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How Brands Can Become Digital Competitors in APAC

The e-commerce opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region are staggering. There are roughly 1.7 billion e-commerce customers in APAC, and economic tailwinds are turbocharging their capacity to spend. There are a few steps brands can take to position themselves for digital competitiveness in the region.
digital transformation

The e-commerce opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region are staggering. There are roughly 1.7 billion e-commerce customers in APAC, and economic tailwinds are turbocharging their capacity to spend. In addition, a sweeping digital transformation is bringing more people online, leading consumers to embrace digital — and global — channels.

But the path to becoming a top digital competitor in APAC, whether for Western brands or those native to the region, is far from simple. APAC is diverse culturally and linguistically. Many local brands lack the technical expertise typical of big US firms. And getting consumers access to digital channels and comfortable with them, while getting easier, requires some effort on the part of sellers.


there are a few steps brands can take to position themselves for digital competitiveness in the region. Chief among those steps are planning for the fragmentation and diversity of local markets, adopting mobile-first strategies, and embracing marketing options beyond Facebook and Google.

Plan for E-Commerce Fragmentation and Market Diversity

For a view of growing e-commerce fragmentation in APAC, consider Japan. Ten years ago, Rakuten was the online marketplace. Now, Amazon has blown past Rakuten, and global brands are flooding the market. Elsewhere, global companies such as Louis Vuitton, Moet, Hennessy Group, and rivals like Mr. Porter or Farfetch address Asia as all one region, competing with regional sellers such as Muji and Uniqlo in Japan, Boots in Australia, and Anta in China.

What I am describing is the democratization and fragmentation of APAC economies. Where once selling on one marketplace or planning for competition with one or two local competitors might have sufficed, brands looking to prosper in APAC today need to consider multiple marketplaces and account for complex competitive landscapes.

One way to get smart about local preferred channels and competitive brands is to take advantage of partnerships with local players and digital agencies familiar with relevant ecosystems. The average Chinese shopper does not use the same channels and look for the same values in a product as the average Indonesian or Korean shopper. Planning for success in APAC means working with partners who can break down those differences beyond the headlines in a 10-page report.

Adopt a Mobile-First Strategy

Mobile usage and commerce are growing rapidly across APAC. Smartphone use increased 70% regionally in 2020 and 86% in China. More strikingly still, 63% of APAC consumers say they most commonly shop within mobile apps, and 35% say digital wallets are their primary payment method.

In addition, APAC consumers are disproportionately young, priming them to adopt next-generation commerce channels and formats that are catching on more slowly in developed economies. Consider live selling, which is when brands sell products directly via livestream on social apps such as TikTok, Instagram, and Alibaba’s Taobao. China is leading the world in live selling, a practice that grew 100% there last year.

In most of APAC, a mobile-first strategy — one that easily allows consumers to shop on mobile and transact via mobile devices in-store — is table stakes. Smart brands will also get in on the action when it comes to next-gen strategies such as live selling, something that may, again, require partnering with local platforms, such as Taobao, where that is happening, or turning to agency partners who know how to approach those channels.

In addition, the primacy of mobile commerce in APAC comes with implications for digital marketing strategy. Savvy marketers go where their customers are and shorten the path to purchase by allowing them to transact where they spend their down time. For APAC digital marketers, that means orienting marketing strategy around mobile, too.

Don’t Limit Yourself to Google and Facebook

The plan historically by default for marketers looking to roll up their sleeves and develop an APAC plan is likely Facebook and Google, and that’s good and bad. The good is that marketers embracing the duopoly only have to talk to two well-known companies, which is easy. The bad is that those two companies set the rules for that digital marketing director, who then has very little recourse to determine what other channels their brand will use and how they plan an effective overall marketing mix.

Brands planning an entire digital strategy around Google and Facebook are doing what every other digital marketer is doing. They’re not distinguishing themselves. In which case, the core question those brands should be asking themselves is, “How do I feel about having 80% of my marketing money in the hands of a couple of companies, and how has the ROI improved for you over the past three years?” Advertising on the dominant channels is getting more expensive, and ROI is going down.

The alternative to a duopoly-centric strategy is a partner-based, or affiliate marketing approach. With affiliate, brands benefit from the local expertise and relationships of various partners, including media companies, agencies, and other brands. They control where they’re going and can shift partners to achieve better ROI than that offered by the duopoly.

 Cultural Immersion

This playbook — planning for fragmentation, centering mobile, and pursuing partnerships beyond Google and Facebook — only marks the beginnings of a digital marketing playbook for APAC. Truly optimizing for the region means learning how its different economies work and how consumers in each market like to research and buy products. Cultural immersion, too, is a challenge where partnerships come in handy.

If you want to sell to locals, you had best talk to locals — or find partners who have already developed those relationships.

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Adam Brownstein, General Manager, Japan & Asia Pacific, Partnerize
Adam Brownstein is a Global Marketing & Sales leader based in Tokyo with 20+ years of impact focusing on SaaS and online marketplace platforms. This includes guiding large business units for category champion multinational companies (Microsoft, Sony, and launching successful start-ups ( acquired by BKNG) and Red Safi Digital (acquired by Objectiva).

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