Health Brands in Emerging Asian Markets

WE Communications Blog: Health

— JJ Lee, Vice President, Regional Health Sector Lead, APAC 

Three months ago I moved to Singapore from Seattle, Washington to lead the health accounts for WE Communications. The last time I was in Asia, I was teaching public policy at the Korea Development Institute in Seoul, but this was nearly six years ago, and much has changed in this region since then. 

In Washington, I helped national health plans and hospital systems navigate state and federal regulations. Much of my consulting and PR work had to do with health policy and health law, which I believed would equip me to handle any challenges in East Asia. However, as a dear friend, and CAO of a large California health system, once told me: “when you know healthcare in one market…that’s what you know – healthcare in one market.”

The learning curve over the last few months has been steep. The work that I have done for global brands in the United States is remarkably different to the work I am doing for some of the same brands, but now in the landscape of emerging markets.

Positioning international brands in emerging markets comes with its own unique set of challenges, for which no amount of training stateside could have prepared me.

Here are some of my takeaways from the past three months.

Many of our health brands in Asia Pacific are forecasting growth in the next three to five years despite challenging macroeconomic environments in key markets like China. In fact, for sectors like the $108.9 billion medical device industry, a CAGR of 7.1% by 2021 would surpass the North American growth rate by about 2.9%.   

Top issues faced by health brands in this ultra-competitive space include:

  • Problems in distribution line. While a communications agency does not directly impact distribution operations, being aware of the brand’s vast regional distribution chain, its key communication touch points, and establishing close relationships with product managers early on, is something your team will be grateful for when crisis breaks.
  • Competition from local manufacturers selling at much cheaper prices. This challenge is present in nearly every market, but is particularly aggressive in emerging Asia. Communicators should be aware of the local narrative and sentiment to help the brand build a proactive story with buy-in from stakeholders and consumers that think beyond pricing.
  • Definitions about value-based care are rapidly evolving. Asian health systems and communities are becoming more sophisticated—and more demanding—in their conversations about the framework of quality and patient-centered care. In Asian markets, purchasers are speaking this language more fluently, and upping the stakes for our health brands and their communications teams to respond.      

The good news for health brands looking to establish their share of voice in Asia Pacific is that there is still a wealth of untapped opportunity here, particularly in areas of corporate reputation building and executive leadership.

This is where we as communicators have the most potential to create impact for our clients in the region, by recognizing that certain global health brand messaging strategies must be pulled apart and restructured to adapt to an ever-changing and evolving Asia market.