Written by Jeremy Sy, Director of Consulting, Kantar Futures, Singapore

“I love you, but stop trying to change me.” That’s the message young people in Asia today are sending to global brands, especially in Indonesia, where a fascination with global brands is colliding with a desire to preserve traditional values. The result: it’s time to re-think what it means to be a “global brand” and to re-visit the “relationships” brands want to build with people.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently on research conducted by Jakarta company GroupW and unveiled by the US Chamber of Commerce. Despite being big fans of brands like Nike and KFC, more than half of Indonesian 16-25 year olds agree that “the government is too lenient on foreign companies,” while 72% think that “Indonesia should be more nationalistic when it comes to the economy.”

Research conducted by Kantar Futures in Indonesia earlier this year suggests the word “nationalistic”  may be more important than “economy.” 37% of Indonesians are angered because they feel businesses and corporations have more influence on government than citizens, but far more —68%—believe that the honesty and integrity of businesses in their dealings with the public is actually at a very high level. So it’s not surprising that only 20% of Indonesians go out of their way to buy locally made products, and only 9% think less favorably of global brands. It seems that Indonesians choose to patronize global brands because, on the whole, they’re seen to deliver on their promises to consumers.

Stop trying to change me

The ambivalence noted in the Wall Street Journal article seems instead to be about the impact global brands and companies are having on Indonesian values and culture. In our research, we found that 71% of Indonesians worry that the values and traditions that they most appreciate about their country are being eroded by other cultural/global influences. And that’s the highest level of endorsement for that statement out of all 22 countries we studied in 2013.

So, it’s complicated. Indonesians buy global brands and like them for what they are, global baggage included. They don’t feel these brands are responsible for how they impact Indonesian cultures and values. But they don’t want to adopt the values represented by these brands. Or in other words: I’m happy to love you, but stop trying to change me.

Creating tension

And as in personal relationships, this creates a tension. Consumers need to know: How can I continue to use a brand without compromising who I am and what I believe in? This space opens up new questions about what it really means to be a “global brand.” Across most countries in our research, there has been a significant rise in the importance of preserving one’s cultural traditions. The figure is particularly high in countries such as Turkey, China, India and Indonesia, which because of their growth, are attracting disproportionate attention from global corporations.

They’re also countries whose core values are most different from the Western-rooted values at the core of most global brands. While consumers in these countries are currently willing to embrace these brands, as we discussed in our Future Perspective on The Future of Global Brands, the next generation will seek to integrate the global and the local.

More broadly, perhaps it’s time to re-visit what brands mean when they talk about forging a “relationship” with consumers. We’re now more willing than we’ve ever been to embrace a wider spectrum of relationship types with the people in our lives: “frenemies,” “friends with benefits,” and so on. Brands have lagged behind, demanding a monogamous relationship if at all  possible. Maybe the trick is to better negotiate what “relationship” means with today’s savvier consumers.

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