Five areas of growth for digital marketing in ASEAN

With growth increasingly hard to achieve, Southeast Asian companies must make decisive moves in five areas of modern digital marketing to capture potential opportunities.

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives and livelihoods throughout Southeast Asia, with most countries experiencing some form of lockdown.

While vaccination drives are in rollout across the region, uncertainty looms, which has pushed consumers to shift their behavior drastically. Online purchases have increased substantially. Customers’ loyalty patterns have changed as consumer interaction with brands has become a multipronged journey.

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Against this backdrop, the importance of digital marketing and how it can drive engagement and sales cannot be understated. In Malaysia specifically, companies’ digital-marketing strategies are lagging behind their ASEAN peers, while consumers are spending even more time online engaging and transacting with products, services, and brands. In a world where growth is increasingly hard to come by, digital marketing provides an opportunity to capture the next wave of growth. Capturing that value is critical for companies to achieve growth as the pandemic accelerates consumer behavior; companies will need to undertake bold and decisive moves in five areas of modern digital marketing to capture this upside.

The pandemic backdrop and shifting consumer behavior in ASEAN countries

Five ways to create a winning marketing strategy

As of June 2021, many ASEAN countries are still grappling with varying forms of lockdowns, with travel hindered and large-scale social restrictions still in place in some countries. The lockdowns in 2020 contributed to an expected contraction of 5.6 percent for the full year for Malaysia’s economy. 1

With movement restricted, it’s no surprise that consumers were forced to change their behavior. McKinsey’s Global COVID-19 Digital Sentiment Insights Survey in 2020 shows that 71 percent of users (first-time and regular) plan to continue using digital channels to the same extent or more after the pandemic, with 25 percent of consumers saying they will increase long-term use of digital channels. As they adapt to remote working and studying, consumers’ consumption patterns will also change. In a similar manner, ASEAN surveys we conducted throughout the year found significantly more customers made a portion of their purchases online during—and after—the COVID-19 pandemic than before. In Indonesia, up to 60 percent of consumers reported an increase in intent to spend money online even after the pandemic. 2

At the same time, our surveys showed that the pandemic has affected customer loyalty, with, for instance, 68 percent of Thai consumers and 80 percent of Filipino consumers trying out new brands. 3 Such brand-switching makes company efforts to retain existing customers and acquire new ones increasingly critical (Exhibit 1).

A majority of surveyed Thai and Filipino consumers report switching to new brands during the pandemic; brand unavailability was a main driver.
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Why 2021 and beyond will remain distinctly digital for consumers and businesses

In response to accelerated digital trends caused by the pandemic, there is also a subsequent shift in advertising-budget spend as companies diversify their spend across paid and owned media. Customers are now spending more time and resources on owned-media channels such as websites, mobile apps, and customer-service channels. From a content perspective, there is also a noticeable increase in customer-conversion rates, with social and digital video channels driving the highest ROIs.

These structural shifts in consumer behavior vis-à-vis digital and online make digital marketing more important than ever. Effectively adopting digital marketing, however, requires a mindset shift in how organizations engage and communicate with customers, which is more science than art: it is driven by data and analytics; focused on personalization rather than a one-size-fits-all approach; delivered via social media, as well as broadcast media; interactive and “always on” rather than static and periodic; and iterative rather than pumped out as a single campaign. On this last point, for example, our research suggests that up to 40 percent of consumers use their mobile phones to consult product reviews and prices while in a physical store. Such behavior is emblematic of the broader shifts going on within digital marketing today.

In this context, digital marketing is now a growth engine for many companies across a variety of sectors, with the ability to drive an increase of 5 to 8 percent in revenues over 12 to 18 months by capturing more online traffic and engaging with consumers more effectively. Furthermore, some financial institutions have seen up to a fivefold increase in digital sales, while telco companies can reduce absolute churn by 15 to 40 percent (Exhibit 2) and retailers can significantly increase sales. For example, Levi Strauss launched a Europe-wide digital-marketing campaign that used information gleaned from AI models.

Digital marketing can unlock significant impact across industries, including financial institutions and telcos.
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How companies can bolster their digital-marketing strategy

Formulating and executing a successful strategy requires concerted action across the five elements of modern digital marketing outlined below.

Double down on performance marketing with a goal to enhance customer experience

At its core, performance marketing focuses on continually optimizing performance metrics, such as activation, churn, and upsell, along the customer-journey funnel, leveraging actionable and quick-impact levers (Exhibit 3). Performance marketing plays a vital role in driving customer experience, especially at the lower-funnel interventions, such as digitizing interactions and offering a customer-service response team that responds within an hour.

Performance marketing optimizes metrics along the customer-journey funnel, helping to enhance the customer experience.
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This can be immensely powerful when implemented correctly and at scale. An ASEAN telco recently launched a digital-attacker offering, which involved a campaign for social media that persuaded target customers to sign up for a beta program that was then used to validate go-to-market preferences and product features. The campaign yielded substantial results: 28,000 customers signed up in advance of the beta program, and the year-one customer-acquisition target was hit within six months.

Here, focusing on the most valuable customer metrics in performance marketing is also key. Too often, however, companies get excited about vanity metrics, such as share of voice or traffic, or they pour substantial money into marketing to, in effect, “buy” customers. High performers often identify a “star metric” that is most indicative of success for their businesses.

A telco in Indonesia launching a new business discovered that the daily number of new customers from referrals was the key metric. Focusing on that metric, it prioritized its customer-referral program, and within one month, customer referrals comprised more than 20 percent of all new daily customers. Success against this metric drastically reduced the average cost of acquisition per customer and has helped the business reach its 12-month customer goal in just seven months.

Move pragmatically to a modern martech stack

The marketing-tech (martech) landscape can be confusing to navigate, in part because the number of solutions has grown so rapidly—we calculate that there are more than 7,040 solutions in the market as of late 2019. As such, many organizations have fallen into the trap of investing in martech solutions before carefully thinking through how to use them, resulting in disappointingly low ROI.

A modern martech stack and data setup needs to cover three essential capabilities (Exhibit 4):

  • Campaign execution. Automate and personalize campaigns and communications across owned- and paid-media channels.
  • Audience management. Segment customers based on both their offline data (such as customer relationship management) and online data (such as digital-asset behavior), and share this segmentation with different marketing channels.
  • Data analytics and performance. Collect and register customer behavior for audience-creation and campaign-performance tracking and provide a platform for analytics.
To deliver value, businesses must develop the right marketing-tech stack based on business needs.
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Within the martech stack, the role of the customer data platform (CDP) is increasingly critical. A CDP unifies data from disparate sources to create a single, holistic view of each customer. But it’s much more than just a data aggregator; it also allocates customers into segments (which, in turn, determines which offers and content the customers see) and presents results in an easily digestible, visual manner.

Deploying a martech stack is often less intimidating than it may seem. Many components already exist and often can be repurposed. And many components can be sourced through an on-demand, scalable, cloud model. An ASEAN telco, for example, used existing components to launch its martech stack in less than four weeks. The key is to take a pragmatic and outcome-focused approach to standing up a first version of a workable martech stack. The “bells and whistles” can come later.

Enable an agile operating model for marketing and technology teams

For a digital-marketing strategy to succeed, the marketing and technology teams need to work in lockstep to continuously optimize the customer journey. Leaders need to elevate digital marketing to the CEO agenda to get the necessary executive buy-in and generate momentum. They also need to establish transparency of existing marketing-activity ROI and cease efforts that fall below a certain ROI threshold (the lowest hanging fruit within performance marketing).

In our experience, one of the best ways to do this is to use high-performing existing talent (or initiate hiring processes, where necessary) to form two to three agile-marketing and tech squads to target key performance levers. These talents should include expertise in growth marketing, search-engine optimization, user-experience design, HTML development, attribution analytics, broader campaign management, and copy writing. They also work together to define, prioritize, and execute against research, product, marketing, data, and technology backlogs.

In one successful example of this model, a Hong Kong–based retail bank that was struggling with flattened growth for credit card sales mobilized an agile squad to develop a digital-sales-acceleration playbook to support the scaling of the credit card program. It also worked closely with advertising partners including Google and Facebook, resulting in a 23 percent increase in card applications and a 22 percent reduction in cost per acquisition over a 20-week period.

Balance spend allocation between channels

Organizations continue to struggle with how much to spend online versus offline. Spend allocation should occur at the individual micromarket level and be guided by characteristics of the micromarket. Geospatial analysis can help inform these decisions, as it combines granular geographical data with other forms of demographic, connectivity, behavioral, and income data to create micromarket archetypes.

Companies may also grapple with how much to spend in each subchannel. Organizations often display a “last click wins” bias in digital-ROI assessment, which can lead to an excessive focus on some channels. It’s important to remember that multitouch attribution, which looks at the full customer journey to understand the impact and ROI for each channel, is a useful—and underutilized—approach that explicitly aims to counteract this bias.

Ensure responsible first-party data management

While personalization in digital marketing is here to stay, the increased scrutiny against third-party cookies and new privacy regulations (such as those announced by Mozilla and Chrome in 2019 4 and Apple in 2020) is an impetus for organizations to be responsible holders of first-party data.

Privacy issues lie at the heart of the trust between the customer and the brand. A key question, therefore, is how first-party data can be scaled while maintaining customer confidence and protecting privacy. As regulations evolve, organizations will need to be proactive and clear that they take data privacy seriously. Transparency on how data will be used is critical, as is staff training, implementing measures to prevent data theft, and continually increasing the opt-in base with accountability as a guiding principle.


Digital marketing is more powerful in 2021 than it has ever been before. Organizations looking to capture the 5 to 8 percent of potential incremental revenue will need to be bold and decisive. And the time to act is now.

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