As international brands storm the market and local companies realize the need to step up their game for consumers now faced with more choices than ever before, there has been an explosion in the advertising and marketing sector in Myanmar.
Media has opened up and digital marketing is becoming a very near reality, making the opportunities to sell, brand and advertise to this untapped market of 61 million people huge. With media censorship removed, countless print publications and daily newspapers flooding the country and the oncoming explosion of mobile telecommunications, these new platforms are bringing with them new ways for advertisers to bring their clients’ messages to the consumer.
International advertising firms are rushing in to join the party. Last year, Manhattan-based firm Ogilvy & Mather re-formed a joint venture with local firm TODAY—they had previously partnered pre-sanctions—and Myanmar company Mango Media has established an affiliation with JWT.
In January, boutique marketing firm Parami Road was established by an Australian with a Myanmar partner. The following month, Japanese advertising colossus Dentsu opened an office, announcing it will manage the sponsorship of the 27th Southeast Asia Games in Naypyitaw this December.
Global advertising firm Y&R, a subsidiary of WPP, announced that it had joined forces with local firm K-Noke Advertising in May to bring a boutique advertising service to international clients hoping to launch themselves in the Myanmar market. This latest JV came hot on the heels of the announcement from Thai-ad firm Prakit Holdings Plc. that it would return following a five-year absence from the country.
Until recently, Myanmar advertising strategy has been primarily focused on TV commercials and billboards, with a lack of interest by many brands in print media. As the government makes plans for an increase in mobile penetration from 7 percent to 50 percent in three years and with Internet infrastructure rapidly improving, new forms of digital marketing are waiting in the sidelines.
“Advertising is different here than in other markets,” says Rose Swe, who founded the Mango group with partner Lynn Lynn Tin Htin in 2004. “We have to educate some clients about what its role is.”
Mango Media celebrated their ninth birthday this year, but they “were too busy to celebrate”. Since 2010, the company has gotten more and more work—pushing the group to split into two wings: advertising and media.
“We used to think that PR was just events and promotions,” says Swe. “We’ve since learned that it is so much more than that and become more sophisticated.” Part of this is that the priorities of Myanmar people are shifting, she says. Previously, it was simply “how do I survive for the day and now it is how much can I earn”?
“The whole industry has changed,” agrees Robert Pulido, the creative and business director at River Orchid, a Vietnam-based communications company operating in Myanmar since 2006. Pulido has seen the requirements from clients develop dramatically during his six years working in Yangon. “Now that all these advertisers are shouting, they just want the best shouting voice.”
“We cannot keep up with the speed of the consumer either,” says Pulido, who says the era of simply placing a product in a celebrity hand or having a brand endorsement is long over. “You can’t bore people with your product anymore.”
For Valentino Moe Thae, the managing director of TODAY Ogilvy & Mather, “The biggest challenge for brands like Coca Cola entering the market is the consumer mindset. International companies have no communication with the consumer.”
Global beer brands are now entering the market and attempting to get a slice of the action, with the industry long-dominated by Myanmar Brewery Ltd. under an economic arm of the government. Rumors are rife that one of Heineken’s marketing tactics will be to unleash the greater Asia region’s renowned “beer girls” on Myanmar for the Dutch brewer’s product enhancement.
Before the government awards two telecoms operating licenses on June 27, international communication giants and consortia have been playing with different tactics to court the media and consumer. Jamaican-based Digicel has sponsored the Myanmar football team since 2012—football matches are a deluge of the company’s red and white branding, from merchandise, to drummers, to the players themselves.
“Local companies realize that they need a PR strategy and to freshen the brand up,” says Parami Road’s David Madden, pointing to local beverage companies that will soon face big competition from Coca Cola and Pepsi.
His company is targeting international investors looking to start up businesses in the country, as well as local companies who are looking to get more experimental. Parami Road ran the social media strategy for the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in January, the first international event of its kind in the country, attended by Aung San Suu Kyi. “There are a handful of Instagram-ers and a few Foursquar-ers, but it’s nothing when you compare it to neighboring Jakarta, the fourth biggest city of Tweeters in the world,” he says.
Online media will certainly be a key for brands accessing this young demographic—Myanmar has a median age of just 27 with an estimated literacy of 90 percent. Facebook is hugely popular and is currently used more like a form of Twitter feed as it suits people without constant mobile connectivity.
But the industry is facing teething problems too. No formal advertising law exists. Broadcast is still censored before airing, with advertising firms often waiting up to a month to receive clearance from government-run stations.
With no dedicated advertising school there is a severe shortage of human resources and local clients are slower to change too. “It’s still a hard sell,” says Pulido. He has pitched ideas that play on the consumers’ emotions and then reveal the product that can make them feel that way at the end. But many are not yet ready for this kind of sell.
“The client wants the product from the very start, they’re still scared.”