Tam Le is the Regional Associate Strategy Director for Carat APAC.

This article explores the implications of facial recognition, both for advertising and for retail, as well as for future privacy rights.

7-10 minute read

Remember that scene in Minority Report where the protagonist, played by Tom Cruise, walks through a corridor of fully personalised brand advertisements from companies like Lexus and American Express and then ducks into a Gap where the virtual sales assistant greets him by name whilst inquiring about his previous purchases?


Well despite the film being set in 2054, 37 years in the future, we’re actually not far off from this reality today. Google’s FaceNet claims >99% accuracy in facial recognition; Facebook’s DeepFace, >97% accuracy [1]. And when you stop and think about how many pictures are uploaded of you onto Facebook (I’ve been on for over a decade and I’m not camera shy), the implications are overwhelming.

It is these implications of facial recognition that I want to explore in this article, both for advertising and for retail, as well as for future privacy rights.



The first level of facial recognition (in order to gain public acceptance and normalize the idea) is to target messages and ads based on anonymized data like demographics (age, gender, etc.) or consumer behaviour.


Posterscope designed and executed a campaign for the GMC Acadia mid-size SUV that for the first time, linked responsive facial recognition technology to dynamic displays that presented personalized content in an out-of-home campaign [2]. The digital screens were fitted with video sensors and partner Quividi’s audience and context aware platform that anonymously detected and determined whether a passing shopper was a man or woman, alone or with a group, adult or child or even frowning or smiling. Once detection was made, the digital screens were populated with video content and brand messaging tailored to the identified audience. No data or images of any type were collected, stored or shared at any time, ensuring privacy.


In another facial recognition application, Women’s Aid was able to use the technology in a powerful way that underscored their message about domestic violence. Their digital billboards displayed an image of a bruised woman and recognized when people were paying attention to the ad. As more people looked at the ad, her bruises and cuts healed faster, communicating that if people took notice, domestic abuse could be halted [3].

In the future, as facial recognition in OOH becomes more publicly accepted, the displays can start collecting and storing more data on people (what display they pass, at what time, whether they go to a store shortly after viewing an OOH display with a strong sales message, etc.) and building profiles with a history of behaviours.

Fused with the data we will have of people’s online behaviours, this starts creating a more complete overview of the consumer journey, addressing the common concern of not being able to tie offline sales data with online ad impressions. This will also bring us closer to a singular universal ID for each person, which will contain their complete profile and track and retarget them both online and off.



Outside of pure advertising advantages, facial recognition would also have many implications for the retail experience as our physical and digital worlds merge.


KFC, in partnership with Baidu, is already testing out personalization based on the data it gathers through facial recognition at one of its restaurants in Beijing [4]. Installed image recognition hardware scans customer faces, detects mood, gender and age and recommends menu items accordingly. For example, as Baidu claimed in a press release, the system would tell “a male customer in his early 20s” to order “a set meal of crispy chicken hamburger, roasted chicken wings and Coke for lunch,” while “a female customer in her 50s” would get a recommendation of  “porridge and soybean milk for breakfast.” The setup also has built-in recognition to provide better services for returning customers: it can “remember” their order history and suggest past favorites.

In my utopian view of the future, all McDonald’s would have a centralized global database of their customers’ faces  so they could remember, in any country, that I’m going to order either the Big Mac meal with an extra order of fries or the Double Cheeseburger meal if I’m just looking for a snack. Wouldn’t it be great if McDonald’s tracked me from childhood and suggested new menu items as my taste buds developed over time? Additionally, they would know when I reached major life milestones, like becoming a mother, once I start ordering Happy Meals to go with my Big Macs. They could literally see me grow up in front of their very own image recognition hardware, like some kind of distant relative that provides me with fast food.


In an even more maternal move, today the Luce X2 TouchTV vending machine can not only greet you by name and remember your past purchases, but it can also, with access to your medical records, deny you certain items, like a sugary snack if you have diabetes or items that may contain nuts if you have an allergy [5]. The system could also be connected to a retailer’s loyalty points system or linked to the room numbers in a hotel. The opportunities for receiving personalized service from this once faceless, impersonal machine, are endless.


Let’s apply this to a larger retail space, say a supermarket of the future. Building off the concept of Tesco’s virtual subway stores in South Korea, we could use facial recognition to have the store “shelves” customize themselves for each person in a way that would make customers more likely to purchase and purchase more. I’m more likely to buy certain brands, items, and categories than you are, and vice versa. How can retailers exploit this and get the both of us to buy more?

For example, if I stepped up to a digital shelf in the milk “aisle”, it would only show me soy, coconut, or almond milk made with very few ingredients (the only types of milks I buy) whereas it could show someone else baby formula. But then the retailer also knows I have a sweet tooth so it would show me some cookies that would go great with milk, which I may not have bought in a physical store because the cookies are placed far from the milk.

Additionally, brands could pay to be in the prime front-and-center shelf space (which they do in physical stores), but do it in a cost-effective way, like only paying for a prime position on target consumers’ virtual shelves, instead of wasting money through prime placement on everyone’s shelves.

Facial recognition would also have many implications for the branding industry. With virtual shelves, brands can also cost effectively A/B test new packaging design in-situ and at scale to determine each option’s effectiveness or alter the claims shown on packaging per individual to tailor their message. This could mark the end of one-design-fits-all.

On top of all of these advances, facial recognition also offers the benefit of frictionless payment, like Alibaba’s Smile to Pay technology. And as we know from technological advances of the past, such as moving from cash to credit card, the further we move away from exchanging physical goods and the easier we make it to pay, the more people will spend.

You’re probably now wondering, if these new innovations allow for greater and greater marketing effectiveness, and it seems like we already have the technology to implement these ideas, what’s stopping us from getting to this advertisers’ utopia?



“We recognize the creepy, but we don’t want to stifle innovation. If we cross that line from cool to creepy, people will stop using that service,” recognizes Carl Szabo, a lawyer with NetChoice, a tech industry group that represents companies like Facebook, Google, and Yahoo [6].

I recognize not everyone is as excited as I am at the prospect of McDonald’s recognizing you and watching you grow up or store shelves rearranging themselves when you start approaching. In fact, even with today’s relatively limited use of facial recognition, a backlash is already starting.544184752_1280x720A couple examples of this come from artist and technologist Adam Harvey, who has designed both face camouflage and anti-surveillance clothing. The face camouflage, called computer vision dazzle (or CV dazzle), uses a strategic application of paint and hair-styling to throw-off patterns that facial recognition algorithms look for, such as the degree of light and dark in the cheekbones, or the way color is distributed on the nose bridge—a baseline amount of symmetry [7]. When CV dazzle is executed properly, it transforms a face into a mess of unremarkable pixels causing a momentary burst of confusion for the computer, allowing the wearer to go undetected. The anti-surveillance clothing, dubbed the Hyperface project, involves printing patterns on to clothing or textiles, which then appear to have multiple eyes, mouths and other features that a computer can interpret as a face, overwhelming facial recognition systems by presenting them with thousands of false hits so they can’t tell which faces are real [8].

As evidenced by these self-iniatives, many consumers don’t want to be tracked by cameras and their images sold by corporations like Google and Facebook to advertisers. The path to societal acceptance of facial recognition technology will have to be slow and transparent. Szabo, the lawyer with NetChoice [6] admits that “legislation cannot move at the speed of innovation,” and suggests companies make their facial recognition policies hyper transparent and explicit so that consumers can “vote with their feet” if they are “creeped out.”

“If we did start recognizing people en masse then I think outdoor would have the same problem that digital display is having with people getting fed up and install ad blockers. You can’t do something just because the technology is there, you have to be led by the consumer and not the technology,” says Chris Pelekanou, commercial director at Clear Channel, one of the world’s largest out-of-home advertising business [9]. This is something we as marketers must keep in mind as advertising is most effective when people embrace it.


This article was developed with much help from Ben Milne, Head of Innovation at Posterscope.

[1] http://fortune.com/2015/03/17/google-facenet-artificial-intelligence/
[2] http://pioneeringooh.com/responsive-facial-recognition-technology-redefines-customer-engagement/
[3] http://www.adweek.com/creativity/bruised-woman-billboard-heals-faster-more-passersby-look-her-163297/
[4] https://techcrunch.com/2016/12/23/baidu-and-kfcs-new-smart-restaurant-suggests-what-to-order-based-on-your-face/
[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/retailandconsumer/11274179/The-vending-machine-of-the-future-is-here-and-it-knows-who-you-are.html
[6] https://news.vice.com/article/facial-recognition-technology-is-big-business-and-its-coming-for-you
[7] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/07/makeup/374929/
[8] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/04/anti-surveillance-clothing-facial-recognition-hyperface
[9] https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2016/aug/17/facial-recognition-a-powerful-ad-tool-or-privacy-nightmare


Hello Advertisers, It’s 2017

Tam Le is the Regional Associate Strategy Director for Carat APAC.

As culture continues to evolve in Asia, accelerated by the ubiquity of the Internet and the different global viewpoints that it brings, gender roles will begin to shift and blur and our industry will need to keep up. But what is the best way to do that?

7 minute read

A few years ago I was dating a guy who was a much better knitter than me, in fact, an interest in knitting was one of our common interests and a conversation starter for us. I thought it was great that he was so skilled in an old-fashioned craft, but when I told my Vietnamese parents that he had just helped fix one of my scarves, they were less than pleased. My mom questioned his masculinity. My dad just laughed. They couldn’t understand how a man could be interested in knitting and I couldn’t understand their rigid view on traditional gender roles.

But it seems like I’m not alone on this. The global rise of third-wave feminism and the growing gender equality in education and income is manifesting itself in attitudes in Asia. JWT surveyed[1] over 1,500 men and women in Singapore, China and Malaysia in 2013 and found that eight in 10 agreed that men and women are pretty equal today, and that gender doesn’t define a person as much as it used to.

Yet, our briefs remain as stereotypical as ever. Baby formula? Only mums know how to take care of babies. Beer? Only men drink that. This is ridiculous. It’s 2017, and it is time we, as advertisers, caught up or risk alienating a large potential consumer base.


And speaking of the rise in third-wave feminism, the effects of which have trickled down into marketing all over the world (as seen here, here, here, here, and here), it’s easy to forget that men have difficulties and face biases as well. In the same JWT survey[1] of Asian consumers, eight in 10 also believe that while people talk about the difficulties women face, things are just as hard for men. On top of that, men are more likely than women to say that life in general is harder compared the generation before because, similar to women, their spheres of influence are growing, shrinking, and generally shifting in new, uncharted directions that most brands have yet to catch up with.

Daddy Day Care

“This trope is repeated everywhere in popular culture, from adverts portraying fathers as feckless incompetents who can’t even take care of a KFC bucket to cartoons where the butt of every joke is the idiot dad: Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin and, most egregious of all, Daddy Pig in Peppa Pig,” rants Andrew Watts in his appropriately titled “Stop telling men they’re useless at childcare, and maybe they’ll be better” feature in The Spectator.

Today men in Singapore, Malaysia, and China are almost equally likely to state “emotional support for their family” as a primary definer of manliness as they were to name “career success.”

Today men in Singapore, Malaysia, and China are almost equally likely to state “emotional support for their family” as a primary definer of manliness as they were to name “career success,[1]” and in 2014, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower reported that 10,200 male Singaporeans and permanent residents cited “family responsibilities” (e.g. childcare, housework, etc.) as their main reason for not working, more than triple the number in 2006[2]. The movement towards gender equality is evident and even in countries with great disparity, like Japan where just a meagre 2% of Japanese men took paternity leave in 2012, strides are being made by the government to normalize greater male involvement in family life. The Japanese government currently grants male employees with young children up to one year of childcare leave with the goal of raising the percentage of men who take paternity leave from 2% to 13% by 2020[3].

Perhaps as time goes on, and these government initiatives and evolving mind sets take a greater hold, marketers will realize that both men and women share the responsibility of making major childcare decisions, on matters such as education, activities, and diet. Maybe then, grievances like those of Andrew Watts, will be a thing of the past: “I just find it odd that women, who would be appalled by anyone suggesting that a woman’s place is in the home, can promulgate the idea that men are, by their nature, hopeless parents—even though that’s saying the same thing in different words.”

A Man’s Place is in the Kitchen… and the Laundry Room

In addition to childcare, men around the world are taking a more active role in household chores. According to our own Consumer Connections Study (CCS) data for Thailand, 92% of men reported purchasing household items within the past 12 months versus only 74% of women. In a different study, The Parenting Group, which publishes Parenting magazine, among others, teamed with Edelman in 2012 to conduct two surveys[4] of American fathers; they found that about 70% of dads report they buy the groceries, cook, and clean. This is not limited to just Western markets: 40% of Asian men also say they are the primary grocery shopper[1].

However, it would be irresponsible to not state what the women reported in the very same surveys. Although 70% of American dads said they did the grocery shopping, only 36% of American moms agreed[4]. That number drops to just 12% among women in Asia[1]. Given this, it’s easy to dismiss the role of men in grocery shopping.

However, seeing how so few food and cleaning brands currently speak to fathers in Asia, the ones who successfully do will stand out and win over this growing demographic, and perhaps a few approving mothers as well.

Boy Beauty


This past year saw many large multinational beauty brands embracing male spokespeople. CoverGirl named makeup artist and high school senior James Charles as its beauty ambassador; Maybelline appointed Manny Gutierrez (@mannymua733) as theirs, and Rimmel followed with 17-year old beauty vlogger Lewys Ball[5]. With these bold strokes, the cosmetics industry has rung the death toll on traditional, narrowly-defined gender norms.

For those of you who think the actions of these Western brands don’t apply to Asia, think again. In fact, the rise of male grooming applies more to APAC than any other region of the world. Asia holds the largest men’s skincare market, accounting for 2.1 billion dollars, or 64% of the global spend on male skin creams, lotions and whiteners, according to Euromonitor’s April 2013 data. China is the largest men’s skincare market, accounting for nearly 30% of global spend, while South Korea holds second place with almost 20% of the global share[6]. “There is a wider idea of skincare being effeminate in many countries, but in Korea, this doesn’t seem to be the case,” noticed Simon Duffy, co-founder of the United Kingdom male skincare brand Bulldog. “If your mother has a nine-step skin routine, which happens a lot in Korea, you’re going to do five,” said Euromonitor beauty analyst Nicole Tyrimou[6].

Asia holds the largest men’s skincare market, accounting for 2.1 billion dollars, or 64% of the global spend on male skin creams, lotions and whiteners.

But this trend doesn’t stop with China and South Korea: thanks to Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan, sales of male grooming products are growing faster than the entire beauty product category (9% versus 5%, respectively), according to 2013 research from Kantar Worldpanel[7]. “This is where the market’s development is happening,” stated Euromonitor analyst Tyrimou. “It’s very concentrated in Asia[6].”

However, what motivates the well-groomed men of the East varies from culture to culture. The same Kantar Worldpanel found that in the South-eastern countries of the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, consumers felt that career success involves looking the part. Whereas in China, most men just wanted to win over the ladies[7]. It’s important to understand these different motivations in order to land the right communication message for each market. Doing so could help brands win over the huge remainder of the male beauty market that remains untapped, which Kantar estimates at US$6 billion[7].

Just as the traditional role of women have made dramatic shifts in Asia, so too have the traditional roles and self-perceptions of men who now see themselves as active participants in the household and in their own skincare routine.



“Women are not a special-interest group. They are over half the population.”

Many articles have covered the rise of women’s spending power, or the female economy, or sometimes called—and I shudder to write this—the sheconomy. Yet, despite this rise in power, and one would assume that with it comes respect, marketing executives, such as Simois Ng head of marketing communications at Sony, are still quoted saying, “some people might assume that women prefer to take selfies but actually, they can shoot professional photographs too[8],” and believing that they are actually giving credit where credit is due.

Too many brands still believe that “shrink it and pink it” is still a valid approach when appealing to women. Hopefully these next couple of examples will prove there are some more nuanced ways to approach it.

Whisky and Women

Skinnygirl Margarita, Little Black Dress Vodka, Chick Beer: all of these (real) brands make me want to barf…and it’s not from excessive drinking. It’s because they try to pander to their target market in such an obvious way that it becomes desperate and sad—in the words of one of my favourite brand strategists, “hey, your strategy is showing.”

Fortunately, not all brands have such an outdated, stereotypical view of female drinking habits. “Diageo has a comprehensive marketing guide that regulates how we present our products to everyone, whether male or female. We always show respect for consumers and work within the industry to encourage similar behaviour. In terms of best practice, we feel it’s important to never underestimate or patronise women,” states Mark Sandys, category director for whisky and reserve at Diageo[9]. This is especially valuable in Asia where women are increasingly becoming more empowered and going out, especially in mixed-gender groups, is becoming more common. Diageo has observed that “In China for instance, women account for a quarter of all whisky consumption. In India, the number of women enjoying whisky has gone up by nearly 30% versus last year, and our team on the ground is telling us that female participation at whisky tastings has increased by around a third on last year. A new generation of young, professional female whisky drinkers are introducing their friends, colleagues and clients to the spirit[9].”

In China for instance, women account for a quarter of all whisky consumption. In India, the number of women enjoying whisky has gone up by nearly 30% versus last year.

In order to win over this valuable and discerning segments, there are two approaches: a gender neutral one, and a purposefully gendered one, but done from a place of understanding. For the first route, to quote Sandys from Diageo again, “Fundamentally we believe that ‘[gender] bilingual’ marketing makes for better marketing. One of the key ways of doing this is by raising our standards of design. New launches such as John Walker & Sons Odyssey or Johnnie Walker Platinum have stunning, aesthetically beautiful pack designs that we know appeal to both men and women[9].” On the other end of the spectrum, you have brands like White Girl Rosé, Veuve Clicquot, and Moet & Chandon which explicitly appeal to women, yet they do it from a place that, in the case of White Girl Rosé, makes us feel like we’re in on the joke, even though it was created by male comedian The Fat Jew. Similar to John Walker & Sons Odyssey or Johnnie Walker Platinum, the design is sleeker and devoid of gimmicky images of high heels and pearls. Thought and tact (except in the case of White Girl Rosé) will go a long way.



Get in, Loser. We’re Going Shopping.

You’d think with the way every car commercial ever is narrated by a man with a deep voice that women don’t buy cars when according to CCS, the percentage of women who have discussed or bought an automotive is neck-and-neck with the percentage of men in APAC markets like India and Hong Kong, and actually greater than in Malaysia.

tam7In fact, auto analysts CNW Marketing Research and J.D. Power and Associates say that about 40% of spending on new cars last year was done by women[10]. “The automobile is a product reflecting the personal lifestyle and taste of both men and women today. Women are also the key decision makers in family matters including the purchase of big-ticket items like cars and may affect men’s choice of car models,” says Reinhold Carl, managing director of Audi Hong Kong[8].

In order to communicate with women in a way that appeals to them, Audi utilizes fashion platforms such as The Hong Kong Fashion Extravaganza to build word-of-mouth. It is also important to communicate the features that matter to the people who will be actually using them instead of falling back on the same tired tropes—such as speed and horsepower—when many women are actually looking for utility[11]. So instead of showing a car zipping through the curves of the countryside or a mountain, maybe show how a certain SUV is built to accommodate a mother who needs to load two small children into it.

As women’s salaries begin to climb, and therefore their decision-making influence and purchasing power along with it, marketers will need to begin to focus more on them and their needs. Because as Jim Winters, president of branding agency Badger & Winters, put it so elegantly, “Women are not a special-interest group. They are over half the population[12].”


As culture continues to evolve in Asia, accelerated by the ubiquity of the Internet and the different global viewpoints that it brings, gender roles will begin to shift and blur (men will knit; women will drink whisky) and our industry will need to keep up. But what is the best way to do that? Do we change tactics, adopting a unique one for each gender, or do we ignore it as a part of the demographic profile all together? It might be confusing because my article presented both ways, each one working for different brands. And that’s because there are arguments to be made for each tactic, which we want to flesh out with these next two Rocket articles, each one written by a different member of Carat APAC.


A case against changing tactics for genders. 
A case for changing tactics for genders.


1. https://lbbonline.com/news/jwt-report-on-the-state-of-asian-men/
2. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/mums-at-work-dads-minding-the-kids
3. http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/1495347/japan-encourages-fathers-take-more-active-role-child-care
4. http://www.edelman.com/news/the-parenting-group-and-edelman-partner-to-provide-insights-on-the-modern-dad-at-the-first-dad-2-0-summit-82-percent-of-men-who-became-a-parent-in-the-past-to-years-feel-there-is-a-societal-bias-ag-2/
5. https://cassandra.co/life/2017/02/10/boy-beauty
6. https://www.wsj.com/articles/in-asia-mens-skin-care-takes-off-1401320768
7. http://www.campaignasia.com/article/asias-male-grooming-sector-growing-faster-than-entire-beauty-category-kantar/372632
8. http://www.marketing-interactive.com/the-rise-of-the-she-conomy/
9. http://www.campaignasia.com/article/women-and-whisky-diageos-gender-neutral-marketing-formula/383418
10. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703521304576278964279316994
11. https://hbr.org/2009/09/the-female-economy
12. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-end-of-shrink-it-or-pink-it-a-history-of-advertisers-missing-the-mark-with-women/2016/06/08/3bcb1832-28e9-11e6-ae4a-  


It’s not about gender, it’s about human truth

HyoJae An is the Associate Strategy Director for Carat APAC.

Instead of creating messaging on gender, let’s focus on getting to understand the human truth and the “why” of consumer behaviour, and start targeting communicating around on shared interests or qualities that resonates.

5 minute read

As marketers and agencies we are all familiar with consumer marketing terms such as millennials, baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Z… etc. These terms can sometimes be useful when taking in very general terms but it is important to remember that no two millennials nor two women are truly alike.

Mass communication and advertising still stereotype and bucket people into one “type” (think “moms” or “teenagers”) and I find this at best limiting and at worst, dangerous for marketers. Because when we try to fit people into these superficial boxes we make assumptions that can be both wrong and that paint very dull creative pictures which we feed to the world in the form of ad campaigns.

Advertising has and will continue to influence society’s culture and opinions. Young girls and boys who are exposed to advertising will undoubtedly be affected by the messages that they see, in fact it is this early exposure to “gender roles” that go on to impact the imbalance of female representation in industries such as science, engineering and C-level positions. Today’s society is so much more fluid than it used to be and we need to focus on finding the human truth that goes beyond gender, age and social class. Instead of creating messaging on gender we should look to target and create messages based on interests and real human behaviour.

One of the biggest advocates of anti-demographic targeting is Netflix, they find it useless and believe it doesn’t tell the full story, instead they look at actual behaviour and cluster people on taste profile because as they put it.There are actually 19-year-old guys who watch Dance Moms, and there are 73-year-old women who are watching Breaking Bad and Avengers.” They even go as far as to say demographic targeting will damage your brand.

As advertising technology and capabilities advance we look to take more advantage of targeting tools based on interests, activities, location, sentiment and past behaviour. For example, we look to employ people based targeting that doesn’t care for demographics, simply things like patterns of behaviours, video consumption and purchase history across screens. This allows us to still get the mass reach that our clients need while allowing for creation of multiple audience subset audiences within the overall female or male target. This increases relevance and ultimately improves the viewers experience. Facebook call this People-based marketing, in reality it is about using the data available to create scalable and accurate target segments, correctly represented across devices.

These are the tools marketers should be using to help ad resonance and real cut through.

As consumers are increasingly bombarded ads brands can better serve them by spending more time in tailoring the content and the message.

Instead of painting all women and men with the same gender brush let’s focus on getting to understand the human truth and the “why” of consumer behaviour, and start targeting communicating around on shared interests or qualities that resonates.

But… Is there really no human truth in classifying people by gender?

Christine Liu is the Assistant Insights Manager for Carat APAC.

Both gender and behavioural targeting can work, but it’s stereotyping that is the root of the problem.

5 minute read

Behavioural targeting seems to have earned a golden rep of being
the cutting-edge solution that runs closest to the human truth because it’s touted to be more inclusive by eliminating pigeonholing and bias, unlike the evil alternative of demographic (usually gender) targeting which is faulted for being backdated, lacking thought, and too rigidly segmented to entirely understand an audience’s motivations.

1. Gender and behavioural targeting aren’t opposites, they don’t necessarily have to run in silos, and choosing the right targeting approach really depends on the nature of your business.

  • There can be accuracy in targeting primarily by gender, if you know and can prove that people belonging to a certain gender truly do emanate similar characteristics collectively
  • Behavioural targeting involves categorizing people into buckets too, and with categorizing there’s always the danger of over-generalising and failing to see the true picture

2. With either (or any other) targeting solution, blind assumptions and typecasting is the real problem at hand. There is no fixed approach to targeting and no shortcuts in research if you want to really understand how your consumers want to be spoken to.

If you know a product is largely used by a particular gender, and have research that confirms it (e.g. sales figures), it only makes sense to address your audience of that gender primarily, because it is the reality of your business. People belonging to a particular gender can have a propensity to share & champion certain beliefs, and to avoid addressing these gendered perspectives could mean missing out on connecting with your audience on an intimate, emotional level.

The famous Always’ “Like A Girl” campaign exemplifies this. For years, the maker of menstrual pads, avoided any blatant feminine cues for their very female audience, choosing to focus on communicating their brand’s value of ‘confidence’ only in a functional, product-focused manner (“With Always, you can play Twister confidently”). However, over time, their utilitarian approach soon became insufficient to fulfill the emotional engagement that younger females grew to appreciate from brands. Additionally, the functional differentiation between their products and those of competing brands diminished, deeming their product communications ineffective.

always twister

After thorough exploration to uncover what confidence personally meant to young girls, which involved social experiments, discussions with their potential audience, and surveys, they established that girls go through a confidence crisis during puberty. Compared to boys, girls’ self-esteem drops twice as much during puberty according to their study, because the expectation to conform to feminine stereotypes, like physical beauty and submissiveness, begins during this phase of their lives. They are taught that leadership, power and strength are not for them, but more suited to their male counterparts. And that boys should be raised not to be a girl, as if being female is less superior.

always likeagirl

This led Always to create their  “Like A Girl” campaign that challenged and redefined gender stereotypes, both to the benefit of their business, and to society. Before the campaign, the expression ‘like a girl’ was mostly used in a derogatory way. In a post-campaign study, almost 70% of females, and also 60% of males, claimed that the campaign’s video changed their perception of the phrase ‘like a girl’ positively. There was also a higher-than-average lift in brand preference, and claimed purchase intent increased more than 50% among their target, showing that messages tailored for gender can be effective, provided due diligence has been exercised in thoroughly researching the audience to anticipate how the message will be interpreted.

When time and effort isn’t taken to dig deep into the gender-related perspectives and motivations of your audience, and to ensure that these views are representative, gender targeting tends to go awry. Marketers become inclined to complacently rely on what they think they know: Over-generalised gender clichés, whether it’s assuming the gender of their audience or the gender-related values that their target identifies with. This usually results in a patronising message that’s bound to draw negative flak for their brand… and that’s if luck is on their side.

Vera Bradley thought they couldn’t go wrong by backing their It’s Good To Be A Girl campaign with their own consumer research on women. To find out what females think is “good about being a woman in society today,” the brand interviewed 100 women on the street and turned their answers into the copy for their ads. The outcome was a campaign that highlighted handbags, shopping, and being the more deserving gender, as some of the best things about being female. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative—because Vera Bradley’s marketers were blinded by data and stereotypes, and failed to see that the consumers’ responses are ultimately still individual opinions, and to peg these to the whole audience of the campaign by using “we”, a collective term, makes it seem like all women identify with these views, which are also really quite overworked and stale ones in present day.

Behavioural targeting as a primary method might work for products/services that have a psychographic, interest-based appeal. This may be why it works well as Netflix’s main tactic (they do utilise gender & other demographic layers; it’s just low on their hierarchy of data points), as TV content has much more gender-neutral appeal than aftershaves or lipsticks, for example. It’s only natural to de-prioritise gender in this case.

“Real behaviour” is a phrase commonly used to explain the benefits of using interest-based targeting over other strategies, implying that nothing cuts closer to the “human truth”, but let’s not be idealistic about it: At some level, these human behaviours and interests are boxed into categories too. This stage of compartmentalising is essentially the same fork in the road in gender targeting where your strategy could begin to take the wrong turn, because in categorising, there’s always the risk and potential consequences of overlooking the nuances within a sub-group.

In a Guardian journalist’s probe into Spotify’s “taste profiling”, he highlights that gaps exist in the understanding of their audience, even with the years of users’ behavioural data they have. It’s likely due to what their strategists decide on as implications of a certain category (e.g genre, mood, artist):

“Is someone streaming Michael Bublé lots in late December showing a propensity for crooners, or simply exhibiting the Christmas spirit? Is that user heavily playing the Frozen soundtrack a huge Disney fan, or the parent of a huge Disney fan?”

How close can we get to identifying the right context for every consumer each time (or even most times)? One trait could be attributed to a plethora of different reasons and implications when you apply it across a group of individuals, and it’s easy to predict the association incorrectly: just like Spotify serving me localised ads in foreign languages I don’t comprehend when I’m travelling. The reality of the context presents targeting opportunities still, for example to point me to local businesses or activities I would be interested in as a tourist, in a language I understand, and Spotify has overlooked that based on their over-generalised assumptions of my behaviour.  Multiply my experience with that of all the tourists in the world at any given time, and you can imagine the amount of ad wastage an oversight in behavioural targeting can result in.

The effectiveness of using gender and/or behaviour to target your audience, really depends on the audience themselves. If you have a goal of fitting your ad strategy as close to your consumers’ preferences as possible, and on a personal level, it’s unreasonable and insensible to assume a fixed, formulaic approach to reach out to them.

As marketers trying to understand a massive group of consumers as personally as possible, we face constraints such as insufficient time and availability of information, and coping mechanisms such as categorising, labelling and making assumptions are a necessary evil. Where caution can be exercised is not to make blind stereotypes and broad deductions. But this doesn’t come easy: Great business acumen and intuition is developed through a personal motivation to go all out to understand both similarities and nuances of the individuals within their audience, even if it means questioning supposedly-reliable data and research. Tim Donza, Netflix’s ex-consumer insight director, offers similar guidance:

“What we want to do as marketers is connect with people and build brand love. We want to build those deep emotional connections so that our brands become friends and trusted partners, from now going forward. There are many of us… who are seeking that perfect algorithm or that perfect gut, that data that will really tell us what to do. A good and powerful Oz who can make everything we want for our brands.

But if you pull back the curtain there is really just people hard at work… we as marketers have to be disciplined in and avoid the temptation just to rely on data or just rely on gut.”

The Pleasure and Pain of Shopping

Jude Koh is the Regional Associate Strategy Manager for CARAT APAC.

Southeast Asia, in particular, is a hotbed for e-commerce. By focusing on creating pleasurable and painless moments throughout the consumer journey using media, we create more value for businesses

7 – 10 minute read

Online shopping: Intimacy replaced by expedience

Over the past two decades, we’ve witnessed an incredibly rapid evolution of commerce. In the short span of human history, we’ve gone from bartering with animal skins and spices, to exchanging coins for goods in a marketplace, to now, where we can buy almost anything online and have it delivered without ever leaving our house, even poop. Technology, in particular the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, has drastically lowered the previous barriers separating consumers from goods and services; we are no longer confined by a store’s hours or a product’s physical availability. Southeast Asia, in particular, is a hotbed for e-commerce (as evidenced here, here, and here).

Purely for the sake of research, I decided to join the online shopping scene to understand this shift in spending behavior. After a few rounds of senseless buying sprees, I’m satisfied with my haul of new clothes, but completely bored by the entire tap-tap-checkout-wait process. As this New York Times op-ed contributor put it, online shopping is “intimacy replaced by expedience.”


Acquire with pleasure, pay in pain

Shopping triggers a series of processes in our brain. Purchasing is less about the rational analysis of quality and price and more about the battle between pleasure and pain. In simplistic terms, buying is largely motivated by how our brain processes this: we acquire with pleasure, but pay in pain. On a larger scale, this neurobehavior guides our global economy, and on a smaller scale, explains why shopping is such a pleasurable activity.

When you’re out shopping
giphy (1).gif
When you get the bill

The difference in individual perception of pleasure and pain results in two groups of shoppers: tightwads and spendthrifts. Tightwads experience agonising pain at the thought of parting with their money; while spendthrifts gets intense pleasure at the thought of gaining new goods.

This duel between pleasure and pain in our brain’s limbic system ensures our survival. The limbic system rewards us with pleasure when we do something beneficial to our survival, encouraging us to seek resources, While on the other hand, it punishes us with pain when we engage in non-beneficial behaviors, reminding us to protect our resources. We buy that new jacket because our brain tells us it is beneficial to our survival and we receive pleasure from that purchase, but when we realise that we have been overcharged, the pain we feel is a reminder to be more careful in the future.

Culture defines our pleasure and pain

So if our shopping sprees are controlled by this balance of pleasure and pain, why do our spending habits vary so much among individuals and cultures? Comedian Russell Peters may provide us with an insight into Chinese and Indian consumers:


Despite its overly-stereotypical depictions, it highlights how culture plays a part in what should be a purely transactional act. Research has confirmed this with evidence that differences in culture lead to differences in how we bargain and negotiate. In our previous post, we know that culture conditions our mind and affects our inert behaviours. Similarly, culture influences how we feel pleasure and pain. The pleasure of gaining wealth, status, or well-being varies among cultures and sub-cultures and our brain seeks rewards based on how we value these pleasures. This explains why some might be willing to spend a month’s paycheck on a pair of Louboutins while others think paying a premium for a pair of red-soled heels is ridiculous.

The pleasure of gaining wealth, status, or well-being varies among cultures and sub-cultures.

A good shopping experience is all about pleasure

As marketers, how can we apply this knowledge? By creating an enjoyable shopping experience. We need to create gratifying moments that excite shoppers and enhance the pleasure of acquisition and overpower the pain felt in paying.

In-store shopping experiences are full of pleasurable moments such as the social aspects of window-shopping with your friends, the trust created when feeling the quality of the product, the risk reduction resulting from being able to it on, and the instant gratification of having it in hand immediately after payment. By immersing ourselves in these moments, our brains project a happy image which we relish in. The pleasure created drives us to make a purchase.

shopping fur coat thrift shop fur coat

How can we recreate these feelings of pleasure in online shopping, an experience that is largely limited by a screen? The answer lies in the touchpoints throughout the consumer’s online shopping journey.


How we can make online shopping more pleasurable

But more often than not, online shopping takes the form of searching, followed by endless scrolling or next page clicks through an overwhelming mountain of similar items. After your cart is sufficiently filled to reach whatever shipping cost threshold you had in mind, you checkout, pay, and wait for your order to arrive. Undoubtedly this is a convenient and systematic way to shop; however, it often feels more like procurement than an enjoyable experience.  Online shopping has the pain of paying without the pleasure in the process.

Online shopping has the pain of paying without the pleasure in the process.

There is hope. Online shopping can be experiential and intimate when they focus on delivering an experience at the different touchpoints. E-commerce has the advantage of being able to seamlessly extend the experience with media. Globally, consumers are making media an integral part of their online shopping experience. They window shop by browsing on their mobile devices. They get #ootd inspiration from regularly scanning Pinterest or Instagram. They generate their shopping list through reviews and unboxing videos of shopping hauls.


Enhance the online shopping experience with media

Address pain points: Media and communications have the ability to enhance the online shopping experience by reducing the pain of paying, and therefore, make online shopping more pleasurable. To do this, we need to find out what the shopper’s pain points are throughout the consumer journey and either mitigate them or turn them into pleasurable moments. For example, we can eliminate the pain of turning off portrait orientation lock and having to rotate the phone to view horizontal videos by considering how consumers actually use their phone and creating previously unpopular, vertical video content instead. Similarly, shoppable video formats reduces the friction of having to search for products featured in videos by bringing users straight to product.

Harness programmatic’s potential: Consider how programmatic could play a role in the consumer journey. Instead of incessantly retargeting people with ads of a purchase they just made, encourage them to write a review, share their purchase on social media, or suggest accompanying items. Programmatic has the potential to act more like a personal shopper than a shopkeeper at a bazaar.

Gif courtesy of Kik.

Get social with your media: Much of the pleasure of shopping in-store comes from the social interactions with accompanying friends, like-minded fellow shoppers, and gregarious store assistants. Media can further contribute to the thrill of online shopping by encouraging and facilitating social interaction and approval during the online shopping process, either through social media or AI messaging assistants.

Test content messages: With regards to content, test and run various messages that appeal to either the spendthrifts or the tightwads. Compare the effectiveness of messages that amplify the pleasure of acquisition or reduce the pain of payment amongst different audiences, keeping in mind the cultural context.


Online shopping: Intimacy and expedience

The intrinsic system of pleasure and pain determines how we shop. Our culture influences how we perceive this pleasure or pain. Commerce has existed almost as long as humanity itself and as we progress with e-commerce, we need to ensure it does not sacrifice intimacy for the sake of expedience.

Commerce has existed almost as long as humanity itself and as we progress with e-commerce, we need to ensure it does not sacrifice intimacy for the sake of expedience.

By focusing on creating pleasurable and painless moments throughout the consumer journey, we create more value for businesses. Use media to your advantage to deliver a fully connected and seamless experience.  As e-commerce continues to grow in APAC, the brands that have value and are able to use media to its full potential will be the ones getting APAC shoppers happily tap away.

Snapchat, It’s Not You, It’s Me

Christine Liu is the Regional Assistant Insights Manager for CARAT APAC.

Reflections on past and present infatuations with image messaging apps, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day.

3– 5 minute read

A little less than a year ago, I fell in love…

…with an image messaging app.

Snapchat’s unique offering of temporary content spoke to me—it was refreshingly blithe. It understood my waning motivation to post frequently on other social platforms, bearing in mind the consequences that content with more permanence can bring. For digital natives like me who have been contributing to social media since its advent, we’ve become jaded with the parade of personal information, and maintaining a static profile these days can feel tiresome and also boastful. With Snapchat, I felt relieved—it allowed for real, as-is snippets of the everyday, right at the moment of capture, with the consolation that photos or videos sent would ultimately disappear immediately after viewing or within 24 hours.

The content from friends and brands that spawns from this zippy approach to sharing is much less pretentious in contrast to the over-filtered and processed sort on Facebook and Instagram. Whenever something is edited with Snapchat’s tools, it seems to always be in the name of fun: think marker scribbles, stickers, Lenses, and short captions, free of emo song lyrics and hashtag spam. I personally loved the honest-to-goodness attitude Snapchat embodied, and began dabbling with documenting my life in snaps and viewing those of the few friends and brands I followed.

Injecting a little humour into everyday humdrum by turning people into pepperoni.
I prefer doodled Mario costumes over Valencia filters, anyday.

And that’s the thing: there were only a few friends and brands I followed. The adoption of Snapchat in Asia where I reside (Singapore, specifically) was sluggish. My guess to why it never took off on a massive scale, is that there were already a number of widely-entrenched social platforms that people were content with. Looking at Carat’s latest Consumer Connections Study (CCS)*, being on the most used social platforms in Singapore—Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram—already connects one to over 82% of the population daily. Additionally, just 11% use platforms additional to the aforementioned ones each day—keeping tabs across three channels is more than enough effort to stay relevant. Snapchat existed solely as a cool idea with a mere 1 in 10 daily users in 2016—there was no urgency to adopt a whole new app for communicating. With few friends on the receiving end of my snaps, it soon became pointless to upkeep my documenting habit on the isolated platform. Alas, my infatuation didn’t last long.

Perhaps it’s fate, but at the same time I was losing interest in Snapchat, Instagram rolled out their very own Stories feature. The differences in functionality between Snapchat and Instagram Stories are minute: in essence, Instagram Stories clones the concept of Snapchat. But simply because Instagram Stories is housed conveniently within the Instagram app, where the reach in Asia is already established, existing Instagram users here took to Stories like bees to honey. In addition, the minority who dabbled with Snapchat previously like I did, began migrating their activity to Instagram instead. I quickly got back into the groove of documenting on Instagram, but this time the experience was intensified—the number of contacts that viewed my Stories increased tenfold from Snapchat, and the amount of content I could view from others was probably tenfold of tenfold. I could now post unedited content on-the-fly alongside the curated ones I wanted to keep with more permanence and flair on my profile. If I loved Snapchat before, I now wanted to marry Instagram Stories.

Businesses too, especially those with a loyal following on Instagram, jumped onto the image messaging bandwagon quickly, ending the previous struggle of building organic Snapchat reach from scratch in Asia previously.

With at least 3 in 5 South East Asian consumers who expect advertisements to entertain them, especially in Indonesia (74%), Philippines (76%) and Thailand (85%)*, more brands are working towards emotionally engaging consumers through storytelling, and are recognising that the amicable and genuine tone of Instagram Stories works well for such an approach. With options to link brands’ Stories to external sites, this new Instagram feature can also be an efficient way of delivering direct-response messages.

Sephora’s update on new makeup(!). Which I promptly forwarded to my girlfriends’ Instagram handles.
Instagram Stories updates appear with a friendly colourful ring at the top of your feed, unobtrusively available to explore as and when you like.

This Story from Sephora showcasing their products with emojis sent a much less dictative message compared to an Instagram carousel ad of new products. Plus, I opted to watch Sephora’s Story versus it being served to me as an ad, and I believe this autonomy of choice makes a big difference in a consumer’s receptiveness to a brand’s message. It works particularly well if a brand has already established a constant stream of communication on Instagram and when consumers look forward to viewing content from the brand.

There’s more in store to look forward to: Measuring engagement for Stories will be available soon, with the option of creating Stories that target specific audiences for more relevant messaging. And if you’re thinking about the delightful branded Lenses that currently only Snapchat has, it probably won’t be long until Instagram Stories rolls out a similar offering, with MSQRD’s technology up Facebook’s sleeves.

Consumers in Asia are lapping up the freshness of Instagram Stories, and it’s a great time for brands to join the party while it’s still early. Start thinking about whether the nature of Stories will strike a chord with your audiences, and get cracking on the boundless possibilities that its creativity caters for.

*Carat Consumer Connections System (CCS)
CCS is a global representative, research-based consumer panel and platform across 120+ value statements, 70+ channel touchpoints and purchase influence across key categories. For more information, reach out to christineliu@carat.com.

– Mario Snapchat picture from Jamie K (@snapchatter on Dizkover)

A Tet-less Vietnam

Tam Le is the Regional Associate Strategy Director for Carat APAC.

Over the past few years economists have made the case for doing away with the Lunar New Year and celebrating the Western (Solar) New Year instead. What are the implications of that on culture?

2 minute read


Growing up in a Vietnamese family and community in America, Têt (Lunar New Year) was one of my few connections back to the motherland. I was American 364 days a year, but on Têt, I was proudly Vietnamese.

In the week leading up to the holiday, my house would be filled with yellow forsythia blossoms (American hoa mai substitute) and the smell of incense. It would cumulate in a large family reunion, one where I believe every loosely-connected Vietnamese person within the Houston area was invited. Then the children (and to be honest, me last year) would then line up to wish their elders a prosperous new year in exchange for red packets of lucky money (li xi). Afterwards we would either hold an impromptu lion dance (mua lan) in the house or gamble our money away through a game of bau-cua.

It was through those traditions that I felt connected to my fellow Vietnamese of both past as present as I imagined my parents as children or a version of me, across the world, engaging in the same age-old activities.

When you see this board, you know it’s going down. 

So you can imagine how I felt when I found out that over the past few years economists have made the case for doing away with the Lunar New Year and celebrating the Western (Solar) New Year instead.

“The long holiday and low productivity for weeks around Têt is causing problems for Vietnam’s development,” says prominent economist Pham Chi Lan. In Vietnam, Têt is officially a five-day public holiday with two ‘substitution days’ where employees must work one Saturday in lieu.

She has a point. As anyone who has travelled to Vietnam during Lunar New Year will tell you, the cities are ghost towns and the country nearly shuts down as everyone returns to their hometowns to spend time with their family. State employees sometimes get multiple weeks off; schools are shut for at least two weeks, and even hospitals close.

Emptied streets of Dien Khanh. Taken by me on the second day of Tet this year.

Vietnam’s government is already making strides to reduce Têt festivities. The Secretariat of the Party Central Committee has banned all provinces and cities in the country from setting off fireworks, saying the money should instead be used to help the underprivileged. The directive also says leaders of Party and State organizations should practice thrift by not traveling during Têt to avoid wastefulness, and that provincial leaders must not visit leaders of the centrally-governed agencies to offer Têt gifts.

Having one short public holiday at a time that aligns with the New Year in the majority of the world (January 1st) could improve growth and attract more foreign investment. “Vietnam is trying to integrate into the global economy and the annual breakdown over Têt adds inefficiencies to the economy and government decision-making,” said Vietnam expert Carl Thayer.

How far is a government willing to go to improve the economy of its nation?


Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling
My sister and I in our ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress.

But for all the critiques about Têt, and for all the arguments from an economic point of view, it must be stressed that this is the holiday in Vietnam. It is Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year and your birthday all rolled into one. It is the most important celebration of Vietnamese culture and has been a tradition for at least a couple of millennia.

As context for those who are growing jealous of Vietnam’s five-day Têt holiday, Vietnam has only 10 days of public holiday a year. Compare this to Cambodia with 27 days, Thailand with 14 days, and China with 11 plus five ‘substitution’ days. Têt makes up half of their public holidays; there are no days off for Christmas in Vietnam.

And when looking at numerous broader economic studies, it has been demonstrated empirically that the level of trust that people have in their countries’ institutions has a strong influence on the economic activity. Changing centuries of tradition is probably not going to drastically improve the economy of Vietnam—trust in the government is. And when the government is threatening to trade culture for economic gains, what reason do they give to deserve such trust?

Maybe I’m idealistic and naïve, but no amount of economic growth is worth such a forfeiture of a country’s culture. The cost of losing the traditions that have bound generations of a nation’s people is well worth the cost of an annual economic slowdown.