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Juan Manuel De Borja on the Philippines - a society in transformation


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    Juan Manuel De Borja on the Philippines - a society in transformation

    The Philippines is in the middle of massive changes. We have a one of the fastest growing economies in the world, turbulent politics, a population that's doubled since the 1980s, and a median age that's a bull's eye for that demographic that's a constant reminder we live in different times - Millennials.

    October 21, 2017

    When things change quickly, the buildup of tension can have major consequences. It happens in chemistry and politics - gunpowder and atomic bombs; Trump and Brexit. When it comes to marketing, the tension can be a huge opportunity and at the core of consumer insights.

    As a 'developing' economy it's easy to get caught up on the rising incomes in the Philippines - and think in terms of rising consumerism and premiumization. But economic advancement doesn't happen in a vacuum, it's bound up in the values and ideas of a society. And one of the (few) advantages of having lagged in development is that countries that preceded us are in a sense experiments. We do not have to follow the same historical route they have, and repeat the same mistakes their societies did as they tried to figure things out. There are ups and downs, but all in all the things we believe and value do seem to get better: women are more empowered, there is more concern for the environment, and prejudice is being pushed to the fringes while social responsibility goes mainstream.

    Maslow's hierarchy of needs offers a roadmap for what happens after a person's basic needs are met - she moves towards fulfilling higher order needs. In the Philippines we are seeing this in the explosive growth of areas like travel, education, and health and wellness. But what is more interesting is observing and managing this shift within a brand. We work closely with Downy, which as a fabric conditioner is not an essential in the same way as say, detergent is. It's just a sensible way to make your clothes last and stay fresh. But even within this we've had success by communicating movement up that ladder in their Parfum Line (perfume scented conditioner) by harnessing the ability of scent to transport - so we evoke dreams, nostalgia, and romance rather than responsibility and practicality.

    One thing that hasn't changed much is inequality, and attitudes around alcohol offer a glimpse into the possible implications if an improving economy benefits only the few. In low income, labor-intensive agricultural areas the drinks of choice are highly functional, almost medicinal - a cheap, strong hit that helps one sleep and get over the aches earned over a day's work. In contrast, alcohol in cities is much more about social identity. This seems to promote a kind of us vs. them mentality, where urban professionals consider provincial drinks nasty and cheap; and rural men increasingly see the beers and spirits popular in the big city to be wimpy and superficial - in both cases just like their drinkers. In a time where everything feels fluid and some benefit more than others, there seems to be a tendency to define yourself and your kind in opposition to others.

    Philippine society is a conservative one, and pushing new ideas and behaviors can be difficult. Public health is an especially tricky area where a whole range of obstacles come together including superstition, spotty access to services, and unpleasant treatments. In our work we've seen that some qualities that are common in conservative societies (often collective and hierarchical) can ironically be helpful in encouraging people to try something different. In a nutshell, people are more likely to go out on a limb when they have the assurance that other people are doing it, or when someone with status tells them to. Both approaches have been central to the success of our efforts for the Philippines' Department of Health and USAID in encouraging testing for Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, sticking to treatments, and adopting modern family planning methods where we make use of testimonials and figures of authority to bridge new behaviours with long-standing values.

    At some level the work of a marketer carries suggestions about what it means to live well. Maybe it's to find love as in the Downy example; to stand with your own as in the alcohol one; or to follow social rules as we do in public health. It can be a whole range of other things too - to raise your children well, sacrifice for a greater cause, to have status. And in a fast-developing country playing up to affluence is an obvious route, but also a crowded one. If Maslow was on to something, it might not even be a very good one. Basic needs are highly physical, but the levels above them get less and less material.

    To be truly persuasive, we need to offer a compelling answer to that age-old question of what makes a good life.  And it seems that there is an emerging thread that proposes something very different from before. DIY, decluttering, environmentalism, online activism, and lots of food movements point to a possible future where the attitudes and motivations around consumption are not what they used to be. All those examples have more traction in wealthier countries - in part because their people have the luxury of pondering these things.  But ideas spread like they never have, and as I waste another hour in Manila's progress-induced traffic, Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro's words are pretty seductive: "A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It's where the rich use public transportation." So as things change it's also a chance for us to be harder on ourselves and the people we are trying to persuade - to use more subtlety and imagination than pitching materialism as an end; and appeal to better angels than status or class.

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