It's easy to see why executives at multinational companies (MNCs) get starry-eyed when they talk about Asia's emerging markets. While business in mature markets in the U.S. and Europe continues to slow — or even dry up altogether — prospects are much brighter in Asia's vibrant economies. But as panelists at the recent Wharton Asia Business Conference held in Philadelphia noted, Asia's consumers are changing just as quickly as their economies are, leaving both domestic and foreign companies scrambling to keep up.

Consider China, the focal point for many Western MNCs today. At the start of last year, consumer confidence in the country was riding high, reaching levels not seen since 2007, said Mitch Barns, president of Greater China for The Nielsen Company, citing the firm's ongoing research based on quarterly interviews with 3,500 Chinese. But over the course of 2010, their mood changed as growing concerns about rising food prices, the overheating property market and wage disputes began to take their toll. By the third quarter, consumer confidence in China fell for the first time in six quarters.

But with further analysis, the quarterly poll suggested an important trend for anyone interested in understanding China's consumers: “What drove the decline in that quarter was not an across-the-board decline, but a drop in consumer confidence in the villages and towns in the rural areas,” he said.  Rural areas — classified by the Chinese government’s five-tier system as “Tier 5” — saw an 11-point drop in consumer confidence. “Because Tier 5 represents 45% of the population [of 1.3 billion], the economy of Tier 5 almost solely represents the decline we saw for China as a whole,” Barns noted during the panel discussion. He attributed the decline to the fact that rural consumers spend about half of their income on food and housing, compared with about one-third among urban consumers. “That has a huge impact on consumer psychology,” Barns said. “If you spend a lot of your money on food and food prices are going up, it starts to make you a little less confident about your ability to stretch your budget to meet your needs.”

However, in the forth quarter, though higher than in most other countries, the decline in consumer confidence spread to China’s cities, and willingness to spend decreased significantly across all city tiers, according to Nielsen's research.  And concerns look unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. In early February, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation said its global food price index, a benchmark basket tracking the wholesale cost of 55 commodities such as wheat, corn, rice, vegetable oils, dairy products, sugar and meats, hit a new record since it began monitoring prices in 1990. Meanwhile, the Chinese government announced that its consumer price index rose 4.9% in January from a year ago, with nonfood items rising 2.6% and food increasing 10.3%, raising concern among retailers and other businesses in China that the country's consumers won't be spending as much as they would like.

All this is happening at a time when China’s government wants to rebalance the country's economy over the next five years, boosting domestic consumption while reducing its reliance on exports, noted Kris Knutsen, senior manager of the Chinese services group at Deloitte, a consulting firm. That's no small feat, given not only the enormity of China's exports(which are putting the country on track to become the world's largest economy in about 15 years, experts predict), but also the propensity of Chinese households to save. The average saving rate as a percentage of disposable income in both rural and urban China has been rising steadily, reaching more than 25%, according to the country's National Bureau of Statistics.

Nonetheless, the country’s growth in per capita disposable income is “head and shoulders" above other countries in the region, he said. Research firm Euromonitor International shows that China's per capita annual disposable income grew 9.9% year-on-year in real terms to RMB 14,410 (US$2,110) in 2009, while its per capita consumer expenditure rose 9.7% in real terms to RMB 9,121 (US$1,335).

The Ones to Watch

But as companies come to grips with China's consumers, other countries in the region — including Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia — warrant their attention, too, pointed out Alexander C. Feldman, president of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council, an organization in Washington, D.C., representing American-based companies in Southeast Asia. The region's economy grew 4.4% in 2009 “while most of the world was going the other way,” Feldman said. According to Asia Development Bank figures released in December,

it was projected to grow 7.5% in 2010 and 5.4% this year.

In aggregate, the region might not be as large as India or China, he said, but it is growing, dynamic and young. Sixty-three percent of Southeast Asians are younger than 35, and almost 40% are younger than 20. The average consumer in Southeast Asia purchases nearly twice as many U.S. goods than the average Chinese consumer, and nearly nine times as many as the average Indian consumer.

The combined GDP of the 10 countries comprising the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) today is US$1.5 trillion, and when these countries become a single economic community in 2015, Feldman said, “it’s going to be an EU-like area that has free trade agreements with China and India, among others. Together, it will have 600 million consumers, who are rapidly coming up the economic scale.”

Feldman, who spent the early part of his career in Asia building up media brands such as MTV, added, “When I was at MTV, we spent a lot of time on China and India, but when it came down to looking at our numbers and our bottom line, MTV made its money in Southeast Asia. It lost money in China and it made a little in India,” he recalled. “At least in the television market, Southeast Asia was a key market where you could make money now.”

Blurring Brands

How times have changed. The conference panelists remembered how there was a time when any Western product was a novelty in Asia, and so marketing strategies needed to do little to grab. Today in China, for example, with local products improving in leaps and bounds and a mushrooming of the number of foreign brands penetrating the market, it has become difficult for consumers to know where a brand originates. Nielsen’s Barns said the firm often runs tests asking consumers whether a brand is local or foreign, and the answers are often wrong: More than 68% of Chinese consumers it polled, for instance, said Colgate toothpaste is a Chinese brand.

Part of the reason for the blurring of brand recognition is that domestic competitors in Asia are giving foreign brands a run for their money. Long known for copying ideas from abroad, Chinese companies are beginning to create their own innovative products, Barns noted. “We’ve seen a rapidly growing number of product ideas originating in China becoming huge successes,” he said. “Product innovation is hugely important for growth."

A big learning curve for foreign companies, meanwhile, has been to understand how best to adapt a product or business model to the Asian market. In the past, companies that haven't modified a product or service enough to local tastes have failed to win Asian customers, while other companies that have made radical changes to their products and services have risked straying too far from their traditional strengths, often to the detriment of their brand's reputations. “You could fail by both routes,” Knutsen pointed out. “Every company needs to find a balance.”

One multinational that seems to have found that balance is Wal-Mart, the U.S. retailer, which earned nearly one-forth of its US$405 billion in fiscal 2010 from international markets, including China. Its 279 stores in China are largely similar to those in the U.S. in terms of branding and shop design. But there are some notable differences. For example, many Wal-Marts in China have a large food section. And because many Chinese consumers don’t have cars, some of its Chinese stores provide a shuttle bus service. “It's keeping some things and adjusting some things,” Knutsen noted.

L’Oreal is another multinational that has made some smart changes to appeal to Chinese consumers, added Nielsen’s Barns. The 19.5 billion euro (US$26.4 billion) in annual revenue French beauty products firm has partnered with research and development facilities in China to formulate products made for Chinese complexions. L’Oreal has “built its whole marketing strategy around knowledge of the local market — and science from the local market — to derive that product,” Barns said. “A Chinese woman can buy the famous L'Oreal brand name but also know that it’s been customized to her particular needs. It’s  a very smart approach that they have taken," and one that is paying off handsomely. When announcing the firm's enviably strong annual results recently, CEO Jean-Paul Agon noted, "In 2010, L'Oréal China became the group's number three cosmetics subsidiary, with sales of more than one billion euros.”

Once the product sells, the next challenge may be more daunting: keeping up with a rapidly growing market. According to Deloitte, China has 655 cities with more than 100,000 people, and 120 with populations exceeding one million. Yet China’s top 100 retailers account for only 11% of its retail sales. “You’re looking at a very fragmented marketplace,” said Knutsen. As the purchasing power of China’s consumers increases, companies are now back to the drawing board to figure out where, when and how to expand, he noted. He said even multinationals that are currently reaping the rewards of their work in China need to be ready to overhaul strategies in a snap of a finger. They might be growing today, he said, but "are they getting the coverage and scale right? Are they doing what they need to do to position themselves to remain competitive?”