The road to Yangon

Harish Bhat | Updated on January 16, 2018

yangon city

Reflections and some learnings from a visit to Myanmar

Myanmar is one of Asia’s last frontier markets. It is also an extraordinary land, with a nascent, relatively untapped economy, but a deeply embedded, historic culture – an interesting combination which makes it fertile ground for visitors, marketers and brands. Over a hundred years ago, English writer Rudyard Kipling had visited Myanmar (then called Burma) and had said: “This is Burma, and it is unlike any land you know about”. I visited this beautiful country just a few days ago, and have come back with the very same sentiment playing in my heart.

Happy people

My three-day visit was to Yangon, the largest city of Myanmar. During British days, this city was called Rangoon. Reflecting on this visit with a marketer’s lens, the first and foremost observation that has stayed in my mind is quite a curious one. In Yangon, I think I found the happiest people in the world. Everyone had a smile on their face. Strangers I attempted to speak to were quite willing to slow down, sit down for a bit, and talk happily. The streets were crowded with cars, but there was no honking, and I did not come across a single instance of even the mildest road rage. Most women, young and old, wore bright, happy colours. In traditional tea houses that are scattered across the city and also in the bustling Bogyoke Aung San Market, I could see people seated on low plastic stools, drinking their sweet milky tea and happily chatting with each other. What is the likely source of this happiness ? Myanmar is not a wealthy country, so it cannot be money – and in any case, the link between wealth and happiness is a tenuous one. Perhaps it is the strong Buddhist-inspired norms, which encourage people to donate generously to less fortunate members of society. I was told that virtually every family in the country, rich or poor, voluntarily donates around 10 per cent of its annual income to charity. In fact, people give readily not just to religious causes but also to public welfare; a colleague mentioned to me that after post a recent earthquake, he found some streets of Yangon lined with hundreds of people queueing up, to give money and clothing.

Giving and sharing does make people happy, I guess. This is also an insight that marketers everywhere can use in many interesting and constructive ways – for instance, making consumers happy by encouraging them to give away their old or unused products to socially disadvantaged segments of society, or by undertaking initiatives which contribute meaningfully to society, that consumers can happily feel an integral part of.

In Yangon, I found very few local brands that are really popular. Most branded consumer products here, ranging from cars to noodles, are imported from Asian countries such as Japan, Thailand and China.

Patriotic beer

But one local brand that is really famous, and that locals are very proud of, is Myanmar Beer. This is a fine beer, somewhat light in its flavour, yet rich and smooth on the tongue. It is available in every corner store, and is clearly far more popular than global giants such as Heineken and Carlsberg, which have also been launched in the country. The brand claims to reflect the strong local values and rising aspirations of the people, and says that it brings about a sense of belonging to the country. Capturing this lofty spirit, its website proudly says “We are Myanmar”.

Myanmar beer has clearly tapped into a strong insight. In any country, including India, brands that espouse patriotism and nationalism hold strong appeal for large consumer segments – some successful desi examples include Bajaj, Tata Salt and Amul. Such patriotic appeal is likely to be particularly strong in a society such as Myanmar, which is in the very early stages of opening up to the world, and where there are very few other national successes or modern achievements that consumers can feel truly proud of. No wonder Myanmar beer, riding on its platform of national pride, has been such a huge success. Of course, it is also a wonderfully refreshing drink.

Colours of tradition

Most men and women in Yangon are typically dressed in the longyi, a long skirt-like garment made of a single piece of cylindrical cloth. The longyi reminded me of two other Asian garments – the Indian lungi, worn in Tamil Nadu, and the sarong, worn in Malaysia. This traditional dress is ubiquitous by its presence everywhere – it is worn to office, at social events, and also at home. It is a versatile garment, worn somewhat differently by men and women, and can be made of many materials, including cotton, satin and silk.

The colourful longyis worn by the women of Yangon struck me as being very distinctive and attractive. They draped over the legs elegantly, and emphasised the female form beautifully. Their large surface areas provide a natural canvas for wonderfully bright and expansive colour combinations, and a wide range of designs, including floral patterns, ethnic weaves and rich embroidery. In addition, I think the longyi represents a new contemporary chic, in its form and design. My marketer’s instinct tells me that this marvellous garment will soon be discovered by global fashion designers, by brands and women worldwide. I will not be surprised if purist as well as new-age versions of the longyi make their appearance on the ramps of Milan, Paris and Mumbai.

Pagoda of peace

Any reflection on Yangon will be incomplete without reference to the Shwedagon Pagoda, amongst the most stunning religious monuments I have seen anywhere. One of the most sacred sites of the Buddhist religion, it is located in the centre of Yangon, and visible from almost anywhere in the city. The tall stupa of this temple rises 325 feet into the skies, with a bell-shaped dome and conical spire, all of which sits on an octagonal base. Gilded with over 27 tonnes of gold, its uppermost section is encrusted with over 5,000 large diamonds and over 2,000 rubies and sapphires. No pagoda can be more glamorous in its appeal.

What surprised me, however, was the deep peace that exists within this veneer of glamour and gold. A sense of calm spontaneously enveloped me, when I stepped into the main terrace of the Pagoda, through one of its long entrance stairways. This wonderful feeling of tranquility stayed with me throughout, as I walked around the base of the stupa, stopping from time to time at each of the twelve planetary posts, where people offer worship. Despite the crowds milling around the stupa, the peace and happiness that the Pagoda was filled with was absolute.

I wonder what makes this possible at the Shwedagon Pagoda. I wonder how we can, as marketers, provide even a small and fleeting glimpse of such deep happiness to our consumers, behind the glamorous exterior outer veneer of our brands, advertising, packaging and stores.

The author is Member, Group Executive Council, Tata Sons.

Harish Bhat is also author of Tata Log: Eight modern stories from a timeless institution. These are his personal views.

Published on October 13, 2016

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