Discover Singapore

21 Jul 2015|Added Value

Once a swamp-filled jungle when the British arrived in 1819, Singapore is now a highly urbanised commercial hub, the fourth largest financial centre, and one of the five busiest ports in the world. Although it may be small in absolute terms, commercially there’s no question that it punches above its weight, with a PwC report predicting that Singapore will overtake Switzerland as the wealth management capital of the world this year.

Now approaching its 50th birthday, following its independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore is a notably diverse yet harmonious society with four national languages and four main religions. Respect for different religions and personal beliefs is strongly emphasised by the government. Brands need to understand how to authentically embrace this diversity to be culturally relevant. Unilever’s soap brand, Lux, has done just this by leveraging the use of its product during Holi, the Hindu Festival of Colours. As the coloured powder settles, people are left covered in colour that can often take days to remove. Enter Lux creating special coloured soap bars – not only allowing people to play and create more colour, but also offering a way to wash all colours off afterwards.

Singaporean peoples’ behaviour and attitudes are typically influenced by their home language and religion. Native English speakers tend to lean more toward Western culture, while those who speak Chinese languages natively relate more to Chinese culture. Malay Singaporeans in turn lean toward Malay culture, which is closely intertwined with Islam. This diversity has even led former Prime Ministers to comment that Singapore is not a nation, but a society-in-transition. Many brands have arisen from different cultural heritages to form something that is distinctly Singaporean. Fashion designer Ong Shunmugam combines Chinese cheongsam with Indian and Indonesian patterns, whilst Bread Talk is a highly innovative bakery brand that has brought the bread culture to Asia in a modern format but with traditional flavours.

The pace of development in Singapore has been staggering. In 1960, some 80% of the population lived in makeshift wooden houses known as “squatters”, and within one generation Singapore was able to boast having “no homeless, no squatters, no poverty ghettos and no ethnic enclaves”. This was achieved through a public housing programme, with each housing development having a quota system to ensure racial integration.

By the 1980s, many of Singapore’s problems were solved – unemployment and crime rates were low, and the population was compliant. But at what cost? The measures the government took to maintain the status quo are seen by many as controlling and restrictive. Singapore’s media in particular is tightly controlled with the country ranking in the bottom 15% of 180 countries in a Reporters Without Borders index of press freedoms. Japanese lingerie brand Wacoal found a way around stricter laws regarding ads in public places through the power of social media. The brand launched its iPant campaign solely online, offering interactive competitions and giveawayson its Facebook page and sharing tips with consumers.

The population is professional, well-educated and well- travelled, and local marketing reflects this. Singapore is a very consumerist society, with shopping often described as the national pastime (along with eating!). This has driven a boom in shops catering to demand for overseas food and produce, while previously underdeveloped shopping areas have had a makeover to attract shoppers. Take upmarket US grocer Dean & DeLuca, for example, which has popped up in the central shopping district of Singapore. In addition, ‘Tea Salon & Boutique’ TWG may look quintessentially European with its premium prices and French slogan but it’s actually Singaporean, highlighting the aspirational view of western brands and the trend for local brands to harness these tastes.

The rapid pace of change in Singapore has also created a consumer appetite for technological advancement, and the government has been keen to establish the country as an innovation hub – particularly in the fields of biomedical science, pharma and green technology. IKEA has been successful in this space by harnessing Singapore’s love of technology with their “BookBook” advert parodying Apple’s MacBook ads. This playful approach was wildly successful, with the IKEA Singapore YouTube ad clocking up in excess of 17m views, from a population of just 5.3m.

Yet despite this national mind-set of embracing the new, there remains widespread nostalgia for the village feel of the past. The biggest challenge for brands and retailers in Singapore is to keep up with changing tastes in a city where shoppers can often be fickle.

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