How to win Asia-Pacific consumers in the new era

8 minute read 2 Jan 2022

Redefining how to best serve consumers, looking at the business through a non-traditional lens and anticipating disruptors are vital.

Authors
Olivier Gergele

EY Asean Consumer Products & Retail Leader

20+ years of consulting, consumer and retail industry experience. Deep knowledge of developed and developing markets. Lived and worked in Asia, Europe and South America. Warwick MBA. Husband. Father.

Fabrice Imparato

EY-Parthenon Partner, Consumer, Ernst & Young Solutions LLP

Seasoned professional with deep knowledge in the Consumer Sector and successful track record of delivering topline growth across emerging and developed markets. Mountaineering and outdoor enthusiast.

Shaurya Ahuja

EY-Parthenon Partner, Consumer and Digital, Ernst & Young Solutions LLP

Seasoned in Digital Strategy and Value Creation for consumer and retail sector. Large scale transformation experience across 20 countries. Dedicated to innovation for a sustainable advantage.

8 minute read 2 Jan 2022

Redefining how to best serve consumers, looking at the business through a non-traditional lens and anticipating disruptors are vital.

In brief
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on consumers’ expectations, resulting in significant uncertainty for Asia-Pacific consumer companies.
  • Such companies need to proactively address shifts in consumer behaviors across five key areas: value, health, sustainability, experiences and omnichannel.
  • They must reimagine how to best serve consumers, consider the business with a non-traditional mindset and anticipate disruptors to remain competitive.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed its unprecedented impact on economies and societies, consumer behaviors were already shifting. Digitalization was reimagining how consumers live, work, play and consume, evidenced by the rapid rise of e-commerce in the Asia-Pacific region. 

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated some of these changes that were underway, leading consumers to reprioritize what they value. Arguably, it is no longer just about what they buy but also how they want to live their lives. That means consumer companies need to understand what is driving consumer lifestyles and ultimately, use these insights to make bolder plans to get ahead of change.

To be fair, many consumer companies did pivot to cater to shifting consumer demands during the last 18 months of the pandemic. However, the consumers that companies adapted to serve during the pandemic may not be the same consumers who will make them profitable in the future.

Having said that, certain pandemic-induced traits may persist. For example, companies that offered the supply and price stability needed by consumers during the earlier pandemic period are more likely to be rewarded with consumer stickiness than those that chose to pass on the higher costs to consumers. 

Many consumers, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, appear to be turning into COVID-19 anxiety “long haulers”, as indicated by real-time global consumer sentiment tracked by the EY Future Consumer Index, which surveyed more than 5,500 respondents across six Asia-Pacific countries — China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Australia and New Zealand — from among 20 countries in total.

Of the Asia-Pacific consumers surveyed in the May 2021 edition, 85% express concerns over health. With regard to pandemic-related caution in their spending behavior, 44% say they are purchasing only essentials and about two-thirds say they are thinking more carefully about how they spend money.

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Five dominant behavioral shifts

While individual consumer behaviors are likely to be volatile in the foreseeable future, companies can proactively accommodate their needs in five key areas: value, health, sustainability, experiences and omnichannel.

Value

Consumers, being concerned about finances, are invariably increasingly price-sensitive. Consumer companies need to review their overall portfolios and value chains to consider if they can offer consumers quality, low-cost alternatives, as well as compete effectively with store brands and private labels. At the same time, retailers need to reassess their private label strategy. Short-term brand conversion during the pandemic could well lead to longer-term brand loyalty — but only if private labels continue to drive product range and innovation, marketing outreach and quality.

How consumers are perceiving value
Health

The pandemic has re-emphasized the importance of health, fitness and wellness. Asia-Pacific consumers are concerned with protecting their health and that of their family. Consumers are actively shopping for health products that will make them safer and healthier at home. Catering to this “in-home” hygiene market, including cleaning, nutrition, fitness and even beauty products, may require more ingenuity in exploring healthier formulations, reshaping product portfolios and R&D investments.

Consumers’ concerns on health
Sustainability

It is not enough to just offer a product at the right price point: the behavior of a company is as important as what it sells. An overwhelming 82% of Asia-Pacific consumers say that companies must be transparent about their environmental impact and 28% are willing to pay a premium for more sustainable goods and services.

If consumer companies can proactively demonstrate accountability and transparency over their environmental impact, they will be able to gain consumers’ trust and encourage higher spending. To do so, companies should look into re-engineering their production, logistics and supply chains as well as recognizing the third-party risks that can erode credibility.

Consumers’ perceptions on sustainability
Experiences

Pent-up demand for unique experiences, especially among younger consumers, will create opportunities for consumer companies to provide new offerings that fit a range of budgets. The EY Future Consumer Index revealed that 64% of Asia-Pacific consumers are willing to share personal data for a tailored online experience. The question is whether companies can switch flexibly between on-trade and off-trade as pandemic restrictions vary.

Forward-thinking companies are offering consumers a mix of both digital and physical experiences: digital experiences that can be accessed safely at home, paired with unique in-store experiences that are worth exploring. Adapting to this new trend may require an operating model reset for some Asia-Pacific companies, strategically reallocating resources and restructuring the organization for greater agility. 

Expectations toward customer experience
Omnichannel

Many consumers who moved online out of necessity will largely sustain their online behaviors, although the extent of digital engagement may shift. The interaction between online and offline will be more important than before. For instance, 54% of consumers in the Asia-Pacific region are doing their grocery shopping both online and in person.

Consumers want digital engagement to be just as reliable as going to the store. An integrated channel strategy, supported by agile supply chains and logistics, is needed to deliver a consistent and enjoyable experience across online and offline channels. With the right data strategy, the data captured from online interaction and consumption will also yield valuable insights for business planning and delivering superior, bespoke experiences.

Omnichannel behavior and views

Winning the future consumer

Clearly, addressing the aforementioned shifting consumer expectations will require consumer companies to take a hard look across their organization — from the strategy, business model and operations to talent and capabilities. Leaders of consumer companies should consider three key actions today that have never been as important.

Redefine how to best serve the consumer

The survey revealed that Asia-Pacific consumers are increasingly open to sharing their personal life data. More than ever, consumer companies have a unique opportunity and strong impetus to enhance their capability to make the right — and trusted — use of such data. Technology like advanced analytics and artificial intelligence can help improve their listening abilities and profile consumers more intelligently to proactively anticipate where, when and what they buy. The ability to adapt products and services with speed and agility makes a critical difference in how well companies can keep consumers connected to the brand.

Look at the business through a non-traditional lens

To many consumer companies, serving consumers in a different way, such as embarking on direct-to-consumer strategies or developing a compelling consumer community platform, may not be profitable in the short term or make sense in isolation. Similarly, sustainability-related programs are often seen as a cost and associated with negative ROI. However, many of these programs can create strategic value for the company as a whole, whether in terms of enhancing brand image and awareness, generating data that can be further monetized or driving employees’ commitment, making the business more resilient against disruption. Consumer companies must therefore adopt a strategy that encompasses a broader view of value as well as a focus on profitable growth.

Anticipate potential disruptors 

Consumer companies need to be increasingly forward-looking and invest time and effort to anticipate potential disruptions that could upend their established business models. In recent years, the blurring of sector boundaries has seen powerful digital ecosystems emerging, enabling players — both new and incumbent — to complement one another to offer interconnected products and services in one integrated experience. Take, for example, how food and beverage or financial services companies are disrupted by the technology and mobility sectors, giving rise to super apps that consumers are familiar with today. Consumer companies must act now to define and implement a successful digital ecosystems strategy and step up innovation to compete in the short and longer term — or risk being left behind.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its unpredictable course, each of the above actions will enable consumer companies to respond nimbly to the future consumer’s continuum of preferences and attributes. There’s no single consumer persona and therefore no one-size-fits-all strategy. This makes developing and executing the right one for every company all the more urgent and important.

By redefining how to best serve consumers, having a non-traditional view of the organization’s business and anticipating potential disruptors, consumer companies can adapt to the future consumer’s continuum of preferences and attributes with agility.

This article was authored with contributions from Urvashi Bhalode, Manager, Strategy and Operations, Ernst & Young Corporate Advisors Pte. Ltd.

Summary

Consumer companies face significant uncertainty over the unprecedented impact of the COVID-19 crisis on consumers’ preferences and behaviors. They need to be proactive in meeting consumers’ needs in five key areas: value, health, sustainability, experiences and omnichannel. They must also consider how to best serve consumers in new ways, look at the business from a non-traditional perspective and anticipate potential disruptors. Such actions will provide the agility needed to adapt quickly to changing consumer expectations in the future.

About this article

Authors
Olivier Gergele

EY Asean Consumer Products & Retail Leader

20+ years of consulting, consumer and retail industry experience. Deep knowledge of developed and developing markets. Lived and worked in Asia, Europe and South America. Warwick MBA. Husband. Father.

Fabrice Imparato

EY-Parthenon Partner, Consumer, Ernst & Young Solutions LLP

Seasoned professional with deep knowledge in the Consumer Sector and successful track record of delivering topline growth across emerging and developed markets. Mountaineering and outdoor enthusiast.

Shaurya Ahuja

EY-Parthenon Partner, Consumer and Digital, Ernst & Young Solutions LLP

Seasoned in Digital Strategy and Value Creation for consumer and retail sector. Large scale transformation experience across 20 countries. Dedicated to innovation for a sustainable advantage.