The Pre-InsightValley Asia Interview: Ralf Matthaes, TNS

“When I arrived in Vietnam almost 20 years ago, Vietnam was just at the onset of its development and its emergence from years of international isolation”, said Ralf Matthaes, the Regional Managing Director of TNS Indochina. He is in the midst of establishing the Myanmar operations for TNS and comments, “What has struck me the most coming back to Myanmar after many years of absence is how similar Myanmar\’s present development is in reference to Vietnam some 15 years ago”.

\"StatuetteBoth countries have a turbulent history, are highly influenced by Buddhism and have a strong sense of family, “it will be very interesting to see what different paths Myanmar takes and how this will impact consumerism and brand development over the next decade or so”, he said.

Ralf is one of the first speakers of this year’s InsightValley Asia, with his presentation ‘Mekong sub-region – Asia’s final frontiers’. He will share with us the similarities and contrasts that exist between Vietnam and Myanmar, the unique cultural influences of each emerging consumer society and – most importantly – how Vietnam\’s development can be taken as a roadmap for Myanmar’s consumer evolution.

With his vast experience in the region, Ralf took the time to provide us with a glimpse of what he will be presenting in Bangkok, Thailand, and why the global Market Research Industry should look at Southeast Asia.

Asia Research: Vietnam has a large young population. What influences these young Vietnamese consumers?

Ralf Matthaes: Yes, 55% of the population is 29 and under. Vietnamese youth today are \”trapped\” between two cultures and two time zones. Culturally, youth in Vietnam still respect their elders and the wishes of their family and are still tied to mother\’s apron strings. However, with the whirlwind economic development over the last 20 years brought on by \”Doi Moi\” (economic renovation) and the government’s push towards market capitalism, many youth are now feeling the draw of western values and desires. This entire population has grown up after the American war in Vietnam and has slowly but surely been weaned on MTV, the internet, and the mobile phone. Through mass media, young Vietnamese see the rest of the world, its pop culture and affluence – and want the same. Brands and wearing what’s hot and listening to the latest Korean wave have become the rage. Unfortunately, so has an incredibly high expectation, especially when it comes to the workplace and making money – and fast! Gone or going are Vietnamese virtues such as determination, patience and fortitude, to be replaced by job jumping, comparing oneself to the cream of the crop and wanting to study, study, study, as if only education is enough to cultivate success. Many youth are actually starting to face an identity crisis in that they do understand and appreciate the values of old but feel trapped trying to keep up with the new world evolving around them and are not sure where to turn.

AR: How are Vietnamese consumers different from other young Asian consumers?

\"BusyRM: I am not sure that Vietnamese youth are different from other Asian youth, except for the fact that today’s Generation Y is the very first generation to actually be able to afford and be a part of a true youth culture movement. Most of these youth did not have a cool older brother or hip older sister to show them the way. They are actually forging their own way on their own terms but with a strong sense of family and duty still attached. I am sure that Korean youth went through similar pangs of doubt and uncertainty before they found their own niche and developed one of the world’s most prominent youth culture scenes in recent times.


AR: TNS has recently opened its first office in Myanmar. What are some of the challenges faced by your company in Myanmar?

RM: As a service company, the integral ingredient for our success is our people. As Myanmar has been isolated for so long, the overall market research industry has suffered in terms of development and building enough strong and capable researchers. Thus the key challenge facing all companies will be building capability and capacity. Vietnam was in a very similar place, so we are investing substantially in training and development to “Build our own experts” and also help spread the knowledge to others via universities and scholarship programs. Furthermore, secondary data which is reliable is difficult to obtain, thus limiting certain types of research and analysis, which in many countries hygienic and a given. Myanmar is a big country with limited infrastructure. This creates issues in terms of access, speed of delivery – and ultimately cost, as many regions are far away and require severe effort and time to reach and include them in survey work. ­­­­­

AR: Earlier this year, I read an article*. In one part it said,

Western executives come to Yangon and say, “Great, I\’ll go home and write a report.” But Asians say, “We want to do business now, here\’s the money, here\’s what we want to do.

What would you say as a Market Researcher and a Westerner who has been living in Asia for close to 20 years?

\"MYANMARRM: Firstly, I do not subscribe to the authors views. Nine out of 10 ten clients we are servicing in Myanmar are internationals. As a market researcher, our key role is to help our client base make better informed decisions by giving them the most accurate reads and insights into their business objectives. Myanmar is a country not many people understand, just like Vietnam 20 years ago. It is ironic that in Vietnam, where there are some 8,000 international companies versus 400,000 Vietnamese companies, 80% of our clientele is not local, but international. As they say, ‘information is power’, and all you have to do is look at the research spend of the big internationals and see how their businesses have grown in the region to understand that the adage is indeed true.


And here are Ralf’s three reasons why the global Market Research Industry should look at Southeast Asia:

  • Average GDP growth in the region is over 5% and has been so for almost a decade
  • There are over 600 million people living in South East Asia, almost 10% of the world’s population
  • Over 50% of the population is under 25 and well over half of these are already “mobile and surfing”, and want what the rest of the world’s youth want.


…and there are many more reasons! Thank you, Ralf.

Mark the date: InsightValley Asia, May 16-17, 2013 in Bangkok.


*Saving Old Rangoon by Tony Perrotet. (The Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2013)