Planes, trains and large mobiles

I’ve been living in Hong Kong for 2 weeks now and thankfully completed my first week of work actually rather enjoying myself.  Admittedly, it’s not very long but I have to say, Hong Kong is already starting to feel like home.

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The things you first notice to be ‘different’ to the way things are done back home start to become less distinctive, less tangible, as you assimilate to local cultures.

It’s also a wonderfully exciting, shape-shifting, stunningly beautiful little island which makes that transition somewhat easier for most people like myself turning up from different corners of the world.

But I guess it’s natural behaviour whenever you visit somewhere new for the first time to take notice of the things that are different to your familiar surroundings, possibly as some in-built survival mechanism going back to our hunter-gatherer beginnings.

It’s these shiny new discoveries that make moving anywhere new so worthwhile.  It forces you to read your environment, adapt your behaviour and open up your mind to new ways of functioning and thinking.

But before I really do stop noticing the novelty in everyday life around me, I think there’s a value to picking out a couple of the immediate, instinctive differences in Hong Kong to life back in Britain and what, if anything, this might mean for brands pitching up fresh off the boat.

The first thing that’s strikingly apparent is the efficiency with which things happen here.  At the airport on arrival, you’re off the plane and through customs in minutes and the luggage is on the belt before you even get there!  As I quickly found out, this ethos of user /consumer centred efficiency permeates all walks of life.

Take opening a bank account as a foreign national.  You turn up unannounced with a passport and less than 30 minutes later you walk out with an account, debit card, PIN and cheque book.  No waiting for approval, or for your welcome pack to arrive in the post, or booking an appointment for computer to just say no.  The same thing at Immigration Tower to be issued with my work permit, except the process took all of about 10 minutes.

And the huge outdoor escalator from the Mid-level residences to and from the city (which if you swipe your Octopus card on a reader gives you a discounted Metro ride to reward using your feet instead of a cab) is on the face of it a bit silly, but actually just makes life easy.

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The second thing that is perhaps not as conspicuous but once you notice it once, you can’t stop seeing, is the amount of mobile usage.  People aren’t constantly talking, but interacting with the handset’s other functions.  It’s a common site to see dozens of people all with their heads down, concentrating hard on their screens, oblivious to the people around them.

I took this photo with my own phone of every person around me doing something on their   phone whilst travelling on an MTR train.  (It’s ok, everyone was concentrating too hard on what they were doing to think I was being a bit weird).

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How there aren’t more accidents on the streets with people bumping into each other I don’t know. Further evidence of a strongly developed mirror neuron capacity, perhaps?

I’m yet to discover what exactly is occupying their time so keenly but I’m quite sure they’re not ‘engaging’ with brands in a way many marketers would wish to be true.

The Far East is leading the way in mobile penetration and usage.  I’ve even realised that the larger product design of handsets such as the Galaxy Note, S3  and iPad mini have probably been influenced by the preferred method of drawing letters on the screen to text message, as opposed to typing.

But if my first two weeks here have taught me anything, the role for brands in this space isn’t to try to increase ‘dwell time’ or ‘brand engagement’ by creating self-centered content games and apps to hit people over the head with more brand messaging, but to go with the grain of behaviour and simply make life easier for people.

Of course, brands have always been useful.  People wouldn’t buy them if they didn’t serve quite a rational purpose.  But how often do we think that the opportunity for brands is to use technology to get the hell out of the way, rather than expect more attention from largely disinterested people.

It’s been said before by much more intelligent people than myself, that people don’t really care that much about brands.  But that doesn’t mean brands can’t be of value and therefore appreciated.  They can, by using technology to make life easier and demanding less valuable time from people like some needy child with an attention deficit.

Some brands have already begun to see the opportunities this could bring.  For example Starbucks’ Passbook iPhone app that allows you to find stores, pay at the till and earn rewards using your phone.  Or the virtual Tesco Homeplus store idea from South Korea.  Yet both of these examples do close the loop between marketing and revenue.  They both begin with the user, understand his or her behaviour and use technology to make their lives easier, ultimately paying back to the brand.

As Charles Channon pointed about more than twenty years ago, there’s a difference efficiency and effectiveness.  Efficiency is doing things right and effectiveness is doing the right thing*.

From my experiences so far,  if brands can learn from the efficiencies of the East, and put the user at the centre of marketing activity using technology to demand less of them, instead of more, then doing the right thing should follow.

*I’ve used poetic license here to reference this completely out of context but this is well worth reading for anyone for whom brand evaluation is a part of their job and in particular, anyone that believes ROI (efficiency) and effectiveness are the same thing.

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