Doing Business in Southeast Asia – Going East Book Review

7 February 2019


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doing business in southeast asia book cover

Doing business in Southeast Asia is much different than you think.

I would know since I’ve been living in Indonesia for the past eight years. I’m glad I found Going East by Dr. Rudolf Tjandra at PeriPlus as I was browsing for business and self-help books like I usually do on a weekly basis. The book has some insights into how doing business in Southeast Asia is much different than doing business in the west.


The Main Message From Going East – Doing Business in Southeast Asia

Culture is the lens in which people learn to view, preceive, and relate to the world. Differences in culture can result in different perceptions, ideas, and understandings.


The theme running through Going East is that Southeast Asia is rising in economic power and is a force no one should ignore. The author, from Indonesia, focuses mostly on Indonesia.


The two aspects which are most helpful if you want to do business in Southeast Asia are what the author calls emic and etic marketing approaches.


Emic: This insider view is focused on culturally bound data. It gets at how people within one culture think, perceive, and understand their world.


Etic: It’s based on generalizations and observations made from a single worldview with the intention of applying global solutions or approaches to issues. It is the foundation of knowledge and understanding which assumes that there is a general form of similarities applicable across all cultures.


Global companies operate by forgetting the idiosyncratic differences between countries and cultures and instead concentrate on satisfying universal drives. The application of this thought can be simply coined as etic marketing.


Powerful Takeaways From Going East – Doing Business in Southeast Asia

‘Just because we are becoming more connected doesnt mean our differences are less.’ I find this quote to be very powerful as it is very true. I’d like to think all of us are the same. But it turns out we aren’t especially when it comes to buying habits. Just because your product or service sells well in America doesn’t mean it’ll sell well in Indonesia or any other country.


Here are two examples of how your business can fail and succeed by using either emic or etic business styles.


Example One – Etic Marketing Style

You all know Starbucks, the world-renowned coffee chain. Regardless of what you think of it, this coffee chain has done very well for itself. But it didn’t succeed everywhere because of its etic marketing style. You can tell it’s etic because every Starbucks you go to is nearly the same with mostly the same items on its menu. Starbucks does not consider other cultures tastes in coffee.


Take a look at the great example of how Starbucks failed in Australia.

Example Two – Emic Marketing Style

McDonald’s took the exact opposite approach. Each McDonald’s you go to in each country will be different. For example, when you walk into a McDonald’s in Indonesia and take a look at the menu you’ll see many of the items have rice and chili sauce included. If people saw plain white rice on a McDonald’s menu in the US they’d never order it.


McDonald’s adapted its menus to fit the culture it’s serving in. This is an emic marketing example at its best.


Both the author and I aren’t saying that either emic or etic approaches are better than the other. It just depends on the type of product you’re selling.


Recommended Reading:

Emic and Etic


Forget About India, Go With ASEAN

The economy is growing quickly in ASEAN countries. People have taken up consumerism as part of their lives. I’ve seen how people with lots of money in Indonesia spend like crazy. Even the lower middle class tend to buy brands that have perceived value. People here shy away from less heard of brands and want to avoid being seen with a ‘cheap’ product.


Here are five things to think about while doing business in Southeast Asia:

  1. There are many new middle-class first time buyers.
  2. The young market is huge. People of working age will reach 68% of the total population.
  3. Affordable is good but cheap is embarrassing.
  4. Hierarchical thought process. Follow the footsteps of those seen as role models or seniors.
  5. Filial piety and family comes first and knows best. This is not an individualistic society.


Another thing I’ve noticed while living in Indonesia is the power of communities. Communities are essential to the Indonesian psyche. If you ever come to do business here do not discount creating a community around your product otherwise you’ll be left in the dust.


Recommended Reading

Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini


What I Liked About Going East: Doing Business in Southeast Asia

The takeaways I mentioned above are the best in the book. Or should I say, they were the most unique and valuable. Dr. Rudolf Tjandra experience of 25 years in business shows and I appreciate him sharing an Asian perspective to westerners.


What I Didn’t Like About Going East: Doing Business in Southeast Asia

Though emic and etic marketing was touched on I would have liked to see more of this as the connecting theme which ties the points of the book together. There are too many generalities of how to do business. I also get the feeling that Dr. Tjandra is trying to use way too many ‘smart’ works and too much passive voice. It’s like reading a scientific paper. And to be honest this takes so much potential away from the quality of this book.


Final Thoughts

Going East is only worth the read if you plan on doing business in Southeast Asia. There is no other value in it. I did pull a few useful tools as I mentioned above so I’m happy that I read it.


I hope you found some value in this review.


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