine the executive leadership skills required to meet performance goals in the AEC. The first obvious step would be to ensure all expatriate senior managers, including the CEO, understand all ASEAN cultural traits. Fundamental to this is also the understanding that the definition of “expatriate” is no longer the exclusive realm of the Western “businessman”.

What is relevant, however, is the concept of a leader’s personal brand. True, top managers and contributors are hired based a functional skill set. Over time, they are differentiated by their attitude and personality (i.e. how they get the job done). Then, as their brand matures, they contribute enhanced value to the organization based on their ability to comfortably, effectively, graciously, effect change and achieve results across numerous cultures.

Senior executives in Thailand (or anywhere, for that matter) regardless of background, would benefit from an assessment of their cross-cultural acuity, along with access to specialized training where their own cultural inhibitions can be revealed. With this awareness, leaders can be empowered to move forward and embrace changes in their business persona.

We already know some of the “areas for development”: assertiveness training, accountability, interactive capability and critical analysis are among the highly interrelated traits which are vital in the pan-ASEAN corporate context. Also, as one expatriate executive commented, here in Thailand there is often a “failure to differentiate the professional from the personal”.

It will be fascinating to monitor how those clearly and uniquely Thai traits that have almost become clichés – “kreng-jai” (giving extreme consideration to problematic situations; saving face or maintaining external stature despite costs) and “mai pen rai“, (a way out of most embarrassing situations) – will play out on the ASEAN stage.

Thanks to interconnectivity through technology, trade, travel, and no matter how entrenched traditional values and inertia might be, the business and social contexts will keep evolving and shifting. Inevitably, misunderstandings and conflicts will arise internally, externally; locally and regionally.

The best preparation is to ensure your managers are empowered with executive leadership skills and corporate competencies. “Soft skills” should become “hard-wired” into individual and corporate brand personas.

With individual managers, this means a new and enhanced emphasis on self-awareness of personal communication styles. This is an important capability, leading to greater confidence, credibility and persuasiveness in meetings, presentations or even in local media encounters. For the pan-ASEAN leader, adaptability to cultural environment has Darwinian implications.

Just as European managers so often operate seamlessly, comfortably, across EU markets, a new breed of successful intra-ASEAN manager will increasingly emerge. The “chameleon communicator” will show an innate ability to shift style based on cultural intelligence while still remaining true to their genuine character.

With English accepted as the business language of ASEAN, and with such variation in English language proficiency across the region (compare Singaporean and Malaysian managers versus their Thai counterparts) non-verbal skills will continue to play a vital role in connecting with new ASEAN audiences.

It’s been proven that eye contact, body language and the use of gesturing are far more effective than words in the total communication context. Often, however, acceptable Western norms of dramatic display while communicating may seem aggressive and threatening – indicating a loss of control, anger, and diminishing one’s stature, credibility and dignity.

Cultural “faux pas” happen all the time on the world stage. Risk is best mitigated through intensive cross-cultural programs and communications workshops available through many sources, where simulations serve to deconstruct and better prepare local and regional leaders for the new international business environment.

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Defining your Corporate Brand Within the AEC Cultural Mosaic

The following are edited excerpts from an article I co-authored with Patrick Rekart at Black Inc Group, for the January 2015 edition of the Thai-American Business magazine.

Regional competitiveness, a common regulatory framework, greater integration into the global economy, equitable economic development – welcome to just some of the promises of the brave new world of the AEC (ASEAN Economic Community). Its implications for large Thai companies as well as established regional players have been discussed and dissected at length.

Today, faced with the free flow of information in the digital age, most large companies cannot escape the norm of more transparent and accountable business practices. With or without the AEC, corporations will be led further into the realms of good corporate governance and social responsibility, scrutinized internally and externally.

As ever-increasing levels of compliance, transparency and accountability continue to set new pan-ASEAN standards, differentiation and competitive advantage will emerge from successful understanding of the cultural playing field.

Regardless of whether the business is defined as medium to large corporation, a regional organization, private or listed, or a large multinational, a comprehensive knowledge of, and sensitivity to, other ASEAN cultures will be essential for any enterprise wishing to succeed here.

We know that AEC nations share similar cultural attributes and sentiments, those commonly accepted ASEAN values of respect for heritage and tradition, the importance of family, the striving for harmony, courtesy afforded to all parties, and even a sense of spirituality.


With an awareness of these variations in national corporate character, coupled with an understanding of the roots of one’s own corporate culture, companies can undertake a process of reinforcing, even re-establishing, their brands within the AEC. Genuinely reflecting the common ASEAN values of respect for tradition, family and harmony in a corporate brand personality will help smooth the way toward new regional business partnerships.

If a corporate brand can be defined as the relationships between a company (and its products and services) and its various stakeholders, then players within the AEC would want to ensure that the brand values they genuinely project align with common regional values.

Brand theory ascribes that engagement is based on rational (functional) then emotional aspects of the company or product, and at the top of the engagement hierarchy are the values-based aspects of the brand which project “belonging” and association. These can be expressed as shared interests and common (societal) goals.

Engagement begins with a basic corporate narrative – a company’s story – to introduce themes and values which will resonate across ASEAN: a description of company heritage; its founders’ stories and family legacy; its reputation for fair dealing and partnership, respect for local culture and traditions.

Of course, actions speak louder than words. As a company thinks about its positioning in this marketplace, its leaders should ask themselves: “Do we, as an organization, behave in a way which is consistent with the ASEAN core mentality which values tradition, heritage and family?”

Once the operational reality is in place to fully support the corporate story, the next consideration around projection of the brand involves the storytellers themselves, the leadership and management teams who represent and personify the corporate brand.

More on that in my next post…