Published in Mizzima on 19 November 2013
Aye Hnin Swe, who is known as Rose Swe, is the founder of the Yangon Academy and the managing director of Mango Media, a marketing, public relations and advertising company whose clients include Coca-Cola, Visa, Unilever and Telenoor – to name but a few. She talks to Mizzima Business Weekly about her career as an entrepreneur in a country that is being wooed by international brands after decades of isolation.
Has business been booming since Myanmar’s reform process got underway?
We are certainly very busy now. When I opened Mango in 2004, it was a really quiet time for advertising. We were knocking on other peoples’ doors: but now they’re knocking on ours. Business began picking up in 2010, though it was quite gradual until the beginning of this year. Now we’re flat-out every month. We have 69 staff at the moment but by the beginning of next year I’d like that figure to have grown to 75 or 80.
Is it fair to assume that local companies are spending a great deal more on media and advertising campaigns due to increased competition from international brands?
Yes that’s true. In the past, it was okay not to do much in terms of advertising, but now that international brands have come back to Myanmar with large advertising campaigns, domestic brands are doing likewise. Compared to even last year, when the total amount spent on advertising – that is, print ads and billboards but not including radio – has really picked up. Last year the figure for both international and local brands was US$110 million. I expect at least a 40-50% increase on current figures by the year’s end, which would make it somewhere in the region of $180 million.
What’s unique about Myanmar consumers?
A consumer is a consumer – anywhere in the world it’s pretty similar. But Myanmar’s culture plays an important role, because it’s linked to consumer behaviour. Traditionally, Myanmar people don’t wash their hair every day, so if you bring in a mild shampoo for everyday use, it won’t work. In general, people wash their once or twice a week, and there are certain days that aren’t good for washing hair, such as Fridays. Similarly, people don’t get their hair cut on their birth day [one of seven days in a week] because according to tradition, doing so will bring misfortune and bad luck.
Another aspect of marketing that advertisers need to consider is that women here really care about their hair, but for so many years we were out of touch with international brands. Unilever [one of Mango Media’s clients] left for a decade so brands such as Sunsilk disappeared from the market a bit. Due to illegal border trade, Sunsilk and so forth were still available, but there wasn’t any advertising. So now we’re starting to market these brands again, and what we’ve found from research is that a single message works well. If you say, “It’s good for this and this and this,” it just doesn’t work because people get confused. So creating a simple, direct message is important.
We’ve also found that even within the same company, such as Sunsilk, there are colours that stand out above the rest. In Myanmar, it’s yellow and black. In general people like yellow, because of the association with gold and pagodas.
Do consumers tend to react badly to any particular colour?
Red is a very strong colour – we are not big fans of red. It’s reserved for something very important or special occasions when you need to show your strength. For example, most political parties use the colour red.
Speaking of red things: do you think that with the arrival of Coca-Cola, local soft drink companies and indeed local companies in general are worried that they will be edged out of the market?
There are several local soft drinks that have been around for decades, with strong brand awareness. Local brands are privileged in that they know consumer tastes. In terms of Coke, I think there’s still enough room for everybody – but companies need to make sure they are producing a good product. Quality is much more important nowadays. There is a challenge ahead in terms of competition – the days of a free ride are over. From a consumer point of view, it’s very good to have more options than we did in the past.
When you came back to Myanmar in 2004 after completing your studies in Canada and working in Laos, were there were few female entrepreneurs?
Very few. I’ve been in this business since I was young and naive [laughs] and there were so many moments before I was an entrepreneur that I found it quite tough to work with businessmen and some officials. They couldn’t just respect me because I was young and a woman. When I went on to become an entrepreneur there was a still a challenge in that they didn’t seem me as being at the same level, but there was also an advantage. They thought, “Oh, you’re a young girl,” so they felt bad about saying no during negotiations. Overall though, there were more challenges that advantages.
Do you think the situation is improving for the next generation of female entrepreneurs?
I think so, because more and more women are doing business and becoming entrepreneurs. I saw some videos recently of women in the Yangon countryside who had undertaken business training with an NGO. Their lives used to be so hopeless as poor labourers picking up rubbish or rocks, but now they know how to use a calculator and can set up a business, becoming shop owners or vendor sellers. I was amazed by that. And now that we have a women’s association and the courage passed down to us from generation passed by, things have become easier.
In fact, sometimes I’ve been discussing women’s empowerment and someone has said to me, “Wait a minute Rose, how many women in your company? Out of 70, more than 40 are women: You should consider men’s empowerment!”
But the fact is that I get very few job applications from men. Women are very determined and hard working and very detail-orientated, which are particularly important traits for people working in the media.
With so many new brands flooding the market, what are your thoughts on the prospect of Myanmar turning into a materialistic society?
According to research, people living in Yangon and Mandalay are already far more exposed to the international world and consumer items than they were in the recent past. Nowadays, with increased access to the internet and the popularity of Korean movies, there have been a number of lifestyle changes and our culture is changing. But the majority of Myanmar people are still living in a traditional style in rural areas. They have a very challenging life – they wake up very early, do their work, housewives rarely earn money and instead they stay home and look after children while their husbands work in paddy fields. Families go to bed very early, as electricity is an issue as well. They don’t have the luxury of watching TV up until 11pm or midnight. Their entertainment is the pagoda festivals, or if someone visits from another town or village. So for these people, who live in simple wooden huts, advertisers cannot try and sell them homecare products as they don’t have a proper floor to clean. Their sense of culture and tradition is also very strong.
But do you think the likes of Telenoor will revolutionise this “untapped” population of consumers?
Yes. People living in rural areas will be in touch with the whole world very quickly. In the past, if you didn’t have $1000 or more you couldn’t have a mobile, now it’s less than a hundred. And Chinese smart-phones are very cheap. People are already gaining knowledge, especially women. I really like seeing women actively using social media to communicate. It can be used to talk about parenting, health issues such as breast cancer or pregnancy and how to improve your life. But there needs to be more information available in Burmese.
You also founded the Yangon Academy in 2004 – are you very driven, a workaholic even?
That’s a name I hear! I admit that I am. When I started out I put all my time into my businesses. But people thought I was crazy. I had a mentor, a professor from Canada, and he said to me, “Rose, I believe you could so well at one, but two?” But I was so fresh and had so much energy – at the time I was single and around 33-years-old. I then started dating my husband and he is now the school director of the Yangon Academy.
But I’ve always had to deal with feelings of guilt and that guilt never goes away. When I started the two businesses, I split my time in two. When I was at the Yangon Academy, I felt guilty about Mango – and when I was at Mango I felt guilty about not being at the school. After a few years I got used to it and knew how to handle it. Then when I had a baby it happened again, although I was very lucky because at that time business in Myanmar was very quiet. I worked up until the day before I gave birth – I was still energetic and I never thought of pregnancy as being like an illness or anything. But the guilt is still something I struggle with – I try not to work before my three-year-old goes to sleep and often ending up working very late into the night.
What drives you to work such long hours?
I do it for my people, for my managers. I don’t see it that I’m the boss – we’re on the same level and we combine our efforts. So I have to finish things and make sure that I’m a good example. I don’t want anything to be a last minute job and I worry that if we push out too much work, the quality will drop. So we each take a part of a project and whatever part I take, I want to do it well.
Is there any time left over for hobbies?
Whenever I have extra time, I spend it with my son. I enjoy telling him stories. I’d love to write Burmese children’s books – we don’t have any of those big picture books for children. I’ve written about 7 or 8 stories and I’ve had one illustrated. I’d like to write like Judy Blume!