Competing in Asia:
A Winning Strategy for the 21st
Century’s Largest Consumer Market
The Honorable Alan W. Steelman
Former Member of U. S. Congress, Texas
The Monitor Company
International Trade Association
World Trade Week Awards Gala
Dallas, Texas, May 20, 1997
An Asian Renaissance
It has become fashionable to speak about the coming 21st century as the Asian
century. Indeed, when you combine a region that contains 60% of the world’s
population with national economic growth rates in many of the countries of the
region that have approached double digits for more than two decades, then this
point of view becomes persuasive.
While it is true that we are witnessing an Asian Renaissance, I think that a
more careful analysis supports the case for the next century being a period that
will be dominated by the countries located along the Pacific Rim, including Asia
and the United States. The fact that Asia and the United States are each others
biggest trading and investment partners, the fact that the world’s four most
productive economies: the U.S., Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan are all Pacific
Rim countries and the strong desire on the part of all the major nations in Asia
for the U. S. to continue to play the role of “honest diplomatic broker” in the
region, all combine to provide a compelling case in favor of this broader
Pacific Rim view.
A Complex Strategic Challenge
This presents a particular challenge for policy makers in both Asia
and North America. The challenge is equally great for those who manage
businesses engaged in international trade because many in Asia and North America
are, at the same time, the others biggest customer and biggest competitor.
Navigating this complex set of challenges requires integrated thinking and
important strategic choice-making. My purpose, tonight, is to address this
question of how senior-level managers can position their companies to compete
and win in Asia.
An Economic Market Equal to the Size of the
U. S. and Europe Combined
The size and dimension of the region in both geographic and economic terms is
awesome. Of the more than five billion people who live on the planet, more than
half reside in Asia. Over 20% of the world’s population live in China alone. 1.2
billion people live on a land mass roughly equal to that of the United States.
There are 8 provinces in China which have more population than the largest
European country. Guangdong Province with 65 million people is larger than
France, Hebei Province with 63 million people is larger than England, Sichuan
Province with 110 million is larger than Germany and is 70% the size of Japan.
Within five years it is estimated that Asia’s combined GNP will be double
that of Europe and will represent one third of the entire world economy. Over
500 million will be middle class within the next 5 years representing a market
roughly equal to that of The U. S. and Europe combined. With India included,
there are 3 billion people in the region and half of them are under 25.
America is Mars and Asia is Venus
A winning Asian strategy starts with an understanding of Asia as a
region of the world where certain adjustments in the traditional business model
are required on the part of Westerners in order to accommodate the subtleties
and nuance of culture and business practice.
Acer, one of the world’s leading PC brands has a slogan, “global brand, local
touch”. This means that the company will have one brand worldwide, but that
local market conditions are taken into account in each country where the company
does business when it comes to strategy, equity structure and how local
operations are conducted. It behooves anyone doing business in Asia to take into
account several important issues where Incorporating a “local touch” can
dramatically enhance the chances of success.
There are many surface similarities between east and west. In Tokyo, Hong
Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur the visitor observes familiar looking
architecture, fashion, movies, music and most of the familiar brands of Western
consumer products. Yet, in the commercial world the subtle and often
subterranean differences are significant enough to sabotage otherwise,
well-thought out business strategies.
Many of you, will have read or heard about the Men are From Mars and Women
are From Venus book which has been a best-seller for sometime now. It describes
the different styles of communication used by men and women. It describes a
world in which men and women frame situations differently and therefore reach
different conclusions about important relationship issues. Similarly, the way
that business relationships are viewed and conducted between east and west are
different. Taking account of these differences are key to developing a winning
The Competitors: Asian conglomerates and
other Multi-national Corporations
Competing in Asia means taking on your traditional set of MNC
competitors and in addition, a group of regional and/or local country-based
competitors as well. The average MNC knows its international competitors pretty
well in terms of positioning, product-mix, market segments, distribution
channels, cost structure, etc.
Winning against these traditional competitors in Asia becomes essentially a
task of understanding the battleground in each of the country markets better
than your adversary and configuring your value proposition and your activity-set
closer to the market than they do.
Winning against the Asian-based competitor, however requires a much different
approach. Outside of Japan, Korea and Taiwan, the Asian competitor will in most
cases be an Asian-based conglomerate with a broad and diverse array of different
businesses. The conglomerate’s initial advantage will be superior market
intelligence and better relationships built up over time. The important
weakness, however, is that the conglomerate model is in most cases a
“hodge-podge” of business units, without any clear focus and without any
world-class positions in any of the businesses. Because most of the Asian
countries have provided protection from foreign competition until recently,
these companies have been successful largely because of systemic factors, rather
than from facing and winning against world class competitors who are focused,
differentiated and have leading cost positions.
Open and Deregulated Markets
Most of the Asian countries are now signatories to the WTO agreement
and are obliged to open their markets to foreign competition for the first time.
While they have been active for many years in exporting to the West, they are
for the first time having to deal with defending the home market against
world-class foreign competition. The conglomerates are vulnerable to having
their individual business units picked off one-by-one by leaner, more focused
competitors. To illustrate, lets take a look at the configuration of a
hypothetical Asian-based conglomerate.
A Joint-Venture Partner is no substitute
for a well-considered strategy
An increasingly popular tack being taken by western MNCs, many of
whom are late off the mark in getting to Asia is to attempt a short-cut by
finding a local partner. The local partner, in many cases one of the Asian-based
conglomerates can provide government access, get the necessary permits to
operate and in some cases provide distribution channels. The western partner is
expected to provide a well-known brand, technology and capital. Selecting the
right partner can be a very effective tactic and is often necessary,
particularly in China, but should not be seen as a substitute for a
well-thought-out, informed, integrated strategy.
Failure of a “joint-venture as a substitute
for strategy” strategy
One of the more publicized cases of a failure of “the joint-venture as a
substitute for strategy” is the case of Wal-Mart allying itself with the CP
Group of Thailand in order to do business in China. There are several reasons
for the break-up, including several of the factors listed on the “Mars and
Venus” chart we saw earlier. Nevertheless, a significant cause was taking the
format that has worked so well in the US and “plopping” it down in Asia, without
taking sufficient strategic consideration of the need for adapting to the
particular requirements of the market.
Similarly, the Chief Executive of one of Asia’s largest conglomerates told me
18 months ago that he didn’t need any formal strategy for China. He had capital
to invest, strong connections at the most senior levels in the Chinese
government and needed only to find interested American or European MNCs with
well-known brands, and proven technology. The test of the wisdom of this
approach wasn’t long in coming. Recently, write-downs were taken on more than
half of the 20 joint-ventures. There was no strategy for how these individual
joint ventures were going to position themselves versus the competitors,
inadequate analysis of the economics of the target industries in China, what
market segments were attractive, how product was going to be distributed, etc.
Successful New Entrants to Existing Markets
A winning market entry strategy takes into account a defined set of steps. These
steps apply in competitive situations involving both the MNC and the Asian-based
A Country by Country Strategy
The region is far more complex for the business strategist than is the
United States or Europe. It isn't one homogeneous market, but a diverse set of
countries with broadly varying customer demographics and regulatory
characteristics. This can prove particularly perplexing for businesses whose
success has been built on a foundation of one uniform format rolled out over
hundreds of thousands of locations. The first wise choice when formulating a
regional strategy is to conduct a country by country assessment to determine
overall market attractiveness and barriers to entry which must be surmounted.
Dimensions of a Winning Strategy
A successful market entry strategy development process is integrated
and comprehensive. The objective is to design a position that achieves a
sustainable competitive advantage and superior financial returns over time. This
process profiles the customer demographics, segments the customer needs, looks
at the industry structure in the given country, analyzes the competitors and
formulates a counter strategy, models the economics of the strategic options,
and lays out the configuration of key capabilities necessary to achieve
A Pacific Rim Century
In closing, This next century offers to the United States and to the countries
of Asia a unique opportunity to build on a foundation that can ensure peace and
prosperity on both sides of the Pacific for a sustainable period of time to
come. The economic models among all the countries along the Pacific Rim for
example, are much closer and compatible than those between the U. S. and Europe
in the post WWII period. Free markets, relatively low tax rates, a strong work
ethic, strong entrepreneurial traditions, and low social welfare costs are
hallmarks of most of the countries in question.
For those charged with driving the strategies of their respective companies,
it is recorded history’s single greatest economic opportunity. With careful
analysis and intelligent choice making, it can provide substantial new market
growth for those with the drive and determination to capture the opportunity.