Small things please small minds, but I had to do it. Five miles out of Ho Chi Minh airport and I spun the volume wheel on Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon”. It was seminal. Dated, I grant you, but truly hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck kind of stuff. For a moment I felt like Martin Sheen.
The battle scars remain in Vietnam. Large defence blockades guard the length of the runway, corroded and redundant, and military helicopters hovered and hummed around the taxi area with a fitting thrwop thrwop. In fact it was the first time I’d seen a Sikorsky land. I’d only ever seen them crash, or about to crash, on some CNN news footage. I was on the edge of my window seat like some warped voyeur, video phone in hand, convinced the rotors would soon be spinning off on another trajectory. They didn’t and I was almost clapping with delight as his wheels softly kissed the tarmac. As I said, small things …..
But for all its history, Vietnam has signposts of change everywhere you look. Even one of the rotting concrete defence blockades had a faint “no-nukes” slogan scrawled across its side. Meanwhile, the eternal wait at Passport Control was a microscope on social evolution. The cultural diversity of those waiting patiently in long lines that weaved their way around the concourse was like nothing I’d seen before. It wasn’t so much that Vietnamese faces mingled with Westerners. It was more the fact that they’d clearly been some extreme cases of cultural mingling going on some 20 to 30 years ago. Race is slowly eroding in Vietnam (or at the airport, anyway) like the outcome of some bizarre social experiment. Sure, 50th generation locals still have a 100:1 majority but the mix was there, and I’m no anthropologist.
The images on a plasma screen nearby shaped my thoughts on the issue. What, I asked myself, does the increased cultural diversity of Vietnam mean for the communicators of the future? For 30 minutes I watched (intermittently) a well-groomed chap in his 80s wax lyrical to the members of an equally aged audience without moving anything apart from his mouth. He had a stale bunch of flowers on the podium in front of him, making him look distinctly like your Grandad at cousin Mary’s wedding. Such was his lack of expression, I began to wonder whether the make-up team had overdone it in the Botox department. He didn’t flinch once. Not a single iota of movement. Nothing to engage the audience who, quite frankly, where doing extraordinarily well to stay awake themselves. Perhaps the Botox team had got to them too before they went live-to-air.
Fast-forward to the client event I was talking at later in the day and I latched on to an extraordinary fact about the country. It has an average age of 26 (yes, twenty-six). With a national life expectancy of 71, that’s got to mean there’s an awful lot of very small children running around looking for a childcare centre (market gap for you speculators out there). More’s the point, Internet adoption has gone through the roof, the economy is booming and wages are sky high. Communism is fast transitioning to consumerism. It seems expression is everywhere except the TV screen.
So how do marketeers deal with such a moving feast: a remarkably young population whose differences in appearance are as diverse as their interests, all under the watchful eye of the occupants of an age-care facility? The answer is with great difficultly, although you can be sure it’s going to involve everything from their mobile device to their best friend. Yep, best friend. A recent McKinsey report showed that 90% of respondents to a survey said that word-of-mouth was the most influential form of communication. Gulp, said the Ad man.
In some respects, it’s a challenge we’re seeing in so many parts of Asia right now (and to that point, many parts of the Western world too). Empowered young people whose view of the world is fundamentally different to those a generation before them. They are the advocates of what used to be known as “good causes”. They’re also the badvocates of any organisation, corporation or government that they don’t think is doing the right thing. And with Internet Power at their finger-tips, they’re truly armed and dangerous. Finding a way to communicate with them in a meaningful way is what’s occupying the minds of all of us in PR right now.