Opinion

The shift from West to East: How Asia is influencing global brands

22 November, 2019 Share socially

The West has always seen itself as the cultural and commercial beacon for the entire world. For a long time Asia provided creative stimuli that the West adapted to suit its tastes. However, this is no longer the case. It may feel sudden to some as Asia has long been described as ‘on the rise’, but we can no longer be in any doubt that its time has arrived and it could be argued that it is now in the driving seat. Asian companies are leaders in many sectors and its influence can be felt everywhere.

In the 1970s Japan was the first Asian country to positively influence Western culture. We were introduced to its unique and distinctive animation style, Manga, and then later in the 1980s videogames and electronic devices from Japan dominated the market. Japan is synonymous with technology and quality; it was seen as fun and exciting, although still an exotic exception in a predominately western landscape.

Meanwhile, Korea and China have undergone a radical and relatively quick transformation from potential markets for our brands, to architects of new consumer habits, trends and ideas. Old stereotypes no longer fit and Asia is now recognised as a flourishing market that can create revolutionary stimuli. The change is especially apparent in the western entertainment industry; Asia’s role for a long time was straight-jacketed but today its music and films are breaking box office records. “Crazy Rich Asians”, the first western film with an entirely Asian cast, is the most successful comedy of the past 25 years in the US. Esports are a global phenomenon and Asia very much dominates it with Greater Southeast Asia forecast to become the next powerhouse alongside China, Japan, Korea and the US. An ever more inclusive and open cultural model is now emerging, thanks in no small part to the power of the internet.

In the 1990s, it was the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys who could sell sweatshirts, backpacks and shoes with embarrassing soles. Now, it’s the “Hallyu” or Korean wave - the cultural movement inspired by Korean pop music, that’s changing the score. According to Bloomberg, K-pop is worth 4.7 billion dollars; it continues to grow year on year, resulting in a 76% increase in visitors to the country in five years (2011-2016).

Brands have taken note of this: Gucci has appointed the singer Kai as its first Korean Global Ambassador, whilst Céline has chosen Lisa, the Thai singer and dancer from the group Blackpink. Sephora has opened a K-Beauty section in its stores, featuring products from South Korea. LG has brought in BTS, perhaps the world’s most popular boyband right now, to globally promote its top-of-the-range smartphone, the LG ThinQ, while Mattel has created BTS dolls, a range which has repeatedly sold out.

Asian food has also become the go to cuisine in the West – spring rolls and sashimi were once considered unusual but now lesser known delicacies and regional Asian food like okonomiyaki and bao are common place. Sushi and ramen have become the classic alternatives to a pizza or a sandwich, perfect for lunch or dinner. Bubble tea, the drink made from tea, milk and tapioca pearls invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, had a moment a few years ago and stores spread quickly across Europe brightening up the streets with their big clear cups and colourful straws. Larger, established Asian restaurant chains like Wagamama have been joined by more contemporary ones offering richer, more authentic specialities.

The retail sector is not far behind. Muji is the go-to store for elegant, simple stationery, clothing and furnishings from the land of the Rising Sun. Its stores are the shop of choice for anyone looking for details that make all the difference. Uniqlo has been expanding rapidly and even Mari Kondo has launched her own homeware line to mixed reviews. Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Target has designed a range of children’s clothes in collaboration with Gwen Stefani called Harajuku Mini inspired by the iconic Tokyo district.

Each Asian country has its own distinct brands and styles so it is difficult to describe the blanket influence of Asian visual imaginary on the West. But what does this mean for Western brands?

Stiff competition from established Asian markets and emerging regions should force Western brands to look more closely at themselves and harness the potential of their own cultural origins. Globalisation requires open-mindedness and flexibility but authenticity should be front of mind and, when used correctly, it is still a differentiator. Brands such as Burberry do this well.

Faced with a store shelf, a smartphone or a laptop, today’s consumers are increasingly drawn to products that reflect an acceptance of diversity and different cultures. There's room for a multitude of cultural influences in our lives and these new codes will not replace our own; they will, as is always the case, add to them, enriching our visual and personal culture.