Navigating an Unexplored Market: Myanmar


Stepping into Myanmar feels like travelling back a few decades in Asia; people don traditional clothes, old car models ply the streets, and the huge advertisement hoardings that dot Yangon city could very well be torn out from a dated magazine.

Western brands keen to make a mark in one of the world’s last untouched markets, are lining up to enter the country — Coca Cola opened a production plant in Myanmar after 60 years, leaving Cuba and North Korea as the only countries left uninhabited by the multinational giant.

Due to Myanmar’s unique history of isolation and recent rapid liberalization, brands seeking to enter the country need to appreciate the mindset of the Burmese consumer.

The Burmese Context: An Overview

A typical shop in Myanmar

From our own work in Myanmar, we have seen brands struggle to tailor themselves to suit the Burmese consumer as very little is known about this erstwhile isolated market.

Highlighted below are some of the unique aspects of the Burmese consumer:

Brand communication has been stuck in a time warp

Old-school hoardings in Yangon

Myanmar has been shut off from the rest of the world for decades, relying on local brands to supply consumer goods. This has created a peculiar, insular market where brand communication has barely evolved from merely talking about ‘product benefits’.

Consumers rely on traditional communication channels when choosing which brands to buy; for instance, shopkeepers’ recommendations play an important role, particularly in the rural areas.

It is also worthwhile to note that print media is still the dominant channel of brand communication; only 1.2 out of every 100 Burmese citizens have access to the internet, a stark contrast to 28.9 in neighboring Thailand.

Low brand differentiation

Phwe Phwe (a famous actress and model, above and below) endorses a wide range products, including competing shampoo brands

Local brands have not built a unique brand persona; this may be a result of low competition in a market protected from foreign competitors.

We see this exemplified in communication; if you were to mask the brand logo in a typical TVC, it would be hard to identify the brand based on other cues. Two main factors contribute to this:

- Burmese celebrities endorse a wide variety of brands, often within the same category. This creates homogeneity across communication from various brands

  • The typical Burmese TVC features an old-school ‘song and dance’ format, merely showcasing product features without an explanation of benefits or brand persona
Copycat local brands have dominated the market for years

Weak relationship with brands

Unlike consumers in neighboring countries, the Burmese consumer has yet to develop a personal relationship with their brands.

Purchase decisions are not primarily driven by brand name, but by other considerations e.g. cost and product features.

For example, when a Burmese consumer buys shampoo, she may operate on the basis of choosing the cheapest shampoo that ‘cleans best’. In contrast, for her counterpart in neighboring Thailand, ‘cleans well’ is a basic attribute of all shampoos and she now seeks a shampoo brand that makes her ‘seem upper class and glamorous’.

What Does The Burmese Consumer Want?

Walking through Yangon gives the observer a glimpse of the Burmese consumer’s desire to connect with the outside world. Small stalls dot the pavement touting access to the foreign lands, selling products ranging from pirated Hollywood movies to fake packets of Marlboro cigarettes.

Pirated DVDs are popular in Yangon, providing much-desired access to the outside world

The Burmese (especially the youth) are filled with a sense of optimism about liberalization, and are keen to buy Western products; in part because these are perceived as superior, and also because they desire a lifestyle that has been denied to them.

Herein lies the paradox: despite desiring a market with foreign products, consumers have no idea how to choose from an array of foreign brands suddenly at their disposal. We see history repeating itself, with Burmese consumers today feeling as bewildered as the Eastern Europeans did after the fall of communism.

On the first level, consumers are faced with a dazzling array of choices they never had before — think of having to choose from 10 brands of toothpaste where you had only two before. Outsiders see these new choices as something that gives power to the consumer; but for someone who is navigating an entirely new landscape, the abundance of choices can be crippling.

On the second level, the consumer base is rapidly transitioning from being impoverished to having higher disposable income. However, this does not immediately translate into higher spending on foreign goods; it is hard to switch from a cost-conscious mentality to a mindset of paying more for a brand name.

With this context in mind, there is a need for consumers to be taught how to navigate this new and confusing market.

How Brands Can Help: Being A Mentor

Brands entering Myanmar have to step up and fill the void, providing a helping hand across the bridge between where the Burmese consumer currently is and where he wants to go.

Eastern Europeans were flooded with choice (in the consumer goods market) before they could protest that they didn’t know how to swim.
Grzegorz from Warsaw says, “Ah, for me it is fear (that I associate with choice)…. There are some dilemmas you see. I am used to no choice”
-Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing [TED talk, July 2010]

In order to do this, brands need to do two things:

Empathize with the consumer

Nothing helps build a personal relationship with a brand more than feeling understood; brands need to reach out and tell consumers that they identify with the turmoil of transition.

Empathy helps build an emotional relationship with the brand, which in turn leads to brand loyalty; capturing brand loyalty in a nascent market can prove an invaluable asset in the long run.

Define their path

Burmese consumers are increasingly exposed to the rest of the world and now desire access to a more modern lifestyle. Yet, they seem confused by the vast number of choices available to them.

A brand that helps to create clear pathways to entry will be seen as a friend and mentor.

The mentor brand needs to show Burmese consumers how the rest of the world is living and what steps they can take to live this life. For example, a face cream brand could enter the country and tell consumers: “This is what beauty means to the rest of the world, and this is how you can go about achieving it”, in a manner that is simple and single — minded.

Providing a clear path towards consumer desires is an important consideration for the entrant brand to be noticed and remembered.

Key to remember, though, is that Myanmar is transforming at an unprecedented pace — the ‘mentoring’ brand shouldn’t come across as slow or dated, but as inspirational and magnetic.

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