Top 100 Digital Brands
Consumer reach is only the beginning
Vastly different attitudes to digital across the region reinforce the need for localised engagement
This year’s ranking of the region’s top-performing digital brands finds new categories stepping up online promotional activity, while traditional heavy hitters such as Nokia and McDonald’s maintain a solid presence in most markets surveyed.
In particular, telcos feature highly in the rankings, not only in markets such as Singapore, but also in Thailand, Malaysia and China, where an enhanced web profile reflected increasingly competitive conditions within the sector.
While innovative digital branding clearly plays an important role in driving consumers to action, the study indicates that lack of trust in online marketing remains a serious issue. Digital marketers face an especially stiff challenge winning people over in developed markets like Taiwan, but online channels are also regarded with a healthy degree of scepticism in China-perhaps largely due to a heavy-handed approach. Malaysia and Thailand are shown to be more open, signalling room for experimentation.
To add credibility to visibility, marketers need to continue to make full use of online by listening and engaging-not just showcasing.
TOP 20 REGIONAL BRANDS
Brands need to embrace social channels more fully if they are to raise trust levels. By David Tiltman
Top 20 digital brands
9. Pizza Hut
10. Nestlé 7. Samsung
9. Pizza Hut
11. Pepsi 12. Canon
16. Olay 17. Honda
20. Head & Shoulders
The 2010 Top Digital Brands survey, highlights some uncomfortable facts for Asia’s online marketers. The results of the TNS study show that online techniques are some of the least trusted forms of marketing; but they also suggest ways that a brand can build a highly credible presence on the internet.
In terms of awareness, the survey shows little change on last year, with multinational brands still dominating. Nokia, for example, is again consistently near the top of each country’s awareness table. But there are signs that local brands are raising their game online. In Thailand, where no local brand made the top 10 in last year’s survey, three Thai telcos appear in this year’s list. Malaysia’s AirAsia, meanwhile, gets the highest single-market awareness score of any brand in the survey. The exception appears to be China, where multinationals put in a stronger showing this year than they did in 2009.
Attitudes towards digital marketing vary significantly around the region, as shown by the answers to questions regarding the persuasiveness of brands’ online efforts. Thailand and Malaysia posted by far the highest scores for digital persuasion, while consumers in Hong Kong and Singapore, the two markets with the most sophisticated media industries, showed much lower levels.
The survey also asked how much consumers trust a brand’s presence in different media, and it is here that digital marketers face a serious challenge. Across Asia, the least trusted forms of media are all digital. More than 40 per cent of Asian consumers say they do not trust ads in video games, ads in virtual worlds or ads in mobile SMS. More than 30 per cent do not trust emails or pop-ups. And 25 per cent do not trust search ads or banner ads. In all those cases less than 12 per cent said they trusted the medium completely.
What’s more, not all ‘interruptive’ media fare badly. TV comes off quite well in comparison, with 18 per cent trusting it completely and 14 per cent not trusting it at all. Interestingly, however, digital also appears at the other end of the spectrum.
Recommendations from friends or family are the most trusted source of information, but expert and consumer reviews on websites, brands’ own websites and consumer opinion in blogs all score highly.
This reflects a broader trend borne out by findings of Edelman’s Trust Barometer that 59 per cent of Asian consumers trusted businesses less than a year ago.
Thomas Crampton, Asia-Pacific director of digital influence at Ogilvy PR, also detects a growing resistance to corporate messages. “In the face of increasingly sceptical consumers, companies will need to rely on authentic word-of-mouth,” he says. “This is not easy for any company, but can be particularly difficult in Asia, where disclosure and openness are not deeply embedded in corporate culture.”
Given the disparity between trust levels in digital media, the question marketers face is how to achieve a balance between paid media they control, owned media such as the corporate website, and earned media-coverage in the social media world that is largely out of their hands. In some markets, China particularly, so called ‘astroturfing’ (seeding positive comments within social media) has been a popular tactic. If caught, a brand can expect its reputation to be tarnished, yet this remains “the biggest challenge in our industry”, according to John Kerr, Edelman’s regional digital director.
Kerr argues that engendering trust online requires a different mindset. Brands often see social media as a cheap option, as they do not have to buy media space. But significant investment is required in long-term management of a community. “Unfortunately social media has become another broadcast channel for many firms,” he says. “I get the feeling that there’s a heavy sense of relief for some brands when they can point to a set of fans or followers on Facebook or Twitter, but the job has only just begun.”
The other issue around balancing social media involvement with paid media is measurement. What metrics apply to social media campaigns and how can they be made comparable to metrics for paid media campaigns? Pushkar Sane, global head of social marketing at Starcom Mediavest, says that success in social media should be the same as success in other forms of marketing, involving a lift in sales or market share, a lift in brand equity scores, or a lift in positive sentiments. However, he advises that “measuring these in silos will not help the brands to really identify the relative importance of different media vehicles”.
David Ko, EVP Asia-Pacific at Waggener Edstrom, agrees that the “spike in number of metrics” makes tracking success across the digital space more difficult. “Each campaign can have individual metrics that range from number of submissions to an online competition, to actual sales transactions,” he says. “It’s up to marketers to decide upfront what success looks like, what should be measured to constitute success, and then execute accordingly.”
When it comes to awareness, Western brands dominate China’s digital marketing scene. In last year’s survey, three Chinese brands appeared in the top 10; this year that number is down to two-China Mobile and Alibaba. That said, in the list of the top motivating advertisers, four Chinese brands appeared, including Lenovo, which topped the table. This suggests that some domestic brands are using digital highly effectively.
Cautious but engaged
China’s online population continues to grow rapidly- up to 384 million according to figures released in January. Consequently, online marketing continues to expand: clients spent Rmb 20.6 billion (US$3 billion) last year, according to iResearch, up 21 per cent from 2008. But the issues of trust in marketing highlighted in previous surveys remain.
Unsurprisingly, consumers across the region rate recommendations from friends and family as their most trusted, but in China 57 per cent say they trust this source completely. When asked which forms of marketing they do not trust, the top six answers were all online: ads in video games (47 per cent), ads in virtual worlds (47 per cent), SMS ads (46 per cent), email ads (38 per cent), pop-ups (38 per cent) and banner ads (28 per cent).
Given these figures, it is surprising that pop-ups remain so widespread in China: 47 per cent say they have seen them, the highest of any market.
Yet Chinese consumers respond well to digital. Eighty-four per cent say that a brand’s presence online increased their interest in using it to some degree, behind only Malaysia and Thailand. They also look for other consumers’ views on products. Consumer reviews on websites represent the second most trusted source of information, with 27 per cent saying they trust them completely. With a more subtle approach, digital marketers can expect strong results.
This year’s survey reveals the growing breadth of brands using digital channels in Hong Kong. Aside from the MNC marketing powerhouses that invest heavily in digital in all markets, several local companies and organisations have been using online media, with MTR Corp, Ocean Park, Cathay Pacific and Octopus all making the top 10.
PCCW, HangSeng Bank, Mannings and Wellcome all appear in the top 20, underlining just how many local companies are active in the digital space.
An under-exploited medium That said, digital spend is still low at about 7 per cent, and digital marketing can still be basic. Email proved unusually prevalent: Thirty-six per cent of respondents recalled email marketing messages, higher than any market other than Singapore.
On the other hand, mobile usage by advertisers remains surprisingly low, despite a mobile penetration rate of over 160 per cent and has around three million 3G subscribers. Just 12 per cent of consumers recalled seeing brands using mobile, the lowest score of all markets covered in the survey.
Unusually, the brand that scored highest for motivation-Apple-was not even in the top 20 for awareness. Forty-seven per cent of respondents said its digital work significantly raised their interest.
Overall, Hong Kongers seem more guarded towards digital marketing than many of their counterparts in other Asian markets. Just 25 per cent said that digital work significantly raised their interest in brands, while 18 per cent said it did not raise their interest at all. Only Singaporeans proved less receptive.
What’s more, the seven marketing channels with lowest trust scores are all online. 56 per cent of respondents said they did not trust ads in virtual worlds, followed by ads in video games (51 per cent), SMS (43 per cent), pop-ups or pop-unders (30 per cent), search engine ads (29 per cent), email ads (28 per cent) and banner ads (25 per cent). 
Malaysian awareness scores for brands’ digital marketing are generally high. The top-ranked brand, Air Asia, scored the highest of any brand in any market, with 85 per cent recalling its digital work (significantly, Air Asia also scores highly for a frequency, with 46 per cent saying it was one of the advertisers they saw using online the most). Nokia comes in second for awareness with a score of 78 per cent, a figure that is higher than the scores of the top-ranked brands in every other market.
Open to digital
Aside from AirAsia, the local brands attracting high awareness scores were the telcos: Maxis, DiGi and Celcom. The trio have been aggressively launching new offerings, such as broadband services, new phones (Maxis offers the iPhone) and various kinds of hardware. All three brands rank in the top 10 Malaysian advertisers by total spend, according to Nielsen figures for the first half of 2009. By contrast, Telekom Malaysia, which also appears among the top 10 advertisers, ranks only 18th in terms of awareness with a score of 54 per cent.
Motivational scores are also high compared with other markets. Sony, Air Asia and Pizza Hut all scored more than 50 per cent when consumers were asked whether their interest in a brand had been raised significantly thanks to its digital marketing.
Malaysian advertisers seem open to a number of marketing options on the web. There was a remarkably high awareness score for sponsored online content; 61 per cent recalled seeing this, by far the highest of any market. Mobile also rated highly, with 24 per cent recalling mobile campaigns, putting Malaysia on a par with Singapore.
Digital marketing appears to work well with Malaysian web users. Thirty-five per cent said it significantly increased their interest in a brand, higher than all the other markets except Thailand
Telcos fight it out
The digital awareness table for Singapore reflects the strength of the city-state’s local brands, notably the telco trio of SingTel, StarHub and M1. As SingTel’s deal to poach English Premier League coverage from StarHub shows, competition for subscribers in that sector is fiercer than ever, so it’s no surprise that the major players have maintained a strong presence online.
Finance brands also placed highly, as they did last year. DBS, one of the banks criticised for its sale of certain Lehman Brothers-linked investment products, made the top 10 along with Citibank, while UOB, Visa, OCBC and HSBC make the top 20.
Topping the table for motivation, however, was adidas, which did not even make the top 20 for awareness. In 2009 the brand launched a year-long drive targeting Singapore’s women. The ‘Me, myself’ campaign included a Facebook application that helped women plan time for themselves by suggesting activities according to their chosen intensity and individual schedules.
Putting up resistance
The survey shows that Singaporeans multitask when it comes to media. Sixty-three per cent watch TV while online, and 66 per cent use mobile as they surf the web. Mobile marketing is more prevalent than in other markets: 24 per cent of respondents recall seeing mobile ads, higher than in any other market except Malaysia. Singaporeans also seem to have the highest opinion of mobile SMS ads. Although 32 per cent said they do not trust them, that is the lowest score of any nationality.
Singaporeans are among the most marketing-savvy consumers in the region. Just 19 per cent said that digital activity had significantly increased their interest in a brand, while 24 per cent said it had not increased their interest at all. They also loathe pop-ups and pop-unders more than any group: 48 per cent do not trust them, the highest score in the survey.
Judging by the results of the awareness study, retail and fast food are the lead categories in Taiwan’s digital marketing scene. Both sectors have three brands in the top 10. Retail claims the top two spots, with 7-Eleven and Yahoo! Shopping claiming awareness scores of more than 75 per cent. Family Mart is in ninth position. The fast food sector, meanwhile, is represented by the US trio of McDonald’s (third for awareness), KFC (sixth) and Pizza Hut (tenth).
Other notable categories include telecoms. Chunghwa Telecom and Taiwan Mobile make the top 10, while FarEastone ranks at number 13.
Figures for internet usage show a marked split between work and leisure. Fifty-two per cent of respondents said they use the internet for less than two hours a day for work purposes. The figure is just 29 per cent for leisure, a wider divergence than any other market in the study.
Taiwan is now one of Asia’s largest internet ad markets, with an estimated 10 per cent of budgets going on the medium. Yet despite high mobile penetration, just 14 per cent of consumers recalled a mobile campaign. One reason may be relatively low take-up of SMS and mobile internet; a study of mobile usage in 22 nations by Universal McCann showed Taiwanese use mobile for voice more than elsewhere.
The survey data also reveals a startling lack of trust in classic forms of digital marketing. Manufacturers’ websites, email newsletters, ads sent by email, consumer opinion in blogs and chatrooms and banner ads are trusted less than in any other market. A total of 59 per cent said they did not trust mobile SMS, and 32 per cent said they did not trust search ads.
It should be pointed out that Taiwanese consumers also gave low trust scores for newspaper, magazine, TV and radio ads. Clearly, this is not just a problem with digital marketing. 
Consumers in Thailand like digital media more than any other nationality in the survey. Across the board, digital channels scored higher for trust and persuasion. Forty-one per cent say online work had significantly raised their interest in a brand, more than any other nation; and just eight percent said it had no effect, fewer than in all other markets.
In terms of trust, Thais are willing to put their faith in brands’ websites – 39 per cent say they trust these completely, far higher than the second-placed Malaysians on 25 per cent. They are the most likely to trust email, consumer opinion in chat rooms and message boards, banner ads, pop-ups, mobile SMS, ads in video games and ads in virtual worlds. They are also twice as likely to trust a search ad completely than the regional average (24 per cent versus 12 per cent).
The high trust levels are not necessarily a reflection of better digital marketing in Thailand. Generally, Thais show greater trust in offline media too. Thirty-two per cent say they trust TV ads completely, compared with a regional average of 18 per cent.
Awareness versus motivation
The list of the top brands for awareness underlines some of the key marketing battles taking place in the country. The mobile telecoms sector in particular is heavily represented: One-2-Call, Dtac and True all make the top 10, with handset manufacturer Nokia and rival Samsung also in the list. However, only the two handset brands make the top 10 of the most motivating advertisers, suggesting that awareness is not necessarily translating to interest for operators.
Japan’s motor companies are represented in Toyota and Honda, reflecting a fast-growing car market. With Nissan set to use Thailand as the test market for its March eco-car, competition is likely to increase.
The rest of the top 10 is filled by MNC food and drink brands that spend highly on digital across the region: Pepsi, KFC and Pizza Hut.
Research company TNS interviewed a total of 3000 consumers, aged 15 to 39, across six Asian markets: China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand. Interviews were conducted online using an access panel provided by Lightspeed, a Kantar company.
The research had four main objectives: to understand consumer awareness of a brand’s digital presence in each market; to examine the use of digital media by different brands in the region; to assess the effect a brand’s digital presence has on influencing consumer choice; and to explore levels of consumer trust towards different media channels.
Accurate representation of consumers was achieved via stratified sampling with quotas on age, gender and city in line with population distribution. The brands included in the survey comprise the top spending advertisers in each market across all media, according to Nielsen’s ad expenditure data.
This study therefore focuses on the digital presence of the top advertisers only. Those advertisers and brands not included in the list of top spenders are by default excluded from the study.